The Legacy of Lanni

Terry Lanni, who died July 14, quietly became a major figure in Las Vegas history. In advance of a public memorial service at 4 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center Ballroom, David G. Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, recounts a key contribution Lanni made early in his career—helping the gaming industry mothball the mob.

Terry Lanni’s many accomplishments have been noted in the month since his death: his chairmanship of MGM Resorts from 1995 to 2008; his key role in launching that company’s diversity initiative; and his pivotal service on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission from 1997 to 1999.

But his earliest work in the industry might have been his most important.

When Caesars World president Bill McElnea brought him aboard in 1977, most casino executives had come up through the ranks, often starting in illegal gambling halls. This gave them knowledge for running a casino but not the skills to talk to Wall Street or institutional investors. If the industry was to outgrow its marriage to the mob, it was going to need serious capital.

Lanni was one of the first to come into the casino world from business school. Within a year of his arrival at Caesars, the company received a $60 million loan from Aetna Life Insurance. This was the first time a mainstream institutional lender had invested in a Nevada casino operation, and it set a pattern for the future. Lanni was pivotal in securing the loan and in building a bridge between Las Vegas Boulevard and Wall Street.

In the late 1970s, Caesars World ran into trouble in its efforts to be licensed in New Jersey. High-ranking corporate officials were accused of too-cozy dealings with Alvin Malnik and Sam Cohen, who were reputedly linked to underworld financier Meyer Lansky. This sort of thing had been tolerated in Nevada, but Garden State regulators, holding the keys to the world’s breakout gaming market, took a different stance.

In the licensing hearings before the Casino Control Commission, Lanni was consciously kept at a distance; he was being groomed to take over the company should the commission refuse to license its principals. And that’s exactly what he did, becoming president of a newly licensed Caesars World in 1981. The industry kept moving into the financial mainstream and hasn’t looked back since.

“Terry was a significant factor in taking the industry [beyond] its mob-related past,” says Casino Control Commission spokesman Dan Heneghan, who knew Lanni since his arrival in Atlantic City.

Without that achievement, none of Lanni’s later accomplishments—or much of what we see along the Strip today—would have been possible.