Phil Ruffin Reveals The Secrets of Running a Billion Dollar Empire

Photos by Eric ITA

Phil Ruffin is unlike any billionaire we’ve ever met. He’s always the first person in to work every morning, swears he doesn’t feel superior to anyone (despite being the fourth richest resident of Nevada) and knows all the words to The Mickey Mouse Club theme song.
Ruffin4For the record, we’ve never met a boss who starts before his employees. When you factor in that the 80-year-old is in the office on the Las Vegas Strip before the sun has even risen and that he’s fresh, clean and power-suited while his hotel guests at the Treasure Island Resort & Casino are still tearing up the tables in last night’s clothes, we have to admit it—we’re impressed.

Then again, since Ruffin lives in a city that never sleeps, it’s only fitting that he doesn’t either. He’s got business to do and an empire to run. You don’t become one of the richest men in America without putting in the work, after all.

Every morning at 5 a.m., Ruffin can be found at his desk atop Treasure Island shuffling through stacks of customer reviews. Believe it or not, he reads every single one.

“I’m a strong believer in customer reviews,” he admits. “That’s why I’m here every morning so early. Whatever the customers are saying, I listen. ‘Your pool closes too early.’ OK, write that down. ‘We want bigger TVs.’ Noted.”
ruffin1His personalized approach to dealing with potentially problematic employees is pretty novel as well. He has no qualms about sitting a staffer down and reading them a guest’s gripe verbatim—a strategy that has worked in his favor. “Over a six-year period, we’ve had very few negative comments—it’s now two out of 100,” he boasts.

He doesn’t operate by instilling fear per se, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that he’s always watching. “It spreads throughout the entire facility—‘Look, Ruffin is looking at these things!’ It’s a very valuable tool for me to use; I learned that a long time ago,” he says.

Conversely, when a worker does something well, Ruffin is quick to praise. “We’ll say, ‘Great work, Shirley. This is what the customer is saying about you.’ We make sure they take it home.”

He has always implemented this “two hands on” modus operandi, an approach that has served him well across all areas of his wildly diverse business dealings. He owns over four million square feet of commercial real estate from The Bahamas to Belize to his native Wichita, Kansas, not to mention myriad convenience stores; a slew of properties under the Marriott Hotel Group umbrella; and Harper Trucks, the world’s largest manufacturer of hand trucks. He has also owned greyhound racing tracks, a bank and a dairy, among other ventures.

Though he was born, raised and began his career in Kansas, Ruffin first broke into the hotel business in The Bahamas, starting a venture he describes as his “biggest gamble.” He purchased the country’s Crystal Palace casino resort in 1994 from Carnival Corporation chairman Micky Arison. After converting the property into a Marriott, he sold it for the tidy sum of $147 million, which al- lowed him to buy the flailing New Frontier casino on the Las Vegas Strip from Margaret Elardi in 1997.
Ruffin6The Frontier was certainly no prize at the time—it had been stuck in a long and violent strike with the Culinary Workers Union for six-and-a-half years—but Ruffin could see its potential. With the acumen that has become his trademark, he simply decided the strike wasn’t to his liking, had to end, and set about making it so very, very rapidly.

“When I bought the New Frontier, they had the longest strike in U.S. history,” he recalls. “Everybody tried to solve the problem [but nobody could]. I wasn’t going to buy the Frontier with strikers in front; it hurt the business.” He went about tracking down the union’s president, John Wilhelm, set up a quickie meeting at Caesars Palace and laid his cards on the table.

“I told him, ‘I want to buy the Frontier, but I can’t have picketers out front.’ Within two-and-a-half hours, we solved the problem, got rid of the strikers and opened the Frontier. Everybody else took credit for it, but it was really John and I that did the deal.

“Clearly,” he adds, “I like to negotiate.”

We’d say so, especially given how well he applied the same single-mindedness to selling the Frontier that he did to buying it. The $1.24 billion transaction set a record for being the biggest per-acre deal in The Strip’s history.
Ruffin3Funds procured from disposing of the Frontier went towards purchasing Treasure Island from MGM Mirage in 2007, which was struggling at the time. Blithely unconcerned about the down market, Ruffin took over the hotel completely in March 2009. In the process, his privately held venue saved 2,500 jobs and earned hime the reputation as savior of the Strip.

When you work as hard as Ruffin does breathing new life into Las Vegas, you’re allowed some wiggle room to have fun. In true form, he combined work and pleasure by partnering with best pal Donald Trump on the Trump Hotel Las Vegas—a 64-story hotel, condominium and timeshare that the two opened together in 2008.

“Donald is one of my best friends; he was best man at my wedding. He’s been a great, great friend. The partnership has been superb and is going to make us a lot of money,” he says. “The hotel is full all the time, and Donald is a great operator. He has a good staff and his son [Eric Trump] helps. He’s a very smart guy. [Our hotel] will be debt-free after this year.”

The experience has been so successful that he’d definitely work with Trump on something in the future. “[I’d partner with him again] if it’s a business that I know. He likes the golf business right now; he has 18 [courses] all over the world. I think he would offer me a partnership in most things, but I don’t know that business,” he admits. “That’s his thing, and I want to get into something where I can contribute; he doesn’t need any help.”

