By Byron Craft

He is hardly a household name, even if he has moved into third place as the richest man in the United States.  While his fame factor may not be high, his list of achievements in the resort and casino industry is, to say the least, extensive and impressive.  Prior to his foray into that world, he had founded and developed more than fifty companies with varying degrees of success and failure.

His name is Sheldon Adelson and he and his partners made serious waves in the Las Vegas casino industry.

Sheldon Gary Adelson was born somewhere around August of 1933 or 1934, in Massachusetts.  The exact year, as well as the date in August, has been obscured by varying accounts in several biographies.  His parents, Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, had emigrated from the Russian empire and settled in Bean Town’s Dorchester, a lower class section of Boston.  His father was a taxi driver and his mother ran a knitting store.

Before the age of 10, Adelson began selling newspapers on local street corners, and by the age of twelve he became a junior entrepreneur.  He started his own business selling toiletry kits.  Following high school, Sheldon enrolled at City College of New York and majored in corporate finance and real estate, but dropped out before earning enough credits for a degree.  Mortgage broker, investment adviser and financial consultant were just some of the titles he held in the years to follow, during which time he also took part in the development of several dozen businesses, many of which flopped financially.  After entering the U.S. Army in the 1950’s, he worked part time as a courtroom stenographer on Wall Street.  The job started Sheldon thinking about how to become wealthy.  By the early 1960s, Adelson had left the Army, and he created a charter tour business.  Sheldon Gary Adelson was on the road to future fortunes.

Adelson attained millionaire status by charging companies fees for showing them how to start selling shares on the stock market.  Now wealthy, he moved back to Boston and began investing in companies, eventually owning as many as seventy-five different ones.  The price soared for shares of his tour and travel business, the American International Travel Service, his most profitable business.  But he lost a fortune when the stock market declined in the late 1960’s, and consequently, he ran up many debts.

Adelson soon rebounded in the real estate brokerage business by arranging condominium conversions in Boston when he bought a residential apartment building with the intent of converting it.  Again he lost his cash reserves when the condominium market faltered.  Still on the lookout for opportunities, Adelson caught a big break in 1971 when he acquired a majority share of a small company that published magazines, among them was a computer oriented publication titled Data Communications User.  The pieces all came together while he was attending a trade convention on condominiums in Anaheim, California.  Sheldon read that a magazine about condominiums had produced the show.  That was when the epiphany struck.  He reasoned that he could use his own publication to produce a show about computers.

His first computer show was in Dallas in 1973.  By 1975, he sold his share in the publishing company but held onto the show.  He then sold his condominium building.  With these cash assets in hand he was able to launch The Interface Group, which concentrated on the computer show.  The tradeshow grew slowly, garnering only $250,000 in revenues until 1979.  Adelson shifted gears and created the Computer Dealer Expo, known today as COMDEX, which took place at the MGM Grand (now Bally’s) in Las Vegas.  COMDEX was designed to bring computer manufacturers and resellers together.  It was intended for small computer dealers, but it took off, and by 1984, The Interface Group was producing forty shows a year.  COMDEX alone eventually grossed $20 million.  COMDEX became the largest trade show produced in Las Vegas, with 100,000 attendees in 1987 and 125,000 in 1988.  The exhibitors showcase proved to be a long running and very profitable enterprise.  Adelson’s show hit just as IBM, Apple, and other brands of personal computers and accessories became a huge international industry.  By the late 1980’s, the company’s net income reached $250 million.  Sheldon Adelson produced other COMDEX shows in other U.S. cities and in Europe and Japan.  Interface succeeded by extracting large fees from exhibitors, as high as $50 a square foot in the Las Vegas Convention Center, for which Interface paid only fifteen cents a square foot.  Today, COMDEX is the world’s largest computer trade show and operates in over twenty countries.

At the close of the 1980’s, Adelson and his partners from Interface, which also owned two travel companies and several passenger aircraft, decided to hunt for a resort property to use as a home base in Las Vegas.  After several overtures to owners of the Dunes, Frontier, and Aladdin hotels, the partners settled on the Sands, the former hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.  The Sands was owned by casino developer Kirk Kerkorian.  The Interface Group bought the venerable but aging casino for $128 million.  Their plan:  to bring into Las Vegas a new source of business from the exhibition industry.

The redesign scheme for the Sands included a 150 million dollar new resort and shopping mall and a $60 million private convention center for Interface’s and other shows.  At the time, Sheldon Adelson, as he would for years to come, had open disputes with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority which operated and sold space for the Las Vegas Convention Center.  The dispute was over fees charged to COMDEX.  Adelson later complained that the LVCVA’s room taxes were too high and their shows unfairly competed with shows in his convention center.  He even advocated abolishing the LVCVA, arguing it was no longer needed to promote Las Vegas.  Unfortunately Adelson’s plans hit a snag in 1989, when his handpicked choice to run the Sands, Henri Lewin, ran into licensing problems with the Nevada State Gaming Control Board.  Board members claimed Lewin had not been truthful with them in testimony about a lawsuit brought by a woman who charged that he tried to assault her while he was chief executive of the Las Vegas Hilton.  The board cited problems with a partner in Adelson’s company as well, alleging past associations with criminals.  As for Adelson, the board’s investigation revealed many past lawsuits he had filed against creditors to reduce his debts.  Sheldon Adelson fought back with connections he had with local and state politicians.  They praised Lewin and the Sands project for being good for Las Vegas.  While the gaming board voted 3-0 against licensing Lewin, the Nevada Gaming Commission overruled it and agreed to grant Lewin a limited license, with the caveat that he could not run the casino or share in its profits.  All five of Sheldon Adelson’s partners received licenses.

