Thursday, March 24, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
After narrowly escaping a nearly fatal financing crisis in 2009, Nevada’s largest private employer is on a slow, hard road to recovery. But as many casino executives in Las Vegas know, that path is tricky, especially for a business that relies on the morale of tens of thousands of front-line employees.
That’s one reason why MGM Grand President and Chief Operating Officer Scott Sibella managed to persuade the top brass at MGM Resorts International to let him don a wig and glasses for an episode of “Undercover Boss.”
The CBS reality show follows managers as they work incognito alongside lower-level employees to better understand the workplace. Sibella acted as a dealer, clerk and slot floor representative.
Sibella, who worked his way up from his first hotel job as a front desk clerk, admitted he had a lot to learn after only two months into the job at MGM Grand, about double the size of his previous gig running the Mirage.
“I definitely don’t have my arms around this property. It’s just so big and there are so many moving parts,” Sibella said on the show. With more than 5,000 rooms, 9,000 employees and a casino the size of three football fields, “the Grand” is one of the world’s largest resorts.
The game plan, as Sibella saw it, was to get as close as possible to see how employees are juggling their work and personal lives in the recession.
As his boss, MGM Resorts CEO Jim Murren, put it on the show, “I want to know what they’re thinking right now, because they’ve been through an awful lot.”
Appearing on the show “put a human face on an executive at a major corporation that’s had its problems, especially at a time when I don’t think many Americans are inclined to be that nice to the heads of corporations, whether you’re a liberal-leaning Democrat or a Tea Partyer,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada. “He came across as a nice guy and a family man ... (who) takes action to fix problems.”
Sibella isn’t the first casino boss to humanize himself on television. Steve Wynn famously did so in the 1980s, appearing in humorous ads for the Golden Nugget that helped dispel the image of casino executives as old, unapproachable and crooked, Green said.
The “Undercover Boss” episode is notable because it tackled a problem facing many casino companies: bigness.
The heads of today’s casino giants are further removed from their employees than ever at a time when such interactions are needed to boost morale, Green said.
“Maybe there’s a lesson here for other bosses,” he said.
Assuming the name Paul Thompson, a supposed reality show contestant competing for a job at MGM Grand, Sibella bungled a hand when dealing blackjack, spun a ball out of a roulette wheel and failed to sign up slot players for the company’s new loyalty program, M Life — among other blunders.
Sibella, who had never dealt a game before, said he didn’t know which jobs he would be doing until the cameras were rolling. On television, he came across as flustered and stiff when interacting with eye-rolling or stone-faced customers — hardly the image of the wealthy, self-assured executive.
“A lot of times, as a boss, you forget where you came from,” Sibella said in an interview after the episode aired Sunday. “You realize you’re not the smartest guy in the room, and that employees can advise you and get more credit for their work.”
At a public meeting in January, a Nevada gaming regulator — upset at a casino’s lack of employee oversight — pointed out that the heads of corporate-owned megaresorts rarely walk the floors of their properties and talk to employees.
Sibella said he aims to be different. Since filming the show last fall, he has made a point to walk into kitchens and other areas to greet his workers.
“You can’t get to know all 9,000 employees, but they should know who you are,” he said. “They just want to be acknowledged.”
While undercover, Sibella ran across some familiar conclusions about Las Vegas from his employees, including an admission by a front desk receptionist that she doesn’t like living here because it’s a difficult place to raise children. The receptionist, one of four employees profiled on the show, said she rarely gets to spend time with her husband because of their conflicting work schedules and is considering a move to Colorado.
Sibella, who has two teenagers and grew up in Las Vegas, told her he could relate. “Las Vegas is a Disneyland, but it’s more of a Disneyland for adults,” he said.
For those lucky to have jobs, Las Vegas still offers the opportunity for transformation. A Brooklyn-raised blackjack dealer assured his undercover boss that he would probably be in jail if not for the ability, as a tip earner, to provide for his family.
The show concluded with Sibella showering the four workers with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, trips and donations to favorite charities.
He also promised to upgrade the MGM Grand’s check-in reservations system after witnessing firsthand how slow it was and to install fans to blow smoke away from dealers — a common complaint on the gambling floor but one rarely delivered directly to a CEO on national television.
The giveaways made for good, game-show-style TV. They were a recognition of service — and an acknowledgment by higher-ups that delivering good customer service in tough times can be a special challenge, Sibella said.
“We’re always asking our employees not to forget that the customers who come here have their own problems and don’t want to deal with ours,” Sibella said. “That’s hard to do.”
On camera, one of the workers, Donn, a longtime roulette dealer and Vietnam veteran, summed it up this way: “It feels great not to be forgotten. Because I thought for a long time that we were.”