Downtown’s D-finitive personality: Derek Stevens moving full speed ahead

Derek Stevens, CEO of Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, offers a toast during the opening ceremony of the casino’s expansion, Friday Sept. 1, 2017.

Walk into the D on any given night, and odds are good that you’ll find Derek Stevens there.

He’ll be the big guy at the Long Bar, possibly buying a drink for a new acquaintance and likely wearing a jacket designed to make it impossible for you to miss him. It may be a color you’d normally see on a muscle car, or maybe two-tone, or maybe with lapels as wide as the mouth of a martini glass.

Stevens and his brother Greg own the D, as well as the Golden Gate, the Downtown Events Center and the property that once was home to the Las Vegas Club, Mermaids and Glitter Gulch, which are being razed for a new project.

He’s been hanging out on the D’s casino floor routinely since the place rebranded in 2012. But anyone who sees him as a party guy who happens to own a casino isn’t looking beyond his loud jacket.

Stevens is a face-forward, hands-on operator whose visits to the casino floor come after handling back-of-house business during the day. His purpose at the Long Bar isn’t just to socialize: it’s partly promotional and partly to get feedback he’s not likely to see in suggestion boxes.

“It never ceases to amaze me how much terrific feedback various customers can give you,” he said. “You can only do so many things in a day, but a customer may tell you, ‘Hey, this was going on in the parking garage,’ or, ‘I saw this billboard when I was driving in from California.’

“And all those little bits tell you something. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, that billboard we bought by Bakersfield (Calif.), I guess that's working.’”

Stevens’ approach echoes that of some of the most iconic casino operators in Las Vegas history, who used their personalities to help brand their businesses. Think Benny Binion and the Horseshoe or Jackie Gaughan at El Cortez.

In many Las Vegas casinos, you’ll bump into the owner about as often as you’ll see Elvis. At the D, not only can you chat informally with Stevens, you can enter drawings with names like “Win Derek’s Dodge Challenger.”

Hailing from Detroit (which, along with his first name, was the basis of the D’s name), Stevens also has established a significant social media presence and boosted his profile by placing a number of high-stakes sports bets on University of Michigan and Michigan State University teams.

Stevens sat down with VEGAS INC to discuss his style, his assessment of the Las Vegas economy and what he’s learned about doing business in Las Vegas since buying the Golden Gate in 2006. Edited excerpts follow:

Looking out two or five years, do you see yourself acquiring more property downtown?

When I first got here in 2006 and bought the Golden Gate, I always had an aspiration to grow the business.

We purchased what was Fitzgeralds in 2011 and then in 2012 we rebranded to the D. And a couple of years ago we purchased the old Clark County courthouse and turned that into the Downtown Events Center.

So at all times, I love to have operating business, I love to have businesses that are going through a refresh and a rebrand, and I love starting businesses.

We're just a couple of years in at the events center, which is a big element of our focus here at this point, then we're actively working on project No. 4, which is the old Las Vegas Club and Mermaids and Glitter Gulch site.

We've been working on its design for about 15 months. We'll get it demolished by the end of February, and then we have another eight months or so of doing design, construction drawings, things like that, and we'll go from there.

If I come here in two years and go to the Las Vegas Club site, what will I see?

I can tell you you're going to see something new and unique, and something that's going to be great for Las Vegas.

We're still working through all the elements of the design. But it's going to be a great new hotel/resort and something we're really looking forward to.

You make yourself very visible. How much of that is you having fun versus marketing strategy?

I'm fortunate that I enjoy being down on the casino floor. I love meeting our hotel guests, I love buying them a drink and I love the fact that people that come to Las Vegas have such a great level of excitement.

At the same point, not only do I like doing it but I get to learn a lot.

It never ceases to amaze me how much terrific feedback various customers can give you. You can only do so many things in a day, but a customer may tell you, “Hey, this was going on in the parking garage,” or, “I saw this billboard when I was driving in from California.” And all those little bits tell you something. Like, "Oh, yeah, that billboard we bought by Bakersfield (Calif.), I guess that's working."

Did you model yourself on any of the iconic downtown casino owners?

No, I'm just pretty much the way I am. I view all those guys, from Jackie Gaughan to Benny Binion, Bill Boyd, Steve Wynn, those are the big boys. I'm just a normal guy down here.

