MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — Scott Butera views his training to build a casino in Massachusetts the same way Thomas Edison is said to have looked at his effort to invent the incandescent light bulb: He’s discovered a thousand ways not to do it.
“A lot of our business is trial and error,” said Butera, chief executive of Foxwoods Resort Casino, which this month joined Colorado developer David Nunes in his bid for the Greater Boston casino license, one of three the Massachusetts Gaming Commission could award as early as November.
Butera, known as a turnaround artist in the gaming world, has seen a lot of errors. He navigated financial messes at Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts and Tropicana Entertainment, leading both out of bankruptcy. At Foxwoods, Butera has overseen the restructuring of more than $2 billion in debt owed by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns the resort.
That debt “is why I’m here,” Butera said Friday during a walk through Foxwoods’s vast labyrinth of gaming tables and slot machines.
Put another way: Butera is the chief executive you hire when your casino is in big trouble.
But Butera — who has never built a casino from scratch — aims to create a new gaming center on a 177-acre parcel off Interstate 495 in Milford that would never need his resuscitative services. The bid represents an opportunity for the Bay State native to write a how-to manual for casino development and management, using all the how-not-to’s he has seen at companies that made bad gambles.
“This may be perfect for him because he can avoid the mistakes he’s had to correct in the past,” said Bradford S. Smith, a former chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission who served on Tropicana’s board while Butera was chief executive there.
‘I found him to be very solid, steady and talented. Scott’s an excellent guy with great business instincts.’
Butera is confident, too, though he knows his bidding group (which also includes the casino management firm Warner Gaming) must survive a clash of the titans to succeed. Suffolk Downs is pitching a casino in East Boston with Caesars Entertainment, and Wynn Resorts aims to build one on the Mystic River waterfront in Everett.
Butera said he has “nothing but the utmost respect” for his competitors. Suffolk Downs owner Richard Fields declined to be interviewed about Butera; Wynn Resorts chief executive Steve Wynn said through a spokesperson that he was traveling and unavailable.
“We have some unique experience in this market,” Butera said, drawing a distinction between his bid and the other two contenders. “This is our hometown. Sometimes teams have a home-court advantage.”
Butera often speaks in sports metaphors. Raised in Gloucester until he was 10 years old, he is a Boston sports nut whose office overlooking the Grand Pequot Tower is lined with memorabilia, almost all of it from local teams.
One exception — a jersey autographed by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis — embarrasses him, and he quickly explained to a guest that he bought it at a charity auction in Boston, when no one else would pay for the purple shirt.
Butera is 46 and tall, with a lanky physique that appears to make clothes shopping a challenge. He might gain 50 pounds before the collar of his dress shirt would fit snugly around his neck.
Perhaps it is that extra room that allows Butera to keep his head on a swivel.
While giving a tour of the casino, the top-ranking “team member” at Foxwoods — he hates the word “boss” — paused his spiel and bent over to remove a used tissue from the carpet.
Told later about the trash pickup, Pequot chairman Rodney Butler offered a knowing laugh. “Scott pays attention to every intimate detail of this place,” Butler said.
For a highly regarded casino executive, Butera is a relative newcomer to the gaming industry. After earning an MBA from New York University in 1990, he spent more than a decade as an investment banker, rising to executive director at UBS Investment Bank.
Much of his work at UBS focused on the gaming, lodging, and real estate. That background led Donald Trump to hire Butera as executive vice president of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts in 2003.
“I found him to be very solid, steady and talented,” Trump said. “Scott’s an excellent guy with great business instincts.”
Trump gave Butera a daunting task: save his Atlantic City casino company by convincing bondholders to accept less than the $1.8 billion they were owed. Failure would have embarrassed Trump, whose show, “The Apprentice,” was one of the highest-rated programs on television at the time, drawing much of its appeal from Trump’s authority to rip contestants for poor business moves.
Butera brokered a prepackaged bankruptcy deal in which he secured a $500 million business loan and salvaged a 30 percent ownership share of the company for Trump. He even presuaded bondholders to let Trump continue as chief executive. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts emerged from bankruptcy in 2005 having reduced its debt by $550 million.
Three years later, lenders to Tropicana Entertainment hired Butera to reorganize the company after they forced out owner Bill Yung during bankruptcy proceedings.
Yung had assumed $3.1 billion in debt when he purchased another casino chain in 2007, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That decision had backfired when the recession soon hit.
Butera oversaw Tropicana’s purchase by billionaire investor Carl Icahn and helped the company emerge from bankruptcy in January 2010 with almost no debt. By the second quarter of 2010, Tropicana was profitable.
At Trump and at Tropicana, Butera excelled because of a rare combination of skills, said Thomas M. Benninger, who was the global head of restructuring at UBS Investment Bank during the Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts bankruptcy and a board member at Tropicana when it reorganized.
“He’s an investment banker at heart, a great transaction guy,” Benninger said. “But in the last few years, I think he’s really developed his operational skills. It’s pretty unique to have someone be really good at both. There’s only a few executives in the gaming industry who are.”
Smith added that he marveled at Butera’s attitude while working for the famously demanding Trump and Icahn.
“He can deal with difficult people and not take things too personally,” Smith said.
Butera’s greatest challenge might have been restructuring the massive debt at Foxwoods, where bankruptcy was not an option because the Mashantucket Pequot tribe is a sovereign nation. Wildly profitable after it opened in 1992, Foxwoods expanded rapidly to become the largest casino in the Western hemisphere.
The tribe spent money just as quickly — on things like a $225 million museum dedicated to its heritage and six-figure annual dividends to every adult member of the Pequot nation.
By the end of last decade, Foxwoods owed $2.2 billion to a web of bondholders and banks that rivaled the maze-like casino in its complexity. In the midst of the recession, revenues no longer kept pace.
When Foxwoods sought a new chief executive in November 2010 — its seventh in less than four years — the tribe picked Butera, believing he was uniquely qualified to untangle the casino’s financial knot, Butler said.
Last August, Foxwoods announced a deal that extended its repayment deadlines, lowered interest rates and saved the Mashantucket Pequot $520 million.
“That was a deal that required everyone to agree, and that’s hard,” said Benninger.
Now, Nunes — who has been planning a casino in Milford since 2008, after a failed attempt to build one in southeastern Massachusetts with the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe — is counting on Butera to help realize his dream.
Nunes said he believes partnering with Butera and Foxwoods increases the likelihood that the gaming commission will pick Milford, and he plans to let Butera lead the campaign.
“He’s a total professional and good communicator,” said Nunes. “I’m going to let the experts do their thing.”
Butera will have plenty of people rooting for him. As he walked past a glass enclosure where a suitcase displayed a $100,000 cash raffle prize, a woman wearing a leopard-print sweater stopped Butera mid-stride.
“Didn’t I see your picture in the paper?” said the woman, adding that she was from Brighton and recognized Butera as the new face of the Milford bid. “I hope that goes through.”
Butera shook her hand and grinned. “We do too,” he said.Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.