Monday, Feb. 6, 2006 | 12:33 p.m.
Looking over bank records recently, Las Vegas developer Brett Torino asked his staff about a seemingly minor charge on one of his statements.
"I have more than $5 million in this bank, so why are they charging me $3 for something called a noncheck safe keep fee?" he asked several staff members.
No one knew.
Asked if a $3 charge should be such a point of contention, Torino said: "The day you stop asking these questions in business someone will eat your lunch."
With that attitude, he made his first million dollars by age 27.
And that attitude will take him to the Strip. He and his partners bought 1 million shares of Riviera Holding Co. common stock, or 9 percent - and he has aspirations of becoming a player on Las Vegas Boulevard.
But Torino is hardly the stereotypical developer. He calls himself "unorthodox."
Torino, 48, wears his long black hair in a ponytail that hangs down to his lower back. He eats a strict vegetarian diet, sleeps three hours a night and gets up at 1 a.m. to spend two hours in the gym.
He lives in a 1,300-square-foot home in Spanish Trail, collects muscle cars but drives a Volkswagen Turbo Beetle and has established a summer camp for terminally ill and abused kids.
Mark William Garrity, chief executive officer of Human Dynamics Inc., a firm that represents management in labor talks with unions, says one reason his friend inspires such loyalty is that he has "not lost touch with human issues."
"Although Brett has amassed much wealth and power he has essentially remained a real human being," Garrity said. "At a young age, Brett actually enjoyed what he was doing and discovered that you could make money, be a good person and have fun."
At age 17, Torino graduated from Palos Verdes High School in Southern California and then moved to Las Vegas where he landed construction jobs, primarily home additions and porches, while attending college.
Soon Torino was purchasing run-down homes that he renovated and sold for small profits and was investing in real estate.
Torino, who has a bachelor's degree in business finance from UNLV, built his fortune primarily by constructing eight-plex condos - his "bread and butter" - in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Southern California.
He built a 600-unit condo project on what was in the early 1990s a remote Blue Diamond Road and "people were telling me I was crazy. I just felt I was gutsy."
In two decades he has built shopping centers, malls, recreational vehicle parks and more than 10,000 condominiums throughout the Southwest, but Torino says he attributes much of his success today to a life-changing experience in 2000.
The pressure of having so many irons in the fire took its toll, causing him to fear that one day his painstakingly built business empire would suddenly come tumbling down.
"I'd go to bed at night scared to death," he said. "The anxiety made me ill. Then I woke up one day and realized that the past 18 years had gone by in a flash.
"I really started to take stock of myself personally and professionally. I wanted a new level of consciousness. I began to read more and study my diet and the planet. I made profound changes in my life."
Those changes included becoming a strict vegetarian - two of his daily meals are juices made from beets and other vegetables - and a renewed sense of confidence.
"I have an appetite for risk because I know how to manage risk," Torino said. "The Strip is great. Gaming in Las Vegas is fun and exciting. I definitely want to be a part of it."
Torino's partners in the Riviera stock buy include Barry Sternlicht, former chief executive of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide; and Chicago real estate executive and casino investor Neil Bluhm. They bought from Riviera Holdings Chief Executive Bill Westerman in December and they have an option to purchase another million shares.
He wouldn't say what their plans are, but he said he would not "feel that my career was as complete as it should have been if I don't get into gaming."
"I am looking for real estate investments on and off the Strip," Torino said. "I am looking for global opportunities."
Torino, though, has looked at other opportunities as well.
In 2005 he sold 120 acres surrounding his 40-acre Lovell Canyon ranch in the Spring Mountains to prevent development of that land.
Torino, who has never married and has no children, does not live at his ranch, but provides it free of charge to Camp Sunshine, a summer camp for hundreds of local terminally ill or abused and neglected children.
His latest plans for the camp include building a $2 million activities facility with treatment rooms and an old-fashioned carousel.
In the early 1990s, Torino created Opportunity Village's multimillion-light Magical Forest Christmas display, which at the time was free to the public. This past November, he created a similar free display called Christmastyme in a lower-income North Las Vegas neighborhood.
Torino's charitable organization, the Torino Foundation, also is a founder of the Nevada Cancer Institute. His father, Frank, died of cancer on Thanksgiving Day 1995.
"When it comes to charity work, giving money is not enough," Torino said. "You have to give of yourself and you have to give until it hurts."
Torino's longtime friend and workout pal David Collings, owner of Collings Interiors, a local interior design business, said Torino is strong physically and mentally.
"This is a man who operates at a world class athletic level in his business and personal life," Collings said. "He lives his lifestyle 365 days a year, feeding his mind and educating himself. You won't find a more disciplined individual."
About nine hours after asking his staff about the $3 charge on his bank statement, he told a staff member to arrange a meeting with bank officials.
"The more I think about it," he said, heading out to catch a 7 p.m. flight to Los Angeles for a late meeting, "I'm going to talk to them about not only removing that $3 charge but also all other similar charges for the last two years."
Ed Koch can be reached at 259-4090 or at [email protected]