May 08, 2007

By Paul Feinberg

Steve WynnFor the second consecutive year - and for the fourth time in five years - UCLA Anderson hosted the renowned PBS program "CEO Exchange." In each episode, two influential chief executives pair up for a lively discussion of topical issues. The show is hosted by CBS News' Jeff Greenfield, and broadcasts from the campus of one of the nation's top business schools. In this latest UCLA Anderson-hosted edition, "CEO Exchange" brought together Steve Wynn, chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, Limited, and Terry Semel, former chairman and CEO of Yahoo!.

"Betting on Big Ideas: How Taking Risks Can Reap Rewards" was taped in the Ralph Freud Playhouse. The studio audience included Anderson students, faculty and friends, including Robert Townsend, CEO and president of Black Family Channel productions. "'CEO Exchange' is one of my favorite shows," Townsend said. "I'm running a network and I like to see and hear how businesses are run." Click here to watch the episode (Windows Media).

Wynn and Semel each took their turn at center stage, as Greenfield moderated the conversation. Content emphasized how each executive developed his individual corporate and leadership strategies. Wynn recollected that he decided to enter the hospitality business as a teenager, when his family vacationed at Miami Beach's famed Fountainbleu Hotel. "It's good to be king," he recalled thinking as he observed the hotel manager at age 16 - a thought that proved an uncanny premonition. Semel, by contrast, was an accountant by training, who entered the film business as a salesman by chance - ultimately ascending to co-CEO of Warner Bros. (along with Robert Daly).

Terry SemelPassion was key to the success of both men. Wynn's passion for service and luxury accommodations transformed Las Vegas. He said gambling was not the key to the city's renaissance and intimated that, if anything, a reliance on gambling made it easy for Las Vegas hoteliers not to offer much more to their clientele. It was his belief that guests wanted fine dining and shopping - even great art to view - and that gambling would always be there for those who chose to partake.

For Semel, passion was how he and co-chair Daly managed to run a studio together, with nary a public disagreement. "We decided early on that any time there was a big decision to make, we would make it alone in a room," Semel said. "We'd make easy decisions in front of the staff. And when we disagreed on something, passion ruled between the two of us." Semel explained that the partner most passionate would get his way, even if the other disagreed. The key to making that formula work? Once a decision was made, the dissenting party helped the other to achieve success. "There was no jealousy between us," Semel said.

Later in the show, Semel and Wynn - who happen to be close friends away from their respective offices - joined Greenfield in conversation. The pair discussed how even after all of their career achievements, they needed the risk of new challenges. For Wynn, it was the sale of his Las Vegas Strip hotels and subsequent purchase of the Desert Inn, a property he turned into his latest and grandest Wynn resort. Semel stepped down as chief of Warner Bros., then stepped into an entirely new realm as head of Internet giant Yahoo! He left Yahoo! in June, 2007.

At one point, Semel recounted how he had to adjust to the Internet-lifestyle: conducting business from a cubicle, dining in the company cafeteria and foregoing a personal parking space. Naturally, this contrasted greatly with the "image-is-essential" world of Hollywood. It also contrasts with the flashy world of Las Vegas, with Wynn drawing big laughs when he noted that he'd "never give up my parking spot."

Even at this stage of their careers, both men prove patient, continuing to negotiate their businesses into the future. Wynn - who is studying Mandarin - told the MBA candidates in attendance that China "will be the overwhelming force in your lifetime" and that learning a new language and doing business in a different culture "makes me feel young again."

Semel, whose career shift was perhaps more profound, still takes the long view. "I don't see business as a one day scorecard," he said. "We always try to think three years ahead. I was trained to think long term, never quarter to quarter to quarter. If we're creating value, it's long-term value."

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