Bill Hornbuckle was born in Japan, grew up in Connecticut but has ended up a Las Vegas man through and through.
The boss of casino group MGM Resorts moved to the city when he was 23 in 1981 to study for a degree in hotel administration and has never left. After stints working for casino magnate Steve Wynn and at Caesar’s Palace, his career at MGM began in 1998. When Jim Murren announced his departure in February last year, Mr Hornbuckle finally moved into the top job, at a time of maximum difficulty.
Just as he took over as acting chief executive, the pandemic hit Vegas. MGM shuttered all its casinos and furloughed most of its 68,000 employees. It has since cut its workforce by around a quarter and, although all of its resorts are now open, it is restricted by occupancy limits of 25 per cent for casinos in Nevada state, the home of the majority of its 29 properties.
As well as the immediate fallout from a global health crisis, Mr Hornbuckle, who took the top job permanently in July, must also adapt the group to face long-term structural changes that are reshaping the industry. MGM’s pursuit of UK gambling company Entain, its partner in a US online sports betting joint venture, is part of that plan.
Casino customers are an ageing demographic, while the challenge to the traditional resort model from online gambling has been greatly amplified by the pandemic. Added to this, casino concessions in the group’s other hub, Macau, are due to expire in 2022 with no indication from the Chinese or Macanese governments about whether they will be renewed.
MGM has two strategies that it hopes will work in mitigation: to increase its share of the booming US online gambling and sports betting market and to win a licence to build one of the first big casinos in Japan.
It was also in the process of selling the last of its real estate assets into an investment trust when Mr Hornbuckle took the reins.
“That is a company that is undergoing some change,” said David Katz, an analyst at Jefferies, who has followed MGM since 2001. “The Las Vegas strip will find some new normal . . . [but] the advent of digital gaming has become so profoundly important.”
With the Japanese venture — a project to win one of three licenses to operate a mega casino in a country where most forms of gambling are banned — stalled by the pandemic, MGM is focusing its efforts on the US.
It launched a bid to buy Entain, the UK gambling company with which it runs BetMGM, towards the end of last year. The £8bn all-stock proposal, which was revealed this month, was greeted frostily by Entain’s board, who said it “significantly undervalued” the business.
However, an unexpected change of chief executive at Entain may alter the dynamic, while Mr Hornbuckle has until February 1 to make a firm offer.
MGM’s largest shareholder, billionaire Barry Diller’s IAC investment group, has said it will back the bid, despite Mr Diller admitting he was “sceptical” about its success, by investing a further $1bn on top of the $1bn stake it took in MGM in August.
“Now that [Mr Hornbuckle] is chief executive, he’s responsible for driving the share price,” said Adam Greenblatt, chief executive of BetMGM. “Look what perceived success in sports betting has done for Penn.”
Casino operator Penn National bought a controlling stake in sports media company Barstool Sports in January last year. Since then, its share price has tripled to around $104 — more than three times MGM’s current value.
On the evidence of one gambling executive who has worked with both Mr Hornbuckle and his predecessor, MGM’s current CEO should be a match for a difficult job.
The two men were “chalk and cheese” the executive said. “Murren was very emotional and towards the end of his time got very defensive whereas Bill is someone who is much more measured.”
Another long-serving Vegas executive compared Mr Hornbuckle to one of the big industry names he used to work for: Steve Wynn.
He said Mr Hornbuckle’s personality was “180 degrees opposite” to Mr Wynn’s, but that the MGM boss was “no less strategic, no less clear”.
Before he came to MGM, Mr Hornbuckle had worked for Mr Wynn’s Golden Nugget casino and on the opening of The Mirage hotel in 1989, then the world’s largest with 3,044 rooms. He also oversaw the $625m refurbishment of Caesar’s Palace, still one of the best-known resorts on the Las Vegas strip.
He is a sports car enthusiast and collects Porsches but has also been known to arrive at work in a Ferrari. “He loves quality things,” said Alan Feldman, a fellow at University of Nevada Las Vegas, who has known him for more than 30 years. “He wears beautiful watches and clothing and his home in Vegas is incredibly beautiful but he doesn’t show it off.”
He was a popular choice to succeed Mr Murren, who similarly took over at a time of crisis — during the 2008 financial crash.
“Bill’s experienced, steady leadership is a huge asset, not just for MGM, but for the whole gaming industry as we continue to recover from this most turbulent year,” said Bill Miller, president of the American Gaming Association.
A steady hand will be crucial as Mr Hornbuckle guides the company to meet the expectations of Mr Diller, who told the Financial Times this month that if MGM does not achieve a leading position in the US market “with all the opportunities that we have, we should be taken out and shot”.