Leap of Faith

It’s not often that a CEO becomes a hero by jumping off a building, but most CEOs aren’t like Frank Riolo. And most companies don’t operate observation towers attached to a Las Vegas casino.

Since May 2008—just about the start of the current economic slide—Riolo has helmed American Casino & Entertainment Properties, the company that operates the Stratosphere, Laughlin’s Aquarius and Arizona Charlie’s East and Decatur for Whitehall Properties, an investment arm of Goldman Sachs.

In April, Riolo’s main charge, the Stratosphere, was putting the finishing touches on its new Sky Jump ride. As part of the opening festivities, he opened up the ride for free to all employees who wanted to try. It looked like so much fun, he joined them.

Riolo’s jump—and others that followed it—did wonders for morale at the property, which has seen its share of ups and downs over the past few years.

“If he can jump and have fun with us, it makes us feel like we’re one big team,” says Angel Peralta, store lead for the ride.

Riolo didn’t have an express elevator to the top of the Stratosphere. Trained as a carpenter, he spent most of his working life as a hands-on contractor in Borrego Springs, Calif., walking job sites while wearing a tool belt. Along the way, he invested some of his income in a local bank, which started taking on water in the early 1990s. He decided to get involved with the bank’s operations rather than see his investment go under.

First, he managed some of its more troubled assets. Then, in 1995, he began working with the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, who stepped up as major investors and, in 1998, took over the bank. With his guidance, Borrego Springs Bank became the first bank in the American West owned by an Indian tribe. In less than three years, Riolo went from framing walls for custom houses to advising the Federal Reserve on Indian economic development—a heady change, but one that the down-to-earth Riolo took in stride.

“I reinvented myself in my mid-40s,” he says. “I’m always telling the guys here anything is possible.”

Before long, the tribe asked Riolo to take a look at its major business: an Alpine, Calif., casino. And when Goldman Sachs purchased American Casino & Entertainment Properties from Carl Icahn in 2008, the bankers asked him to appraise their new acquisitions. They were so impressed by his straight-shooting analysis that they asked him to become CEO of ACEP.

Last January, Riolo took another leap into the unknown: As the recession showed no signs of abating, he decided to embark on a renovation of the Stratosphere. Even though the property is relatively new—it debuted in 1996 and 1,000 of its 2,447 rooms opened in 2001—it was long overdue.

Already, visitors to the property have noticed a remodeled front entrance, new carpeting, updated interior signage and other subtle changes like the installation of energy-saving LED lights throughout the casino. They can also stay in 909 just-remodeled “Stratosphere Select” rooms outfitted with locally manufactured Foliot furniture.

Riolo has made better use of the property’s best-known asset by improving the signature Top of the World restaurant atop the tower. He has also converted an underused Starbucks into the 108th floor Air Bar. But he’s remained refreshingly practical about the Stratosphere’s approach to guests.

“We’re positioning ourselves at the top end of the value tier,” he says. “Once people see what we’ve got, get comfortable here, we think that we can reach up to that next level. We want to take the $25 player and treat them well, show them the place is clean, has some value.”

There’s actually more to the remodel than meets the eye. In addition to the room and public area remodels, Riolo has put money into back-of-the-house systems like the fire alarm, chillers and all-new, all-digital surveillance.

Most importantly, Riolo has seen results. While the casino’s revenues aren’t where he’d like them—but every casino manager in town has the same complaint—he’s seen a perceptible increase in time-on-device, which begs the question: What’s next?

“We’ll plow it right back into the place,” Riolo says when asked what he’ll do if revenues continue to pick up. That includes a planned remodel for the lobby, new restaurants and a refreshed look for the Top of the World and more room renovations.

Even when he’s not jumping from its tower, Riolo is hard at work raising the bar for the Stratosphere.