Thursday, November 17, 2005
It's the golden hour in Las Vegas, the late afternoon time when the sun folds its hand, casting one final glow over the desert city before being overtaken by mountaintops and glistening neon lights.
Fresh off a six-hole golf fix in sweltering 106-degree weather, Don Barden seems to enjoy the serenity of the moment. He takes a long drag off an expensive cigar as his smoke-filled limo rolls along U.S. 95, the city's main drag, and his "baby" comes into sight.
It's been a little more than two years now since the businessman from Detroit came to the city of big gamblers and took perhaps one of the biggest gambles of his life. And no matter how many times (or in what light) he sees the brick-and-steel-and-glass fruits of his labor, the 60-year-old soft-spoken man is still taken aback by the guts, glory and magnitude of it all.
"There she is, the tallest building in downtown Las Vegas," Barden says with pride, pointing at the 34-story Fitzgeralds Casino Hotel that he rescued from bankruptcy in 2001 and turned into the centerpiece of Barden Gaming, a chain of four casinos that, he projects, will soon earn a billion dollars in annual revenue. "I was quite amazed. In fact, I was in awe when I first saw it. I said, 'My goodness. I own that.' it feels great ... I'm very pleased with the acquisition. And I feel really blessed to have had this opportunity."
The story of the first African-American to own a major casino in Las Vegas is a story of hard work and vision, born in poverty and nourished by the strength of family. It was in the rural town of Inkster, Mich., that these two forces converged to build the character and intuition that would guide the ninth child in that family on a history-making journey.
"We were poor," he says of the shotgun house, 13 kids strong, headed by a father who was a factory worker and shade-tree mechanic. "We raised our own vegetables, our own animals. Chickens. Hogs. We used to plow our gardens by donkey. We knew we didn't have much, so what we had we appreciated. We were taught family values growing up, the values of respect for other people, respect for your neighbor, respect for elders. We were taught to be honest and believe in God. All these principles are the foundation of the kind of character that I possess today. They give me the drive and the spirit to want to succeed."
Mike Darley, Fitzgeralds' vice president and general manager, has worked for heavyweights like Donald Trump. He says what separates Barden from other corporate giants is his "great insight. It's like he looks into a crystal ball and sees the future. I've never seen anything like it."
But even a homegrown sixth sense couldn't help Barden--who purchased Fitzgeralds only three months after the 9-11 attack--foresee the ultimate impact that event would have on the gaming industry, particularly in a high-profile place like Las Vegas. But it didn't stop him from pulling the trigger on the three-casino Fitzgeralds deal, paying $149 million--$14 million of his own money--for the properties. "That was scary," he says. "It was kind of risky. But we were so far along in the deal, and got it for such a good price, that we went ahead with it."
The gamble paid off. Fresh off $4 million in renovations (including new carpet, slot machines, wallpaper) and a change in management to focus on improved customer service, Fitzgeralds enjoyed double-digit growth last year.
Barden splits his time between the Detroit headquarters of Barden Companies and his casinos--which include Fitzgeralds casinos in Vegas, Tunica, Miss., and Black Hawk, Colo., as well as the 40,000-square-foot casino cruise ship outside Chicago in Gary, Ind. Named the Majestic Star, the $50 million vessel, which Barden purchased in 1995, marked his entry into the gaming industry.
Barden says that he would like to double the size of his company every five years for the next 10 years at least. He is looking to expand to new locations, such as Pennsylvania, and he is hoping to get a license in Detroit, a city that, in a controversial decision under a former mayor, rejected his proposal for one of the three gaming licenses awarded six years ago. The Detroit casinos are worth more than $1 billion each today, and Barden has neither forgiven nor forgotten. "Detroit will always hurt," he says, "because I am based there ... When you have Black people in control--not that they have to give you something because you're Black but because you're qualified, because you're one of the biggest taxpayers in the city and because you're the only Black in the bidding with the money and the expertise--you are disappointed when you're not given the opportunity to demonstrate that Blacks can perform on a professional basis like anyone else."
If he's not successful in opening a gaming operation in Detroit, Barden hasn't ruled out the possibility of moving his headquarters out of the Motor City. "I have to live where I have the most business," he says. "However, I am still hoping that something will happen for us to justify staying in Detroit. I was born in Detroit, I love the city."
But while he will always call the Midwest home, Barden says that Vegas is his kind of town. That much is evident later that evening, when he sheds his golf attire, dons an Italian black suit with gold pinstripes and takes to the casino floor. He's got the walk of a casino boss--and the charisma to match. As he makes his way through the crowd, passing a blackjack table, someone yells out, "Mr. B." Around the next turn, a White woman with a cigarette in one hand and a cup half-filled with dollar coins in the other gives him an unexpected hug. Then a man bent over the craps table reaches out to shake his hand. "I didn't know a Black man owned this casino," one Sister, sitting at a slot machine, says to another Sister trying her luck. "Well, at least I'm giving my money to a Brother," she quips.