But if you study the history of Las Vegas, you can learn a lot from those guys. There were so many great ideas that these guys had. I'm very respectful of the history of the town, and of all these guys did and how they added to Las Vegas.

Would you have done anything differently knowing what you know now?

With the amount of crazy stuff we try, certainly.

But we're not afraid of striking out. That's the one thing about having a privately held company: My brother and I are the two owners, and I have what I consider to be a great operational team.) I really try to push the culture of not being afraid of trying something.

There are probably too many items to list — all the things we screwed up — but we've had a few good ones along the way too.

What are you proud of?

In retrospect, there couldn't have been a better time to land in Vegas. I got to see all this great heyday from the 1990s and early 2000s, and then in 2008 the world economy crashed.

But being able to live through that, and then to see this great entrepreneurial spirit that came to downtown — that’s been great to watch.

What advice would you have for someone just starting in business in Las Vegas?

The most important thing is just to show up. I say that to all my young guys. Forty hours a week is not a workweek to me. That's part-time. I like my guys here 60, 70, 80 hours a week — you can accelerate your experience; you can accelerate your learning.

So we develop a culture with people who are here a lot. We generally all like each other, which is a critical element when we spend most of our waking hours together? I really like having a culture where you can get a text 24 hours a day.

What's your advice for someone who might have a product or service and is interested in working with the Las Vegas casino industry?

Persistence is the key element. You’ve got to bring something to the table that's either higher quality or lower cost, and it has to be different, unique or better.

In our company, we are relentlessly focused on continuous improvement. That's paramount to us, at every level. A new business person has got to be able to the come to the table with something that is bigger, faster, higher-quality, lower-cost. You've got to be able to break through and make the customer really want to buy your product or service.

Speaking of innovation, you were one of the early adopters of bitcoin. How’s that experiment going for you?

It passed the experimental stage for us a couple of years ago. This has been great for our business. We talked with the Gaming Control Board about accepting bitcoin, which we now accept at our restaurants and our hotel. Once we established that, we brought in a bitcoin ATM.

So for us, it's not as if we're taking the currency or fluctuation risk. We've utilized it to allow people to use bitcoin, because there was a substantial amount of people who had bitcoin (but) had an inability to actually use it.

Do you see yourself expanding to the Strip someday?

I've made investments on the Strip before. We owned 11-12 percent of the Riviera, which we ended up selling to the Las Vegas Convention Center. And I own some stock in some of the companies on the Strip.

Sometimes people ask, "How do you compete (with the Strip)?" Well, we don't compete. What downtown does is complementary for all of Las Vegas, in the same sense I think T-Mobile is complementary of everyone in Las Vegas, whether you're on the Strip or downtown. I think TopGolf is complementary. There are just so many things.

Gaming numbers and room occupancies show downtown on a nice run. What are the keys to that, and do you see it continuing?

I'm bullish on Las Vegas as a whole, and I'm certainly bullish on downtown. That's why I'm building this project.

There are so many underlying positives about Las Vegas's growth. This massive expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, that's terrific. It's going to bring more business here.

You see the expansion of the convention areas and Wynn and Mandalay, which is all really good stuff. The projects happening downtown are great.

Even the infrastructure projects have kept up nicely. It wasn't that long ago that the 215 Beltway didn't loop all the way around. I drove it Tuesday night at 5 o'clock, and I was thinking, "My gosh, it wasn't that long ago that this wasn't even here." And it was packed, all the way from the airport up past the curve.

What policy changes would you like to see?

You've had taxable jackpots stuck at the same level for 30 years, and it's not indexed to inflation. That's ridiculous. There shouldn't be a taxable jackpot less than $5,000.

It turns people off, because in some states you can't offset gains and losses.

In Nevada, you hit a jackpot and you save some sports tickets and offset it so you won’t have to pay federal taxes on that jackpot. But there are a number of states where you don't have offsets.

(Having the low level) forces a lot of inefficiency, and there are a lot of costs associated with W-2Gs. I don't think it generates really any revenue, it's just something that's more of a waste.

Off subject, Michigan State was ranked No. 3 as of the start of this interview. Will we see some bets coming from you?

(Laughs). Yeah, we usually make bets about every night here. So we’ll be betting football tonight, we’ll be betting a little football on Sunday and we’re just getting into the mode of getting ready for college basketball here.