Donald Trump's Best Friend, Billionaire Casino Mogul Phil Ruffin, Sees A Hidden Jackpot In The Pandemic
Thursday 30th April 2020
The owner of Las Vegas' Treasure Island says he has enough cash to keep his casinos closed for 20 years. Instead, he's looking to gamble on a new venture.
t's a Friday afternoon in early April, and Las Vegas billionaire Phil Ruffin is bored and looking for some action. "I'm at my desk -- no customers," says the 85-year-old casino mogul, who runs an empire worth $3 billion, including Treasure Island and Circus Circus. "There's no one on the streets and our phones are not ringing."
On any typical Friday before the coronavirus pandemic began, Ruffin's schedule would be packed with strategy meetings and his desk would be a pile of daily operating reports. His phone would be ringing nonstop and he'd walk the floor of his casinos. Then he would usually call Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump to see how business was going up the Strip at the Trump International Hotel, which he owns 50-50 with his closest friend, President Donald Trump.
But since March 17, when Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak ordered all non-essential businesses to close -- including the state's economic lifeblood, casinos -- Ruffin finds himself in an unfamiliar position. And like the guests who visit his properties, he is eager to gamble on an undervalued or underfunded property, much as he did during the Great Recession in 2008 when he bought Treasure Island from a cash-strapped MGM Resorts for less than half its current value. "This is something totally new to us -- a pandemic shutdown due to a virus," he laments. "I could never imagine that all of our properties were shut down, but they sure as hell are."
After the governor's order came down, Ruffin had to tell his paying guests to check out of his hotels and then he furloughed 4,400 employees (out of 5,500) without pay. (Those who aren't furloughed are mostly construction workers remodeling hotel rooms.) Treasure Island and Circus Circus will continue to cover employee health insurance, something the labor union had to negotiate for its members who work at his properties, but neither business is paying employee salaries during furlough.
"Hopefully they get a $1,200 check soon," says Ruffin, referring to the first stimulus check the federal government sent to Americans. When asked why he decided not to pay his employees while on furlough -- which other billionaire-owned casino companies, including Wynn Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, and Red Rock Resorts all pledged -- Ruffin says he's following what the Strip's largest operators, MGM and Caesars, did. (Both companies gave employees an extra two weeks' pay during furlough while Ruffin did not. Caesars is allowing employees to use accumulated paid time off.) "We're trying to get open as fast as we can. No one is hurting worse than we are," he says with a quick laugh. "Our losses are [huge] and that's okay, that's part of the deal. The government shut us down and our people understand that."
Ruffin certainly has the money to cover employee salaries during the lockdown -- Forbes estimates that his net worth is $3.2 billion with an estimated corporate war chest of $500 million in cash. He also offered that if any employee were to ask for money he would give them a loan at 3% interest. He is also quick to add that Governor Sisolak is to blame for Las Vegas' misfortune -- not casino owners. The local economy -- one-third of which is tied to tourism and the hospitality industry -- was strong before the shutdown. Now the state's number of unemployment claims is a record high of 17% and the unemployment rate might be as high as 25% in Las Vegas. "We were mandated to close," Ruffin says sternly. "Do you understand that? We were mandated, we didn't have any choice. The governor did that."
Ruffin, whose Casino Miami in Florida is also shuttered, claims he's only losing about $6 to $8 million a month on each property. According to a report written by Macquarie Insights, MGM, the biggest Las Vegas operator with 80,000 employees around the globe -- whose properties include the Bellagio and New York, New York -- is losing a staggering $14.4 million per day, while smaller operator Red Rock Resorts is losing $1.7 million a day.
"In July, the weather will be 115 degrees," Ruffin says of Las Vegas. "So if there's any substance to the fact that sun kills the virus, we'll have a hell of a lot of sun."
