Sheldon Adelson: A legacy of greatness

In this special article, we look at the unrivaled story of the recently deceased historic industry leader, who has left an indelible mark in the casino sector, from Las Vegas and Pennsylvania to Macau and Singapore.

Adelson has truly embodied the personification of the fulfillment of the American Dream.
Adelson has truly embodied the personification of the fulfillment of the American Dream.

A lot has been said about the figure of Sheldon Adelson, casino mogul and Las Vegas Sands chairman and CEO who passed away on Monday, January 11th night at the age of 87. He died at his home in Malibu, California, United States, due to complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he had battled against since 2019. Without a doubt, he was a contradictory and fascinating man. He was recognized as a promoter for freedom and justice; an important philanthropist on health and education issues, but, at the same time, he was a strong supporter of the Republican Party, which endorses an elitist approach on political power, reluctant to accept minority rights and used to censorship and to reduce civil liberties. The funny thing is that Adelson had started as a Democrat of the first hour. Then he switched sides. His good relationship with people and his solidarity are also remembered, as well as his irritable mood, his fights with the press and the multiple legal proceedings he was involved in. Even though he was a visionary of land-based gaming, he also was a staunch opponent of online betting, a vertical that is constantly advancing at a global level. All that and much more was Adelson, one of the key names in the history of gambling in North America, Asia and the world. In this extensive article, G&M News reviews his life, his work and his ideas.

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO A SELF-MADE MAN

Sheldon Gary Adelson was born on August 4th, 1933, in Dorchester, Boston, U.S., during the Great Depression. His parents were Arthur Adelson (a cabdriver from Lithuania) and Sarah Tonkin (a seamstress from Wales). He had three siblings. This traditional Jewish family lived in a one-room tenement, and Sheldon used to sleep on the floor. When he was 12, he borrowed US$200 from an uncle and bought a license to sell newspapers on the street. He enrolled at the City College of New York to study business and finance, but later dropped out, joined the Army and served in the Korean War (19501-1953). After returning to the United States, he worked on Wall Street as a court stenographer and began trying his hand at a wide range of ventures, including mortgage brokering, financial advising and real estate investing. He also invested in a number of other companies. In the ‘60s, he had built and lost his fortune, always trying to take advantage of new business opportunities. In the ‘70s, he learnt about the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) sector. He quickly anticipated the emerging of the personal computers’ segment. That’s why, with partners Robert Lively and Richard Katzeff, he decided to organize the first tech trade show and called it Comdex (Computer Dealers Exhibition). The first edition was held in 1979 at the original MGM Grand, with 167 exhibitors and 3,904 attendees. Over time, Comdex became the largest convention Las Vegas had ever seen, with more than 200,000 attendees annually. Of course, his career could have been focused only on organizing events in the IT industry. In fact, Comdex was for years the largest event in the industry. However, in 1995, Adelson and his partners sold the Interface Group Show Division, including the Comdex show, to SoftBank Group of Japan for US$862 million. There he would begin his revolution in the world of casinos and hospitality.

INNOVATING WITH INTEGRATED RESORTS: FROM THE U.S. TO ASIA  

In fact, his entry into the sector had been a few years before 1995. In 1989, he and his partners had acquired the Sands Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. A year later, they inaugurated the Sands Expo and Convention Center. The company they founded was named Las Vegas Sands. In subsequent years, his visionary concept of attracting large-scale business events to luxurious resorts with plenty of dining and entertainment options paved the way for the city’s enduring dominance of the conference industry. The combination of a hotel and a close convention center was an innovative concept at the time, allowing thousands of guests to converge for business events during the day and enjoy the sights and attractions of Las Vegas when the meetings were done. But he decided to implode Sans Hotel in 1996, and build there The Venetian, a US$1.5 billion property opened in 1999. The Venetian became the Strip’s largest property with 3,000 suites. A 120,000-square foot (11,160 square meters) casino and 500,000 square foot shopping mall was attached to its 2.25 million square foot convention center. In 2004, Adelson took the Venetian’s parent company public: Las Vegas Sands Inc. became Las Vegas Sands Corp. Then, in 2007, he launched The Palazzo next door to The Venetian, integrating the two hotels and convention center into a resort replete with more than 7,000 luxury suites. That model has since been copied on the Strip, with meeting and convention spaces, and their supporting infrastructure, dominating Strip construction in recent years. Outside Nevada, in May 2009, Adelson opened the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, which overtook New Jersey as the gaming center of the Eastern United States. A decade later, in 2019, the property was sold for US$1.3 billion to Wind Creek Hospitality, an affiliate of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama.

