Tuesday, March 2, 2004 | 8:42 a.m.
Fred Benninger made his name in business and gaming by working long hours and knowing how to crunch the numbers to make projects successful.
His enduring work ethic was instilled in him by his father, a Bavarian cattle herder who put Fred in the field at age 7 to round up strays. When his family lost their land during the European Depression, they immigrated to New York City where 11-year-old Fred worked on street corners as a shoeshine boy.
Benninger's skill at scanning a company's financial records to determine if it was a winning investment was honed when he was a young bookkeeper in New York and later as a certified public accountant at the national accountancy firm of Arthur Andersen & Co., in California.
Benninger, a soft-spoken, unassuming businessman who served as the guiding force behind the growth of the world's largest hotel-casino company built by gaming legend Kirk Kerkorian, died Sunday. He was 86.
Benninger, who with Kerkorian purchased the Flamingo in the late 1960s and later built the International and MGM hotels -- today called the Las Vegas Hilton and Bally's -- died in Las Vegas of an apparent heart attack, friends said, noting he previously had been diagnosed with cancer.
Kerkorian and Benninger also bought and operated Western Airlines and the MGM Film Co., which today is MGM/United Artists, in the 1970s.
Benninger had retired as chairman and chief executive officer of the old MGM Grand Hotels Inc. in April 1982, but he served as a board member for MGM MIRAGE until his death.
Funeral services will be private, an MGM MIRAGE spokeswoman said, noting that a public memorial service is pending.
"Las Vegas has lost one of its rocks -- a man of integrity and honesty," said longtime gaming figure Burton Cohen, who before becoming president of the old Desert Inn was president of the Flamingo when Benninger was its chairman.
"Mr. Kerkorian relied on Fred to analyze the figures and oversee their projects."
Cohen, who shared a Las Vegas office with Benninger for the last nine years, said Benninger was primarily responsible for bringing the International and first MGM high-rise construction projects in on time and under budget.
Benninger, Cohen said, played an even more remarkable role in helping to rebuild the first MGM following the November 1980 fire that killed 85 people and injured hundreds.
"Fred was a driving force in getting it back in operation (in July 1981), and he helped get a number of the lawsuits settled," Cohen said."Fred never sought the limelight for all that he accomplished. He felt that fame was for others, but not for him."
Terry Lanni, chairman and chief executive officer of MGM MIRAGE, called Benninger a pioneer and one of his mentors in the gaming industry.
"I do not know of another person in his position who had so many varied responsibilities -- running airlines, being the head of a movie studio, overseeing a gaming company -- he was amazingly versatile," Lanni said of Benninger, whom he last saw at last Tuesday's board meeting.
"Fred had the ability to focus on the important issues and the details of those issues with great insight and a tremendous memory. Right to the end he was sharp. But as detailed as he was, Fred never lost sight of the big picture which was the growth and development of Las Vegas and how to respond to it.
"He was a very important part of what MGM MIRAGE has become."
Born March 20, 1917, in Gunsburg, Germany, Benninger was the youngest of 13 children. Impoverished, the family immigrated to the United States in 1928.
While putting himself through New York University, Benninger worked for a while as a bookkeeper before moving to California where he graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor of science degree in accounting in 1941. He became a certified public accountant for Arthur Andersen & Co.
During World War II, Benninger served in the Army Air Corps, developing an interest in aviation and rising to the rank of a captain. After the war, he returned to Arthur Andersen where his first assignment was auditing the relatively new Flying Tiger Airlines.
In 1946, Benninger became comptroller for that airline. For 22 years, he not only oversaw the books, but also took part in airline adventures. In the late 1940s, he was part of a team that went on dangerous missions transporting Jews who were displaced by the war to their new homeland of Israel.
In the early 1960s, Benninger was befriended by rival airline executive and future billionaire Kerkorian. The two formed International Leisure Corp., which bought the Flamingo on the Strip in 1967 and built the International.
In 1971, the two casino properties were sold to the Hilton corporation and Benninger became chairman and chief executive officer of MGM Grand Hotels Inc.
Kerkorian and Benninger then bought Western Airlines and the MGM Film Co. In both instances, Kerkorian appointed Benninger chairman. Kerkorian and Benninger were inspired by the 1930s' film classic "Grand Hotel" to build and open MGM Grands in Las Vegas in 1973 and in Reno in 1978.
While Benninger was known for working 12-hour days, he also enjoyed off-time activities that included journeying to the Arctic Circle for a day of fishing. However, he passed on taking lengthy vacations that would keep him from his work for too long.
"The first thing I am going to do is take advantage of 40 years of vacation due me," Benninger told a Sun reporter in March 1982 when announcing his plans to retire from his then-$432,000-a-year MGM chairman post. "It's time to lay around and draw some years of Social Security."
But during retirement, Benninger was far from idle. He attended local social events and remained close to MGM operations. A month after he retired as MGM chairman, Benninger was named president of Tracinda Corp., Kerkorian's investment company. He held that post until 1986.
Benninger served on the old MGM Grand board until 1991 and has been a member of the MGM MIRAGE board since 1991, serving as its audit committee chairman.
Benninger's survivors include his wife of 58 years, Esther Benninger of Las Vegas, a son Tom and a daughter Christine.
The family said donations can be made in Fred Benninger's memory to the Nevada Cancer Institute, attention Jennifer Haley, 10000 W. Charleston Blvd., Suite 260, Las Vegas, NV 89135.