Seven Questions for Tom Skancke

The CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance on our need for light rail, the best way to attract foreign businesses and flying high with a candy baron

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

Shortly after taking over the Nevada Development Authority a little more than a year ago, you rebranded it the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. What’s your mission?

In every presentation I make, I close with an Albert Einstein quote: “You have to change your current pattern of thought in order to solve the problems you’ve created with your current pattern of thought.” And I live by that. Recently, the state created an alliance—300 people coming together to work on [Nevada’s] comprehensive economic development strategy, and in my 25 years of living here, 300 people haven’t come together to agree on anything. So the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, when it was all said and done, really reflects the direction and vision of where this community needs to go from a global point of view.

Recently, you talked about the importance of addressing “some of the systemic deficiencies that hold us back in the community.” What did you mean by that?

Oh, that’s my favorite topic! We have a systemic deficiency in our [public education] system. We now have the right superintendent with direction and courage, but he can’t do it alone. We must, as a business community, stop pointing fingers and saying, “Let somebody else do that.” We have to be engaged. And this organization is going to get engaged with education. … If we’re going to attract a tech economy and logistics and goods-movement and energy and renewable energy and those types of industries, we’ve got to have the workforce here to drive that. That may mean changing the legislation for how people are educated here.

Your background includes serving as an adviser for numerous transportation infrastructure projects. What’s our most pressing transportation problem or need?

We must build a light rail and transit system in this community if we are going to attract the millennia generation, which is the next generation of decision-makers in our country. They are not buying cars, and they are not moving to communities that require a car. They move to tech-savvy communities. And we don’t offer their [preferred] mode of transportation.

Where do we currently stand when it comes to getting light rail?

The [Clark County Regional Transportation Commission] is looking at the Maryland Parkway corridor to connect the airport to UNLV to the medical district to Downtown. But it’s going to take awhile—this is a 20-year plan, because you have to study everything to death. If this was China, they’d say, “You’re moving out of your house tomorrow; we’re putting in a light-rail system.” “But where do I go?” “Figure it out!” In America, we study things forever.

Go to Phoenix and look at what they’ve done with Valley Metro. The Phoenix airport has a transit system that goes up and over an active taxiway—you can put a 747 under the light-rail system! They ain’t doing that in Paris. That’s American ingenuity, right here in our region.

What’s the one type of business you’d love to see set up shop in Las Vegas?

I’d love to see the Bank of China or the Merchant Bank or Banamex or Deutsche Bank or some bank from France in this town. Nothing against our banks; we’ve got some amazing financial institutions. But I’ve got to look, walk and act like a duck if I’m going to be a duck, right? If I’m going after Mexican businesses, they’re going to say, “Where’s Banamex?” Because when I go to Beijing or Shanghai or Mexico City or Abu Dhabi or Dubai, I see Citibank. I see Chase. I see Deutsche Bank. And we should have those [foreign] institutions here, because we’ve got 7 million people from around the world who come here every year—with real money.

What’s the biggest sign on the horizon that economic diversity is here?

What Tony Hsieh is doing with the Downtown Project is a great indicator of what’s happening with our new economy—that’s a tech economy, and is a great start. What Rob Roy is doing with Switch and the InNEVation Center is an amazing start. We have a bigger tech economy than most any other cities I know. We’re [also] moving on a logistics and goods-movement economy. We’re moving on medical tourism. We’re moving on looking at how we use our airport differently besides just heads in beds—how the airport better connects to the community.

If you were alone in an elevator with Warren Buffett, what’s the one question you’d ask him?

I haven’t been in an elevator with Warren Buffett, but I sat next to Forrest Mars on an airplane one day, and what an amazing experience that was. We were flying between Reno and Las Vegas, and he sat down next to me and said, “What do you do, young man?” And I said, “I work for the Nevada Opera Association.” He said, “Oh, really? My wife and I gave Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City 500 bucks many, many years ago to keep the opera house open.” I said, “That’s great. So what do you do?” And he said, “I’m in the candy business.” Now I looked at him, a very unassuming guy, and I was thinking maybe vending machines or something like that. I said, “What kind of candy?” He said, “Ever heard of the Mars bar?” And I said, “My dad loves it—it’s a great candy.” And he said, “Boy, it took a long time for people to like that candy bar, but I knew they’d like it eventually.” And I looked at him and I said, “Jesus Christ, you’re Forrest Mars!” And he said, “I am. Who are you?” I said, “I’m Tom Skancke, and there are about a billion reasons why I should know you.” He said, “Young man, there are 1.6 billion reasons why you should know me.”

That was a turning point in my career. This man told me how he invested his entire life in M&Ms—I think he told me he went bankrupt two or three times on M&Ms, but he stuck with it. Perseverance.