In parallel, he saw the potential of a swampy area of land off the Macau Peninsula, in Asia, close to China. Las Vegas Sands seized that opportunity when Macao, a former Portuguese colony, was returned to the Government of mainland China in 1999. In 2002, three casino concessions were granted. Adelson was not put off by critics that said a resort in Macau would be a huge waste of money, a terrible failure. As the first U.S. company to enter the casino market in Macau, he opened the Sands Macao in 2004 and, then, The Venetian Macao in 2007 (with a US$2.7 billion invest), an even more elaborate version of his Las Vegas property and the world’s largest casino. The Sands Macao resort was so successful that its first-year profits exceeded the US$240 million construction cost of the project. The company’s Asian building boom continued in the years following, with the Plaza Macao opening in 2008, the Sands Cotai Central in 2012, and the Parisian Macao in 2016. Additionally, the company built the US$5.6 billion Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, opening the dazzling resort with a park and an infinity pool stretched atop three towers in 2010, at a cost of nearly US$6 billion. By that time, no one was laughing at Adelson’s Asian adventure anymore. He had transformed an unknown Asian place in the world’s leading casino destination, far surpassing by seven times the Las Vegas Strip’s gaming revenue.

HIS PHILANTROPIC ROLE AND HIS POLITICAL AGENDA

Besides a very successful entrepreneur, Adelson was also a passionate philanthropist. With his wife Miriam, they opened their first drug abuse clinic in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1993. In 2000, the Adelsons launched the ‘Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment and Research’ in Las Vegas, U.S., to help treat addiction to opioids and other substances. In 2006, they created the ‘Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation,’ which has funded hundreds of millions of dollars in groundbreaking research on treatments for cancer, neurological disorders and other diseases. In 2007, the couple established the ‘Adelson Family Foundation’ to “strengthen the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” according to its website. Major donations through the Foundation have included US$50 million for the ‘Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus,’ their private school in Summerlin; US$65 million to the medical research branch; and more than US$400 million to Birthright Israel, which finances free educational visits to Israel for Jewish teens and young adults. Previously, in 2006, the Adelsons donated US$25 million to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, which was the largest private donation in its history.

In terms of politics, he became one of United States’ most influential political mega donors, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to Republican candidates and conservative political action committees (PACs) over the past two decades. Adelson’s political influence did not stop at U.S. borders. He was widely considered the most generous and most influential contributor to Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to win a fourth term as Israel’s prime minister in 2015. Moreover, the Adelsons were strong advocates for U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump did both, and the Adelsons were present when the new U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem in 2018. In general terms, Adelson has helped strengthen bonds between Israel, the U.S. and the Jewish diaspora.

FAMILY, FAME AND FORTUNE

During the 1970s, Adelson lived in Massachusetts with his first wife, Sandra, and her three children, Mitchell, Gary, and Shelley, whom Sheldon adopted when they were young. The couple divorced in 1988. Then, Adelson met Miriam Farbstein Ochshorn, a medical doctor, on a blind date. They married in Israel in 1991. She had two daughters from a previous marriage. Dr. Adelson specializes in anti-addiction treatment and has been active in clinics in Israel and the U.S. Besides Gary and Shelley (Mitchell died in 2005 for drug overdose), Adelson had two sons, Adam and Matan Adelson, two daughters, Sivan Dumont (and son-in-law Patrick Dumont) and Yasmin Lukatz, and 11 grandchildren.

About his fame and global recognition, after his death (and also during his life), he was praised by the whole gaming industry. One of his last achievements was to help bringing the National Football League (NFL) to Las Vegas. He struck the initial partnership with Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis in 2016 that laid the groundwork for the team’s 2020 move to Vegas.

