You can bet on MGM Mirage CEO

In the late 1970s, a baby-faced executive named Terrence Lanni had a tough time persuading banks to lend millions of dollars to build hotels and casinos in this fabled gambling mecca.

Few lenders dared to finance projects in the gaming industry, which was still young then and troubled by federal investigations, organized-crime influence and corruption in the old Teamsters union.

"It was very difficult to get a loan back then," says Lanni, who was the young chief financial officer of Caesars World at the time. "It's a lot easier now, I can tell you that."

Today, the 64-year-old Lanni is CEO of MGM Mirage, mgm the No. 2 gaming-industry company in the USA, and lenders line up for his business. The stigma of the old Sin City is long gone, and Lanni and other corporate visionaries hope to usher in a new economic era for Las Vegas as a world-class destination city in the same league as Paris and London.

MGM Mirage dominates the Las Vegas Strip. It owns and runs many of the most-famed hotel-casinos here, including the ritzy Bellagio, the vast MGM Grand, the tropical-themed Mandalay Bay, the pyramid-shaped Luxor, the Mirage and its spewing volcano and New York-New York with its huge roller coaster.

Under Lanni, MGM Mirage also is going global with Middle Eastern and Chinese investment partners in hotel, casino and residential projects in the USA and abroad.

The MGM Mirage's crown jewel: Project CityCenter, a $7 billion urban development on the Strip that's billed as the largest private project in Las Vegas history. Opening in 2009, CityCenter will feature high-rise housing, a 4,000-room hotel-casino, a convention center, upscale restaurants and a retail-entertainment center.

Throughout its history, Las Vegas has seen its share of legendary tycoons, from Howard Hughes to Steve Wynn. The low-profile Lanni flies under the public's radar, but he's one of the most-respected and influential forces in the $90 billion gaming industry.

"I've dealt with a few CEOs, and I'd have to rate Terry up there at the top," says Kirk Kerkorian, the 90-year-old owner of Tracinda, which held 56% of MGM Mirage's stock as of June. "I've always liked this company. We've got a hell of a team there."

In a recent interview at his spacious, art-adorned office at the Bellagio hotel, Lanni reeled through the turning points of his life and career as if they were a board-meeting agenda.

If Lanni had not joined the gaming industry, he would have pursued his first love: politics. The son of a Los Angeles Times executive and a schoolteacher, Lanni grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Chaminade, a Jesuit school, where he was student-body president and aced his civics and debate classes.

After earning an MBA from the University of Southern California, then toiling in financial services, Lanni worked as a campaign advance man for President Ford in the 1976 election that Ford narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter.

For Lanni, planning campaign events was a baptism under fire and good business training. He had to think fast, manage people, juggle logistics — even battle the Secret Service over how many public appearances Ford and running mate Bob Dole could make.

Over the years, power brokers have floated Lanni's name as a candidate and tried to persuade the moderate Republican to run for Nevada governor or the Senate.

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