Executive Suite: You can bet on MGM Mirage's Lanni

He also has solid ties with labor. Recently, MGM Mirage and Unite Here, a union of 50,000 hotel and casino workers in Nevada, agreed to a five-year contract with annual raises, health benefits and the right to form unions in future MGM Mirage joint ventures.

Unite Here President John Wilhelm, a Democrat, has known Lanni for 21 years. Despite their political differences, they've found common ground on business-related issues such as tax policies, immigration reform and economic growth.

After the Iraq war broke out, Lanni drew praise when he said that 100 MGM Mirage employees serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan would receive full salaries, benefits and whatever tips they would have earned.

"A lot of business leaders use their ideology when it comes to unions or other issues," Wilhelm says. "Terry never does that. He approaches business pragmatically, finding what's best for shareholders, the company and employees."

Lanni seems to be a good bargain for shareholders in an era of overpaid, poor-performing CEOs.

Last year, he earned $9.7 million in total compensation while MGM Mirage earned a 56% investment return — beating the 16% return on the Standard & Poor's 500, according to compensation expert and Bloomberg News columnist Graef Crystal.

When Lanni isn't in the boardroom, he's advising his two sons, in their early 20s, on their budding business careers. Or attending fundraisers with his wife, Debbie, who runs in Los Angeles philanthropic circles with Nancy Reagan. He also owns racehorses, including Sinister Minister, a 2006 Kentucky Derby entrant.

While Lanni's business act may be as highflying as a Cirque du Soleil stunt, his philosophy of life and work is pretty down to Earth.

"I learned from my father that whatever you do, you must be passionate about it," Lanni says. "After 31 years in the gaming business, I can still say I love what I'm doing."

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