MGM's executives, including its acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle, donated money to its emergency grant program to help furloughed employees pay rent and buy food. Red Rock Resorts, which is owned by billionaire brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, announced it would pay the salaries of employees during the casino closure. With no revenue, MGM has enough cash to last about nine months, while Red Rock can survive almost 14 months before running out of cash. Macquarie analyst Chad Benyon, who wrote the report, believes most gaming companies have strong enough balance sheets to survive the lockdown, but it's a question of how long the Strip remains closed.
Ruffin says his empire is "fine" because he can afford to burn cash longer than most competitors. "We have zero income coming in and a lot of expenses, but we don't plan on taking any loans," he says. When asked if he would take a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), he dismisses it outright: "That's not just no, that's hell no. I don't want their money. If you don't need the money, don't take it. We have plenty of cash -- I could go 20 years, maybe."
Still he is eager to turn his "cash machine" back on. While Ruffin believes that Governor Sisolak did the right thing by closing the Strip at first, he says staying closed much longer will do more damage to the socioeconomic fabric of the city. Ruffin believes that Las Vegas Mayor Caroline Goodman, who has called the stay-at-home order "total insanity," has the right idea when she says the Strip needs to open up. During a recent city council meeting, Mayor Goodman doubled down on her desire to open the casinos despite having no plan to keep visitors and staff safe. (The Venetian, which is across the Strip from Ruffin's Treasure Island, unveiled a plan this week that calls for thermal cameras and a team of EMTs available when the casino reopens.) "Here's what I think," Ruffin says of his Goldilocks-worthy strategy. "May 1 is too early, June 1 is too late. So, there must be an answer midway: May 15."
If Governor Sisolak allows it, Ruffin says he will only open a third of his rooms at first after his properties are thoroughly sanitized and a plan is instituted to keep guests a safe distance from each other at slot machines and in restaurants. Hand sanitizer will be available throughout the casinos and every employee will get their temperature checked before each shift and sent home if they appear to be sick.
But Ruffin is most excited about the handheld devices that emit ultraviolet light each guest will be allowed to borrow upon check in. Ruffin's device, he says, can be waved over any surface to kill viruses. If the cleaning and handheld devices don't work, Ruffin, like Mayor Goodman, believes that the desert heat will take care of the disease. "In July, the weather will be 115 degrees here," he says. "So if there's any substance to the fact that sun kills the virus, we'll have a hell of a lot of sun."
As befits a successful casino mogul, Ruffin is known for having the sun shine on him. He's the kind of man who holds onto a lot of cash and waits for the right moment to buy big, flashy assets for a low price. In 2007, Ruffin sold Las Vegas' legendary Frontier Hotel for $1.2 billion, or seven times what he bought it for nearly a decade earlier. The following year, when the Great Recession hit and MGM had $13 billion in debt, Ruffin took Treasure Island off its hands for $775 million. Today, Forbes estimates the casino is worth $2 billion.
Ruffin is as much a fatalist as he is a capitalist. About two months after he bought Treasure Island, Bank of America's stock hit a low of nearly $3 per share. "I should've plunged the whole thing on Bank of America. Now I would be up there with Bezos," he says, referring to the richest person in the world.
With such bravado and speculative accounting, it's easy to understand how Ruffin became such good friends with Donald Trump. Ruffin was not born rich, but he was born with a knack for parlaying one business into another. He grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where he bagged food at his father's grocer. As a teenager, he worked for a department store and quit after he was asked to repossess a pet monkey a customer did not pay for. Before dropping out of college, he sold his stake in a hamburger joint he built with a classmate and started a chain of convenience store-gas stations in Oklahoma and Kansas. In the early 1990s, he got into the gambling business by purchasing the Crystal Palace Casino in the Bahamas, which he sold a decade later for $150 million, and in 1998, he bought the Frontier Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.
Ruffin met Trump nearly 30 years ago at Trump Tower in Manhattan to cook up a casino-real estate deal. It didn't pan out, but the two became fast friends -- "we were both single," says Ruffin. In 2005, Ruffin invited Trump to dinner in Las Vegas. Afterwards, Ruffin brought the future president to see a vacant lot he still owned behind the old Frontier and suggested it would be a great location for a new Trump hotel. The New York real estate mogul decided to invest and the two built a 64-story, golden glass tower on the Strip, the 1,283-unit Trump International Hotel.