They re-opened the Sands in 1989 and embarked on the new building plans to build the Sands Expo Center, a 1.2 million square foot convention and showroom;  the only privately owned and operated convention center in the United States.  When 1990 came around, the U.S. economy was at a standstill and money became difficult to borrow from banks.  Adelson put his expansion plans on hold.  In 1991, Sheldon Adelson married physician Miriam Ochshorn.  While on their honeymoon in Venice, Italy, he was inspired by the grandeur of Venice and he conceived a Venice-themed mega-resort hotel and casino. 

By the mid-90’s, the economy and lending markets improved.  Adelson and his partners sold The Interface Group Show Division, including the COMDEX shows, to SoftBank Corporation of Japan for $862 million;  Adelson’s share was over $500 million.  He was now better able to raise funds from Wall Street, and was free of his Interface partners.

He decided to raze the Sands and spend $1.5 billion to construct the Venetian.  It commenced with an implosion… in a thundering crash, the Sands came down.  The all-suite resort was erected in its place, included several leading-chef restaurants, as well as a shopping plaza that featured canals replete with gondolas and singing gondoliers. The Venetian underwent a major expansion in 2003, when 1,013 suites were added, giving the hotel 4,049 suites, an additional 18 leading-chef restaurants, another shopping mall with more canals and gondolas.  The hotel proved both controversial, thanks to lawsuits with contractors, Adelson’s opposition to the Culinary Union, and its wild success.  Sheldon Adelson showed that while he was relatively new to the hotel-casino business, he could make big plans like the best of his competitors.

Adelson’s Sands company reported losses at one point in 2004, despite high revenues, after it granted stock bonuses to executives and paid for the building expenses of a newly planned 3,000-room resort, the Palazzo, north of the Venetian, at a cost of $1.8 billion.  The Palazzo, like the Venetian, was a huge financial success.

In late 2004, Sheldon Adelson sold off 10% of his shares in Las Vegas Sands Corp., which increased his overall net worth immensely.  Adelson’s entrepreneurial insight had him looking beyond Las Vegas.  He became the first American developer to build a casino in Macau, off the coast of China, in the center of a newly opened massive Asian gambling market.  The one million square foot, 265 million dollar Sands Macao became the People’s Republic of China’s first Las Vegas-style casino when it opened in May of 2004.  Sheldon subsequently planned to build seven new casinos, including the Venetian Macau.

Adelson made back his initial $265 million investment in one year and, because he owns 69% of the stock, he increased his wealth when he took his company, Las Vegas Sands Corporation, public on Wall Street in December 2004.  The stock sale was an enormous success and since then Adelson’s personal wealth multiplied more than fourteen times.  Forbes magazine increased Adelson’s ranking, thanks to his profits and assets, to the world’s third-richest man.  According to Forbes, Sheldon Adelson’s holdings were valued at $20.5 billion.

In May 2006, Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands was awarded a hotly contested license to construct a casino resort in Singapore’s Marina Bay.  The new casino, Marina Bay Sands, opened in 2010 at a rumored cost of $5.4 billion.  In August 2007, Adelson opened the $2.4 billion Venetian Macao Resort Hotel on Cotai and announced that he planned to create a massive, concentrated resort area he called the Cotai Strip, after its Las Vegas counterpart.  Adelson said that he planned to open more hotels under brands such as Four Seasons, Sheraton and St. Regis.  His Las Vegas Sands planned to invest $12 billion and build 20,000 hotel rooms on the Cotai Strip by 2010.

Meanwhile, back at Sin City, Adelson became prominent in other ways.  His wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, ran the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment and Research.  The Adelson’s donated over $25 million to the Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas to build a high school.  They also funded the Boston-based Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research FoundationAMRF is a private foundation.  This foundation initiated the Adelson Program in Neural Repair and Rehabilitation with $7.5 million donated to collaborating researchers at 10 universities.  In 2006 they contributed $25 million to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.  The Adelson Family Foundation has made contributions totaling $100 million to Birthright Israel, which finances Jewish youth trips to Israel.  Sheldon Adelson also founded and published the first edition of Israel HaYom, an Israeli newspaper.  He had previously co-founded Maariv, another free Israeli daily.

Sheldon Adelson has received honorary degrees and other awards and has been a guest speaker at numerous universities, including the University of New Haven, Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, Tel Aviv University, and Babson College.  Today Sheldon Adelson is well into his senior years, but he remains energetic, enthusiastic and sharp as a tack.  Currently he is heavily involved in politics as a major contributor to the Republican Party.  This has kept him in the media spotlight more than anything else in his career.  Originally a Democrat, Adelson became a Republican as his wealth increased.  “Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?” he once asked.  He began making major contributions to the Republican National Committee following clashes with labor unions at his Las Vegas properties.

Adelson and his wife each contributed $250,000 to the second inauguration of George W. Bush.  Adelson also became a principal financial backer of Freedom’s Watch, a political advocacy group founded to counter the influence of George Soros and Democrat-leaning lobby groups such as  In 2010, Adelson donated $1 million to American Solutions for Winning the Future, a political action committee (PAC) supporting Republican former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  In December 2011, during Gingrich’s bid for the U.S. presidency, Adelson spoke favorably of controversial remarks Gingrich had made about Palestinians, saying “read the history of those who call themselves Palestinians, and you will hear why Gingrich said recently that the Palestinians are an invented people.”

Noting the media scrutiny his political donations have received, Adelson has asked why the political contributions of labor unions have not received comparable attention, noting that unions spend worker-provided money while his donations come out of his own pocket and are smaller.

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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