Gamble With These Winners

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Casino operators Wynn Resorts (NAS: WYNN) and Las Vegas Sands (NYS: LVS) saw their stock prices hammered during the recession years of 2008 and 2009. But since the lows, Wynn Resorts has increased sixfold, while Las Vegas Sands has increased 18-fold.

Some people will tell you that these increases are due to better balance sheets, less debt, maybe even a better U.S. or global economic outlook. But why did the balance sheet get better? Why is there less debt? Is the economy really improving, or are these companies just dealing better with a bad economy? The answer to these questions all starts with the men calling the shots.

Vision
Steve Jobs had a great vision for Apple. He turned the cellphone into a PC in your pocket, a gaming device, a camera, a GPS -- basically anything that an app programmer wanted it to be. Each time Apple turns out a new iPhone, it is better than the previous one. Steve Wynn has done the same thing to the hotel-casino.

Steve Wynn, who is widely considered to be the father of modern Las Vegas, showed great vision when he changed the image of the casino industry with The Mirage. The Mirage was a pioneer in reshaping the way Las Vegas casinos attracted customers by utilizing shows, restaurants, shops, luxury accommodations, and elaborate decor. The Mirage helped kick off the idea of Las Vegas as a vacation destination, not just a place to gamble. Building off that, Wynn developed a string of successful hotels in Las Vegas and then moved to what he saw as the next emerging market, Macau. In 2006, the year Wynn opened his first hotel in Asia, gaming revenue in Macau was only $9.07 billion. Year to date in 2011, gaming revenue has increased to $30.81 billion.

When Bill Gates at Microsoft envisioned every home having a PC, he built the software that would run all the machines. Gates saw an opportunity because he had an inside track on the industry, similar to Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson.

When Adelson owned COMDEX, a computer trade show, he could see that the real money was in the location, or buildings holding the conventions. So he and his partners bought the Sands Hotel, and built a convention center that is home to some of the most popular conventions in the U.S. each year. He also saw the gaming industry trending more in Asia, and moved into Macau and Singapore, where he built a hotel-casino and convention center in each destination.

Las Vegas Sands Singapore casino opened in 2010, and this venture may end up proving to be the best example of Adelson's foresight. Currently Las Vegas Sands holds one of only two government-granted gaming licenses in this market, and there are no plans to hand out any more.

Inside ownership
Owning a portion of the business you run is another very important aspect of great management. This forces you to care about how the decisions you make as a manager will impact the overall business and the other owners or shareholders of the organization.

Both Wynn and Adelson hold large stakes in the companies they manage. Wynn and his ex-wife and director at Wynn Resorts, Elaine Wynn, hold about 16% of the outstanding shares of Wynn Resorts, with insiders holding 35% of all shares. At Las Vegas Sands, 49% of all shares outstanding are held by insiders, with Adelson and his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, being the two largest holders.

Many casino operators have a large portion of shares held by insiders. MGM Resorts (NYS: MGM) has insider ownership of 32.27%, and Harrah's Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) was taken private in 2008. One company that insiders are not so heavily invested in is Penn National Gaming (NAS: PENN) , which has only 15.42% of shares held by insiders.

A study performed by Rudiger Fahlenbrach, an Ohio State University finance professor, found that companies run by founder-CEOs outperformed the market by 8 percentage points a year from 1993 to 2002. Another study showed that the 26 founder-run companies within all of the Fortune 500 have beat the index by 7% from 1995 to 2005.

Looking to the future
Steve Wynn is partially blind and 69 years old. Sheldon Adelson is 78 years old. Even though both men are aging, they are still heavily invested and still manage operations. But how much longer they will play key roles?

Wynn has planned for the future by placing individuals like CFO Matt Maddox or COO Marc Schorr in key positions. Both of these managers have been with the company since 2002, own a decent amount of stock, and fully understand the direction the company is moving toward.

Adelson has placed experienced people in key positions. John Caparella, who has 29 years of industry experience, recently took over as president of Las Vegas Properties, and his predecessor, Robert Goldstein, now president of Global Gaming Operations, has comparable casino operations experience.

Some investments may seem like more of a gamble then others, but knowing who is driving the company forward can help swing the odds in your favor. Despite having aging CEOs, these are still two tremendously well-run companies. To reflect my stance, I have recently made positive CAPScalls for both of these companies, and you can follow their progress by adding them to your watchlist.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Matt Thalman does hold a position in MGM Resorts, but does not currently own stock in any other company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Microsoft and Apple, and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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