The gaming sector has given many qualifications to his figure. He has been called “a visionary, a pioneer, a hero, one of the greatest, most generous businessmen in history, an American patriot, a great Nevadan, a titan, a brilliant gaming giant who helped shape modern Las Vegas and employed thousands of families for decades, a benefactor of charitable causes, a strong supporter of Israel.” Adelson has been celebrated for his “exceptional vision and commitment to success, his ambition, the generosity of his spirit, his leadership, tenacity and business acumen, his hard work and good ideas.” He was instrumental in transforming Las Vegas into the iconic destination it is today. His vision of Vegas as a premier business destination had a dramatic impact, as other resorts adopted this new model. He also left an indelible impact on Asia, where he brought Las Vegas-style resorts to people in the Far East, helping to build the thriving international gaming market that exists there now. Moreover, he always took care of his employees and recognized they were the important backbone of his gaming business. For instance, after the Coronavirus pandemic forced Nevada casinos to shutter in March 2020, Adelson continued providing full pay and benefits to all 10,000 Las Vegas Sands Corp. employees and the 1,200 employees working in the resorts’ 14 independently operated restaurants throughout the closure.

By the end of his life, he had amassed over 50 companies. He was a self-made billionaire who ranked No. 19 on the Forbes 400 and was the 38th-richest American (also according to Forbes), with assets estimated at US$35.1 billion at the time of his death. On the last days, he was remembered by world leaders, colleagues and gaming industry executives, such as Donald Trump (current US President); Mike Pence (US Vice President); George W. Bush (former US President); Benjamin Netanyahu (Prime Minister of Israel); Steve Sisolak (Nevada Governor); Nicole Cannizzaro (Nevada Senate Majority Leader); John T. Moran Jr. (Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission); Carolyn Goodman (Las Vegas Mayor); different representatives and senators from the U.S. Congress; Bill Hornbuckle (CEO and President at MGM Resorts International); Jan Jones Blackhurst (Caesars Entertainment Inc. board member); Jim Murren (former Chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International); Marilyn Spiegel (President of Wynn Las Vegas and Encore); and Tom Reeg (CEO of Caesars Entertainment Inc.), among many others.

About his death, Bill Miller, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said: “Sheldon Adelson’s passing is a tremendous loss to the gaming community. Mr. Adelson, founder and chairman of Las Vegas Sands, was a true visionary and pioneer of modern casino gaming for more than three decades. From Las Vegas and Pennsylvania to Macau and Singapore, his mark is indelible. I had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Adelson for more than 15 years, long before joining the American Gaming Association. It is his leadership and generosity that stand out the most to me. There’s no greater example of this than serving his community and prioritizing his employees’ well-being during the last year, as our country and industry grappled with the global pandemic.”

For his part, Gary Carano, Executive Chairman of Caesars Entertainment Inc.’s Board of Directors, commented: “There are but few men like Sheldon Adelson in this world. Few have the tenacity and the opportunity to shape industries and communities. Sheldon had those in spades. A Las Vegas visionary, an international business magnate, and a passionate philanthropist, Sheldon leaves a legacy of determination, acuity, and generosity. His impact in Nevada and around the world will reverberate for years to come.”

IN HIS OWN WORDS

Finally, G&M News wants to honor and recall Adelson by transcribing some of his own opinions and ideas.

About his company

“The opening of The Venetian in 1999 was the real beginning of our company’s story, and it also launched a new era of integrated resort development around the world. The Venetian’s success in Las Vegas and, particularly, our convention-based business strategy would end up being the basis for our company receiving coveted licenses in Macau and Singapore.”

About motivation

“I never thought about becoming wealthy. It never crossed my mind. What really motivated me was to try to accomplish something.”

About being an entrepreneur

“Risk is reward, and reward is risk. You cannot be an entrepreneur if you don’t take risks. If you fall down, be determined to get back up and keep on trying.”

About changing the status quo

“People doubted me because people just didn’t do what I would do. Nobody thought about doing it the way I did. They were satisfied with the status quo, and I’m never satisfied with the status quo. You have to challenge the status quo, you have to change the status quo. I came to learn that if you do things differently, if you change the status quo in any business, success will follow you like a shadow. So that’s what I did.”