The relationship between the two billionaires was forged through business, but it soon became personal. In 2008, Ruffin married Oleksandra Nikolayenko, who is nearly 50 years younger and a former Miss Ukraine. Trump was his best man. The two also do plenty of favors for one another: In August 2016, Trump borrowed Ruffin's jet to visit Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico at the time. One thing they don't do, Ruffin says, is play golf: "He won't play with me because I'm not that good," says Ruffin. "He wants me to be on the women's tees and I refuse to be insulted."
Like President Trump, Ruffin is a real estate guy at heart -- nothing gets him more excited than an empty plot of land in a good location. Last year, Ruffin bought Circus Circus, another MGM property, for $825 million. While Circus Circus, which opened in 1968, reported cash flow (EBITDA) of $62 million for the 12-months ending June 2019, Ruffin says the most enticing part of the deal was the 72 acres of undeveloped property. "I love that piece of ground. It's the last piece of ground on the Strip available," he says. "If anyone wants to come on, they have to come over and look at our dirt."
"It's vanity," Ruffin says about bringing a baseball team to Las Vegas. "I'm not interested in that. I couldn't sleep at night paying some player $30 million a year."
Ruffin has his eye on plenty of dirt these days. When asked about his strategy during this Great Cessation, he has a simple answer: "We're not selling -- we're buyers if something comes up," he says. "It's early yet but something might come up." Considering how Las Vegas was one of the cities hit hardest by the 2008 recession, it's likely that another bargain will surface, particularly if the Strip remains shut down. Ruffin would not give any clues as to any properties he might be eyeing, but he did say he will follow the axiom "stay in your lane," which means he will look for a good deal on a casino, hotel, or another real estate asset. "If something decent pops up, we still have lines of credit we could use on top of cash," he says. "But you have to be careful. It's not a good time to pile on debt."
Ruffin says he wouldn't want to buy MGM's Mirage, which is next door to Treasure Island and was built to share back office services, because MGM doesn't own the land or the building. "You want to own the land and the building, so you get the rent," he says. "It's not a good thing to buy, you have all the capital expenditures... and if you only have operations it'll only [sell for] five or six times cash flow."
Nor is Ruffin interested in adding the nearby Tropicana to his portfolio, even though it includes a swath of undeveloped land. "I hate the Tropicana. I don't like the location," he says. "The ground has the value, but it'll be a long time until that develops, and the Tropicana doesn't have the cash flow."
What about sports? As Las Vegas gets ready to welcome to NFL's Raiders to the soon-to-be-open Allegiant Stadium, would Ruffin want to bring a baseball team to Sin City? "I don't do [sports]; it's vanity," he says. "I'm not interested in that. I couldn't sleep at night paying some player $30 million a year."
Ruffin would sooner step up to the plate in Florida, where he already owns a casino near the Miami airport. And the president's adopted home state could be more attractive to him if Florida lowers its 35% tax on casinos.
Besides, given the prolonged pain that Las Vegas citizens and local business are feeling right now, Ruffin believes that all he needs to do is have patience. "Things will come back," he says. "People will start doing what they always did. This thing came on fast and it might not go away as quickly as everyone wants but if you look a year and a half, two years down the road, it'll all be back to normal."
While Governor Sisolak ultimately controls when Las Vegas opens back up for business, Ruffin, who is among the business leaders on the president's new economic task force, could certainly lobby his good friend in the White House to lean on the state.
When asked about the last conversation he had with President Trump, Ruffin says he spoke with him last week. "He's under tremendous pressure and stress. The economy was roaring and then this hit us right in the ass," he says. "He took ownership of this virus program. It's not his fault and people are acting like it's his fault. It's hurting him, I think. I advised him not to take ownership of it but he kind of had to."
When that task force recommends re-opening the country, Phil Ruffin will be looking for that next jackpot. It's a gamble he is ready to take.