Exec takes bite out of Big Apple

Sep 7, 2004 3:57 AM

Felix Rappaport is riding high now but he remembers a time when it wasn’t this way, when it wasn’t this way at all.

The time he remembers is when he was a child back in Philadelphia, and he and his brother were being raised by their mother, a single mom whom he describes as "a farm girl from Ohio."

It was after his mother and father were divorced, which happened when he was 5. The dissolution of the marriage left his family "dirt poor" and resulted in Rappaport having "to work in one form or another (ever) since I was 10."

It was his mother, a high school teacher, who "taught me how to throw a baseball" and, more importantly, instilled in him the qualities that he carries with him today in his role as the president and chief operating officer of the New York-New York Hotel and Casino.

Back in those days the lessons she taught him had to do with honesty and decency, and the importance of "your reputation."

It was during that stage of his life that Rappaport thought he might like to be a zoo keeper working with the big cats or perhaps a marine biologist. Later, he thought he might pursue a career in broadcasting, but after graduating with honors from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences/Liberal Arts, his career path eventually took him into the hospitality industry where he has remained for almost 25 years.

During that time he moved up through the ranks, first at resorts in Atlantic City and Philadelphia and then in Las Vegas at Station Casinos, The Mirage and Treasure Island. Rappaport, 51, has been the president and COO of New York-New York since September, 2000. "I think this is a very hard business," says Rappaport, who works long hours six days a week.

He estimates that 4,000 people work at New York-New York with 60 percent of them working for the hotel-casino and 40 percent working in restaurants, gift shops, etc.

Rappaport says the safety and security of the people in the building are his greatest concerns and "when you have 50,000 people on your property, that’s a tremendous responsibility."

He says that as president and chief operating officer he spends about 50 percent of his time in meetings and administrative work and the other 50 percent of his time walking around the property, dealing with people, especially the hotel’s employees.

"People tell me about their children, show (me) their engagement ring, they (even) talk to me about the color of my socks," he says.

Rappaport says New York-New York is an "informal" property. "We’re on a first name basis (The employees even) talk about food in the cafeteria. It’s a great thing that they feel comfortable talking to us," he says.

He is hard pressed to think of any major development or event that has disappointed him during his four years at the top of a property with 2,023 guest room and suites. "I think everything we’ve done on this property has been successful."

He says that even when there are "small day-to-day disappointments, you don’t dwell (on them). You move on. You try to stay positive. My attitude is that I don’t blame other people. If something isn’t maximized (in terms of profits), I failed in a leadership role."

His management style has been rewarded on the hotel-casino’s bottom line where "the numbers have gotten better and better" during his four years at the top of New York-New York.

However, what has impressed him more than the numbers on the accountants’ profit and loss sheets has been the reaction of so many people who stopped outside the hotel’s signature Statue of Liberty in the days after 9/11 and left some mementos as a way of remembering the lives that were taken that day.

"People sought out our Statue of Liberty as a shrine," he says. "We have collected over 5,000 items. In a small way it was our way of paying tribute (to the victims). It made us feel warm and fuzzy because it wasn’t what we normally do for a living."

Rappaport says the biggest surprise since he’s been at New York has been the amount of effort that goes into opening a major show. He says he worked on the Cirque Du Soleil show for three years but now that it has been part of the hotel’s entertainment offerings for a year, "it’s been all worth it, (it’s been) very successful and good for the property."

He says that under his leadership the hotel has finished 50 or 60 projects, some of them as small as a snack bar for the employees and others as big as the Nine Fine Irishmen pub.

"MGM is a great company to work for. They give you a great deal of freedom to run the property" the way the people in management think it should be run, he says. "If I spent the rest of my life at New York-New York, I’d be very happy. It’s great to be part of a winner. Everybody contributes."

He has been married for 18 years and has two children, both girls ages 16 and 10. For relaxation he plays racquetball and reads books on religion, history and mysteries. He played flag football until three years ago and likes to travel whenever he can. He also is a big sports fan, especially baseball, basketball and football, and he is quick to identify himself as "a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan."

But mostly, his life revolves around his job so it is a good thing that he loves the business. "It’s a people business. A big portion of my job is just helping people," Rappaport says, once again recalling his mother. "She was a giver, not a taker."