A high-stakes game of chicken is being played out in Everett, and the newly expanded board of Wynn Resorts may be the key to the fate of the $2.5 billion project.
On one side is the Wynn Resorts executive team, sans the flashy Steve Wynn, and on the other is the no-nonsense Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Wynn Resorts gave its cofounder and CEO the boot after he faced sexual harassment allegations, a move designed to appease the commission as it reviews whether the Las Vegas company remains suitable to hold a gaming license in Massachusetts.
On Friday, the game will be on full display as the new chief executive, Matt Maddox, appears before the commission to make the case that his Wynn Resorts is no longer Steve Wynn’s company. Wynn sold all of his stock, the board has been remade, and the company has created a new department to focus on gender equality, diversity, and female leadership.
It’s all but a foregone conclusion that the Wynn name will not be etched on the Everett casino; rather it will probably be Encore, another Wynn Resorts brand.
Taking the license away from Wynn Resorts would be a political and financial disaster for the state. But lowering the commission’s standards would make a mockery of its process. The commission deemed Wynn Resorts and individual executives “suitable” after they passed background checks. Character and reputation are part of the “suitability” criteria and must be continually maintained. The commission has also said it will review how the company responded to Wynn’s alleged misconduct and how the scandal is affecting its finances.
What’s best for Wynn Resorts is to stay the course and finish its resort casino, but the company is on edge over whether the commission will conclude that more executives have to depart because they had a role in enabling Steve Wynn’s pattern of sexual misconduct.
What will the board do? Will it sell the Everett casino rather than push out more executives or take other steps to appease the commission?
Recent headlines about a potential sale give the impression that Wynn Resorts is ready to cut its losses, but the board seems to be sending signals it’s committed to Everett. That’s based on a recent visit by two directors, Patricia Mulroy and John Hagenbuch, who toured the partially built casino on the Mystic River.
Betsy Atkins — one of three female board members who joined last week — also echoed enthusiasm for the Everett casino and a willingness by Wynn Resorts executives to see it through.
“They are very eager to work with the gaming regulators and satisfy those questions and make sure they have full the support from the gaming commission,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. “They have every desire to go forward.”
In an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, Maddox, the Wynn Resorts CEO, affirmed that view.
“Boston is not up for sale,” he said. “What Boston represents for us is a good growth opportunity. I like that market. I found the land. I pursued that deal.”
Atkins, a Newton native and University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate, joined the board only after doing her own due diligence on whether the company’s cultural cleansing is genuine. She was swayed after meeting Maddox and the rest of the management team, and by the fact that the board is conducting its own independent investigation on Wynn’s sexual harassment allegations.
Mulroy, a former gaming regulator, is heading that probe.
“It’s not a whitewash,” said Atkins, who serves on multiple public and private boards, including those of Schneider Electric and Volvo.
Even with three new independent directors, Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Steve Wynn and largest shareholder of Wynn Resorts, has been raising concerns in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that there are still too many legacy directors.
“I do not believe these steps go far enough toward changing ‘business as usual’ in Wynn’s boardroom,” she said in a filing.
Specifically, Elaine Wynn singled out how Hagenbuch — one of the directors who visited the Everett site — should not be reelected to the board because he has close ties to Steve Wynn.
Atkins said that in the span of two months, three board members were added and two departed. That’s a lot of turnover for an 11-member board. Women are also now well-represented, making up close to 40 percent of the board.
“I don’t think it’s a founder-dominated environment at all,” she said, adding that more changes to the board will come. “I don’t think anyone at the company said it is done.”
But the $2.5 billion question on my mind is what the board will do if the gaming commission asks for more heads to roll.
“We are in hypothetical land,” Atkins said. “We will make a business judgment to maximize the value of the company’s assets. That’s the obligation to our shareholders and to mitigate the risk.”
Ask Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, who is counting on gaming revenue to transform his down-on-its-luck city, and it’s clear to him what should happen.
“I don’t see the board allowing this license to slip away, because it is such a lucrative license,” he told me. “The board has an obligation to its shareholders, and they would have to remove those that aren’t suitable.”
The gaming commission is expected to conclude its suitability review this summer.
Now it’s time for the new-look board to earn its money by taking the steps necessary, no matter how tough, to make the Everett casino a reality.