How Yesterday’s Foundations Enabled Tomorrow’s Giants: The Steelman Story

Where are today’s visionaries in the Las Vegas market? Author Oliver Lovat says if you want to discover today’s visionaries, you have to start with those from the past. In Part II of the series, the role of Atlantic City native Paul Steelman is examined and how influential Joel Bergman (l.) was on him.

How Yesterday’s Foundations Enabled Tomorrow’s Giants: The Steelman Story

In a large industrial building within walking distance of The Strip, Paul Steelman stands, surveying the hive of activity on the vast floor beneath.

It is a far cry from his father, Edgar Steelman’s Atlantic City architectural firm, where a young Paul ran blueprints and drafts after school and during the holidays. Inspired by trips to Lapidus’ Fontainebleau in Miami and informal lessons in design at frequent opportunity, Paul followed in his father’s footsteps reading architecture at Clemson, graduating into the white heat of newly legal casino development in his hometown. Fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, Steelman was exposed to the big-name architects, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill running projects for Bally’s, Welton Beckett at Tropicana and even Stern himself for MGM, but it was Joel Bergman that stood out.

“Joel’s design, style and knowledge really impressed me and when offered, I took a job with him assisting with the design of the Golden Nugget. I realized quickly with Joel, this would be the ride of a lifetime.”

As outlined above, Steelman’s time at The Nugget was formative, but he was to leave the group shortly before The Mirage opened to expand his own project base. For the second time, Steelman was in the right place at the right time, as Tribal and regional gaming proliferated in the USA, and inspired by The Mirage, global markets sought to emulate Las Vegas’ success.

Initially, given that many of the Native American casinos had little track record and finance was scarce, almost all the development efforts were gaming focused, with much of the broader strategic development a secondary concern. Designing casinos for Native Americans was different to other resort development as they all started small, even when supported by an established gaming company. Therefore, unlike fully formed resort projects, these properties needed to be part of a long-term masterplan, even if nobody could foresee the final potential of this fledgling industry. Almost immediately, the likes of Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and Hard Rock Seminole grew to full integrated resorts, each competing with Las Vegas’ finest for customers and revenues.

Steelman’s tribal work is evident at the MGM at Foxwoods, Prairie Knights, North Dakota, Ak Chin Arizona, Harrah’s Rincon, Mashpee Taunton, Thunder Valley, Harrah’s Northern California and many others.

However, it is outside the USA that his work is best known.

Initially while working for Sol Kerzner in South Africa, Steelman understood the potential of international business; his company now has offices in Macau, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, Amsterdam and Zhuhai. The group had already designed two casinos in the Philippines prior to their contract to design the Sands Macau, the first “western” casino in the region.

One cannot overstate the importance of the Sands as the property that validated Macau as a destination for investment and shielded many US gaming companies from the financial crisis that was to follow.

The Sands construction cost was $181 million with total project costs of $240 million. The casino was approved on 3rd of September, 2002 and built with breakneck speed. Doors opened on 18th of May, 2004. Such was the success; Sands’ investment was recovered within 10 months and in its second year the property returned a profit of over $500 million.

Steelman was once again in the right place at the right time, and his work did not go unnoticed in the Chinese enclave. The group designed the $1.9 billion Galaxy on Cotai, which opened in 2011. Steelman designed Naga 2 for NagaCorp in Cambodia, Solaire, the most successful casino in the Philippines, Ho Tram in Vietnam, the interior design for the Corona Casino in Phu Quoc and has designed the new Sun Group Casino in Van Don, which is under construction.

To be at the right place at the right time once is coincidental, twice is fortunate, but third is something more. It is evidence of entrepreneurial daring and vision, seeking and capturing opportunity with the ability to deliver. That is the essence of Paul Steelman.

Articles by Author: Oliver Lovat

Oliver Lovat FRICS leads the Denstone Group, which offers strategic consultancy on customer-facing, asset-backed investments, including casinos. He is visiting faculty at Bayes Business School at City, University of London.