The Trinity Reporter Spring 2004
Las Vegas in a liberal arts context
James J. Murren ’83, President and Chief Financial Officer of MGM MIRAGE

by Christine Palm
photographs by Dan Dry


For most undergraduates, an internship is a chance to take a break from a regular course of study, see something of the world, and perhaps round out one’s résumé. For Jim Murren ’83, it opened up an entirely new path. Murren was an art history major who, while on a Trinity College internship, discovered his profound financial acumen. Today, he is president and chief financial officer of MGM MIRAGE, one of the three largest gaming and entertainment companies in the world.

“I was studying art history and urban studies with the idea of pursuing a career in architecture or urban design,” Murren says. “But I did an internship in the equity research department at what was then Connecticut Bank & Trust in Hartford. I was debating whether or not to go for an advanced degree, and basically, I fell in love with the investment process. It just changed everything for me.”

Several other stints at investment and commercial banks confirmed for Murren that he had the aptitude to be successful in finance. In February of 1984, he was working in the equity research department at C.J. Lawrence, an institutional brokerage firm on Wall Street. When his boss quit, Murren took the job, which specialized in the area of restaurants and hotels. He was at that firm for the next 14 years, through a time of rapid growth. C.J. Lawrence was then acquired by Morgan Grenfell, which was itself bought out in 1989 by Deutsche Bank. Murren soon found himself running the equity research department for Deutsche Bank, where he learned a lot about casino management and development. From 1990 to 1997, he was a hotel and gaming analyst for Deutsche Bank. Then, in 1998, he was offered the position of CFO of MGM Grand and became president a year later. In 2000, the company acquired Mirage Resorts, Inc.

Today, Murren, 42, oversees the diversified, multinational, 40,000-employee company, with annual sales of $4 billion.

A semester in Rome
In addition to the financial internships, Murren credits a semester in Rome with giving him the confidence and foresight to find his calling.

“The takeaways from Trinity, for me, are definitely the internships and the semester abroad,” Murren says. “The biggest resource was the internship project in that when I was out of college, my résumé didn’t say ‘lifeguard’ or ‘house painter.’ And the single most important thing I did academically was study in Rome in 1982, the fall semester of my junior year, because it highlights everything a liberal arts education is all about.”

He cites that time as one of “exceptional personal and intellectual growth.” Murren is often amused at how people mistakenly assume a liberal arts education cannot prepare someone for a career in development or finance.

“I value my education highly,” he says. “It was in a liberal arts context that I learned to articulate my thoughts, write well, and think creatively about a problem. In fact, when I hire people, I look for someone who has breadth of experience, rather than someone who is layered into what they want to do right from the crib. It makes it a little bit more challenging, I admit, but at the end of the day, it’s the better route.”

Murren is quick to add that not all liberal arts educations are equal.

“Some liberal arts educations are more theory than practice, and the people who get them are the people who flounder,” he believes. “But Trinity provided the opportunity for people to broaden themselves. If you stay on campus all four years, you’ve sold yourself short.”

Murren particularly credits Professor Borden Painter, with whom he is still in touch, and Alden Gordon, Murren’s faculty adviser, for whom Murren served as a teaching assistant. He also credits Trinity’s athletics program. Murren, who played football, baseball, and intramural sports, found being active in sports “a good vehicle for exerting your competitive nature in a constructive way.”

Despite the high-stakes nature of his work and the fact that he lives in the Las Vegas area, a place notorious for its unrefined aesthetics, Murren’s love of art and knowledge of art history are never too far away. Among his company’s holdings is the Bellagio, a five-star hotel in Las Vegas whose renowned fine art gallery frequently hosts exhibits of the world’s greatest artists. (An exhibit of Monet’s oils, borrowed from The Masterworks collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will be at the Bellagio through September of 2004.)

“It’s a logical, but unfortunate assumption, that Vegas is devoid of culture,” Murren muses. “The reality is that Las Vegas has numerous five-star restaurants and several wonderful galleries. It is evolving—it’s the fastest growing city in the United States and the only city of one million people or more founded post-1950. We’re attracting attention from around the world. And as people move here from cultured places, they are going to demand the finer things they’re used to. And I don’t mean just accommodations, but true cultural opportunities, as well.”


Nevada Cancer Institute
As excited as Murren is by business and by art, he devotes a great deal of time and money to community projects. Most notably, with considerable support from his wife, he recently founded the Nevada Cancer Institute, an $82-million, 150,000-square-foot facility set to open in June of 2005. Murren lost his father to cancer at the age of 59, and several other family members have been affected, as well. When he moved to Nevada, Murren was shocked by the dearth of good medical facilities.

“Being born and bred in Connecticut, it surprised the heck out of me that I would love living here in Nevada, but there’s no denying that in New England, you have lots of options—especially when it comes to medical care—that the people here do not have,” Murren says. “Nevada is a young state, and the medical care here is relatively nascent compared to other parts of country. In cancer treatment in particular, we have some glaring problems. Incident rates in Nevada are similar to the national average, but our survival rates are much lower.”

Murren sounds like a man of medicine, more than finance, as he rattles off statistics like an accomplished researcher.

“Survival rates for melanoma, which my father died from, are 89 percent nationally; here they are only 20 percent,” he points out. “Lung cancer? Fourteen percent across the nation and five percent in Nevada. Since my father died from a highly preventable form of the disease, I realize how important early detection is. But when I checked into the care available here, I discovered that, while there are some good oncologists, they have no way of communicating with one another. There was some research being done, but not in any coordinated fashion.”

So Murren decided to use his experience, influence, and resources to change that.

“The Nevada Cancer Institute has raised awareness and has helped unite people from the medical system and from education. It is the only such facility designated by the state and federal governments as a comprehensive cancer prevention and treatment effort. We’ve hired world-class faculty from places like Yale and the University of Chicago. The land was donated by the Rouse Company, and we’ve raised a great deal of money through a bond offering and private solicitations.”

Here, Murren credits his wife, Heather Hay Murren, who is president of the institute. She ran the global consumer products research division of Merrill Lynch for four years but left to conduct her own research into cancer’s causes, prevention, and treatment. From her findings, it was clear that her adopted state of Nevada needed help. So she and her husband became partners in founding the life-saving facility.

Connecticut casinos
Despite the Murrens’ fervor for Nevada, they have not lost their love of Connecticut. Not surprisingly, of particular interest to Jim Murren is the state’s love/hate relationship with gambling casinos.

“As a Connecticut native, I understand the issues quite well,” Murren says. “I know something about the deal Lowell Weicker struck with the Pequots and the subsequent benefits the state gets from the casino tax revenue. While it could have been structured differently, it’s not the worst model by any means—nothing like California, for example, where the government gets almost no money. At least Connecticut gets substantial tax benefits.”

Murren’s one regret about the gaming industry is that people perceive gaming as something of a necessary evil, rather than an industry in and of itself.

“The problem with gaming in a general sense is that too many people perceive gaming as (only) necessary for tax revenue or to balance a budget. In fact, MGM is the largest employer and taxpayer in the State of Nevada. We create real careers for people.”

Murren’s company’s holdings include many of the world’s finest casinos, hotels, and resorts, which include, in addition to the famed Bellagio, the MGM Grand, New York-New York, Treasure Island, and Mirage (all in Las Vegas); the Beau Rivage in Mississippi; MGM Grand in Detroit, Michigan; and the MGM Grand in Darwin, Australia.


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