Barden says some of the customers who come to Fitzgeralds don't know that the Irish-themed casino is actually owned by an African-American, although there is a life-sized photo of him at the entrance. "If they don't know when they get here, they usually know before they leave," says Barden, who indicated that he may change the name of the casino one day. "The fact that I am Black hasn't hurt our business. We get a lot of people who come to visit our casino because I am Black."
The majority of Fitzgeralds' customers are White. "Not that we planned it that way, that's just the way it is. It's the demographics of our client base," he says. "I would love it if most of my customers were African-Americans. I can think of cases like Detroit ... where the majority of the costumers are African-American, those casinos make more money than is typically the case in a casino. We show our appreciation to our customers, whoever they are and wherever they are from."
While to his patrons the only color that seems to matter is green, to the movers and shakers of Las Vegas, there continues to be an old-boy system in place that makes it difficult for outsiders, particularly Blacks, to get in on the action. "But those walls are constantly crumbling," says Barden, who employs 3,400 people, more than half of whom are minorities. "And in fact, since we entered the Vegas market, you see more African-Americans being promoted because of the pressure and example that we are setting. They are being promoted to management positions that were not available to them in the past. Many are being paid better because we have set the standard of fairness and compensation for executives."
It's a business philosophy that grew out of working several jobs--from a laborer for a moving company to a plumber's assistant. It wasn't until after he finished college and started working in the mailroom at a shipbuilding company in Cleveland that he realized that there were other ways, outside of physical labor, to make a living. Within two years, he was promoted four times, from the mailroom to assistant to company president. "I knew then I wanted to be rewarded for my intelligence, as well as my physical labor," he says. "I wanted to control my own destiny. So that's when I knew I wanted to be a businessman."
In Cleveland, he saved his money and made his first venture into entrepreneurship, renting an eight-room house for $300 a month. He turned around and rented out each room for $100 a month to transient workers. "I made money, and that got me hooked on real estate," he says. "It was one area where I could make money while I slept."
From there, he formed a real estate development company, and began renting office buildings, clinics, houses; whatever he figured was a good investment. He later served as city councilman, and even became involved in the media, doing some radio work and television reporting. At one point, he owned a small newspaper. "I was very familiar with communications," says Barden, who attended Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. "So in the mid '70s, when I saw that this new industry was coming called 'cable television,' I thought it would be a good business for me to be in. It was a mainstream business, with low barriers to entry, and a high opportunity to grow."
He moved back to Detroit, and thanks to the help he received from the city's legendary Mayor Coleman Young and many financial backers, was able to start Barden Cablevision. But after a successful eight-year run, which saw his service sign up 120,000 subscribers and expand throughout much of Detroit and some suburbs, Barden began to get squeezed by major cable companies that were able to buy their programming at a discount rate. He eventually sold his company to Comcast Cable in 1994 for more than $100 million, which made him a wealthy man and made the investors in his company a nice sum of money.
That same year he was awarded a license for an Indiana riverboat casino. He has since focused most of his energy in the gaming industry, although he still has business in real estate, and even has a company in Namibia, Africa, that converts General Motors cars from left-hand drive to right. "If I can make a profit, if I can operate it and grow it, if it is something I can get into utilizing my existing infrastructure, such as my banking relationships and the people in my organization, then nothing is off limits," Barden says.
Married to wife Bella, Barden has a son and daughter. While he won't force them to follow his footsteps into the gaming industry, he says he will stress becoming a business owner to his children. "I'm a strong believer in African-Americans being in business and generating jobs for other people, helping with the economy and creating wealth," Barden says.
Later that night, relaxing with a few top staffers over dinner in the casino's fine-dining restaurant, Barden reflects on how far he has come. While he says a lot of people helped him along the way, including bankers, politicians, and the like, he gives much of the credit for his success to his father, Milton Barden Sr., who died in 1986, and his mother, Hortense Barden, who passed away four years later. One of his proudest moments was the look in his mother's eyes as she watched him starting his cable company. "She saw my new home. She witnessed my cable system. Unfortunately, my father died three months before I started the cable business. But he knew that I was well on my way," he says. "I often think about him, even today, about all of the things he taught me, the kind of role model he was, the kind of example he set for all of his kids. He was very proud of me."
As he prepares to retire to the Chairman's Suite for the night before jetting back to Detroit the next morning, Don Barden's venture into uncharted territory continues. But perhaps more than being one of the top Black businessmen in the country, and breaking Las Vegas' long-standing color barrier at the top, or earning a billion dollars in annual revenue from gamblers trying their luck at blackjack, poker or slots, one gets the impression that it would mean more to Barden to simply be compared favorably to his father. For while the factory worker and shade-tree mechanic didn't teach Barden much about business, his integrity, work ethic and devotion to his family--13 kids strong--were crystal balls that taught child No. 9 everything he needed to know about life.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group