However, Ruffin does realize that his friend might be a little busy for new business dealings, given his recent presidential candidacy—which he personally backs. “I mean, who would you want to negotiate with Putin—Hillary [Clinton] or Donald?” he wonders. “I can tell you right now, he’s a world-class negotiator. He’s so damn smart.”

Ruffin is no slouch in the intelligence department himself. Though he didn’t graduate from college, he’s street smart. He knows when to take a risk and also when to walk away from a bad investment. “We got involved in a Chinese deal—we wanted to get involved in the Internet gaming business in China—but it didn’t feel right to me; the numbers didn’t work out for us,” he says. “China is a wonderful place, and it was a great experience [being there], but sometimes it’s just as important to back out of a deal as it is to stay in it if it doesn’t feel right.”

He adds, “I [have a rule] that I never gamble where it’s going to hurt me financially: I just gamble at the level where it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve done it all my life; I’ve always taken gambles in business.”

Phil Ruffin might make billion-dollar deals and hang out with Donald Trump on the regular, but he’s also the guy who goes to PTA meetings and hastily obliges when his 5-year-old son Richard’s T-ball coach yells.

My first wife [Lynne] died; I have a second family with two young kids who are in school. The strange part about it is, I go to PTA meetings!” he declares, sound- ing bemused. “I haven’t gone to PTA meetings in years. My little boy plays T-ball, baseball. I go out there with tennis shoes on and the coach goes to me, ‘Will you go take second base?’ I say ‘Yes, sir!’ I love it.”

Ruffin lights up when speaking about his family. Though he is an intensely private person who plays his cards very close to his chest—poker is his game, after all—when it comes to talking about his kids and second wife, former Miss Ukraine Oleksandra Nikolayenko, he is an open book.

“I would recommend starting a second family to anybody—it’s really worth it,” he says. “You have to kind of relive everything.”
Ruffin5He certainly got to experience falling in love again. He was smitten with supermodel Nikolayenko from the very moment he laid eyes on her at the Bahamian Crystal Palace. “She’s an extremely beautiful woman,” Ruffin says of his second wife. “[When I met her at the beauty pageant] I said, ‘You’re the winner of this contest; it’s all over.’ It’s worked out great. She’s a great mother, and spends all of her time with the kids.”

In his son he sees himself—a former athlete with a penchant for everything from basketball to gymnastics to wrestling. His 3-year-old daughter, Malena, is the apple of his eye and he unabashedly dotes on her.

“My little girl loves her father. She runs to meet me when I come home with arms open. I give her whatever she wants; I’m such a sap,” he confides with a smile. “I can’t discipline. She likes to come and lie in bed and watch cartoons. I might have a basketball game on, and I’ll have to switch it to the channel with The Mickey Mouse Club; I know the words to The Mickey Mouse Club song.”

Love for his little girl (and her love of organic strawberries) was also the catalyst behind his decision to fund an organic food & learning initiative at his children’s private school, the Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain. “We grow strawberries at home because my little girl likes to eat fresh strawberries. She wanted to take organic strawberries to her school, but [the powers that be] said we couldn’t, so we went to the princi- pal and [suggested they] build an organic garden. He said, ‘That’s not a bad idea. Will you pay for it?’ The one at my house cost $75,000, so I said yes. He came back and gave me a budget of $1.5 million, but I had already committed to it—I had to pay for the whole damn thing,” he says with a laugh.

Not that he minds—like we’ve mentioned, he would do anything for his family. The only challenge—or so says Steve Wynn—is keeping his children from getting too spoiled.

“The big thing you have to worry about is keeping them grounded; keeping them on a level like I am,” he notes. “Steve Wynn said to me, ‘Your one problem is making sure [they’re] not spoiled. Even though they’re privileged, you need to keep them grounded.’ Well, I spoil them!”

His elder children, on the other hand, acquired his wicked work ethic. Michelle, 47, has run his first hotel, the Wichita Marriott, for the past ten years, while Phillip Jr., 42, now works at Harper after Ruffin’s racetracks shut down. His oldest son, Chris, 44, gave up working in the family real estate business to move to Los Angeles to become a musician. “All kids are different,” Ruffin notes. “We let them do what they want to do. Whatever path they wanted to take is the path we let them take.”

He’s taught his kids to be good and decent, to be genuine, honest and above all else, to never feel superior regardless of wealth or status. “I came from the streets. We didn’t have anything—I worked all my life. One time I only had 28 cents in my pocket. I know what it’s like. I try to be the same person I always was,” he says. “I respect people who work like I did. You have to treat people well, and I do. I relate to them. Even the people who sweep your floors have a meaningful job—it’s what they do, and they help you. You have to know you’re not superior to other people. You’re just part of the team.”

He adds, “[I taught my kids] not to tell lies. If you say something, it has to be true—and the banks over the time periods of my career know that. They know if I tell them something, t’s what I’m going to do. Get a reputation for honesty, and it pays off in cash.

Said like only a man of true worth could.