Sheldon Adelson Biography
Net Worth: $36 Billion
Wealth Origin: Casinos
Hometown: Boston, MA
Education: Drop Out, City College of New York
Sheldon Adelson was born on August 4th, 1933 in Boston, Massachusetts to Sarah and Arthur Adelson. His father, of Jewish descent, abandoned school after the 6th grade, and upon immigrating to the United States later on in life, took up work as a cab driver in America’s cradle of liberty. Sarah came from England, where her father labored for a Welsh mining company; she, on the other hand, ran a knitting shop out of her own family’s modest home throughout Sheldon’s childhood.
Despite how hard his parents worked to provide for their four children, they simply didn’t make much money, forcing the six of them to share a single room in a tenement surrounded by the rough-around Dorchester community. “Rich in our neighborhood then was having $3 in your pocket,” said Irwin Chafetz, a business partner who has known Adelson since grade school.
Winters in New England proved dependably frigid, not to mention, he and other local Jewish boys frequently found themselves in scraps with Irish youths; he grew up in an environment where being tough wasn’t an option, it was a requirement.
Although the Adelson family name didn’t carry hardly any weight at the time, Sheldon remembers when he saw his father donate to those somehow worse off than they, “we were poor as well. I asked him why he put that money into the charity box, he said, ‘no matter who or what you are, there is always someone more than you are; if you’re poor, there’s somebody more poor than you are. If you think you’re smart, there’s always somebody more smart than you.'”
“My father never left me with anything material,” reflects Adelson. “But he left me as rich as I could be – with values.”
At the tender age of 10 years old, Sheldon got his first job selling newspapers on a street corner. After a couple of years, he came to the realization that it’d be more profitable to “buy” the permits to sell on corners, however, the asking price was $200. “Now, 200 bucks to my parents in those days is like $2 million today,” he said at a speaking engagement. Therefore, he turned to his uncle Al, the treasurer of a credit union, who loaned the rather staggering sum (adjusted for inflation, valued at nearly $3,000 in 2020 money) to his pre-teen nephew.
The young entrepreneur made good on his promises, repaying the loan on time and with interest, and eventually even expanding his newspaper operation to a second corner. “He [Uncle Al] said, ‘the way you conduct the rest of your life will depend on how you handle this,'” recalled Adelson. “I learned about interest. I learned about loans. I learned about reliability. I learned about Uncle Al.”
It wouldn’t be the last time his uncle put up investment capital, the man gave 16 year old Sheldon $10,000 (a cool $108,000 in 2020 money) to help him start a candy vending machine business. A few summers later, he’d graduate from Boston’s Roxbury Memorial High School with the class of 1951.
United States Army
Following graduation, Adelson attended the City College of New York, where he studied corporate finance and real estate during the 1950s. Tearing a page out of his father’s book, he opted to ditch academia altogether, preferring to work on more ambitious ventures.
“I couldn’t get into the mainstream of business where I was born because my family didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” he says, hinting at underlying anti-semitic tones in post-war American society. “People who were in business – the bankers, the old businessmen – they wouldn’t allow people like me in. I couldn’t get in, so I figured out how to do something different than what everybody else did.”
Finding his way, Sheldon went to trade school to become a court reporter, and still only a few years separated from high school joined the United States Army, where he functioned as a stenographer in military courtrooms.
Discovering a Purpose
There was a moment during his time spent in the army when he meaningfully reflected on what he was doing with his life. Stationed on the legal frontlines of the McCarthy era, Adelson’s responsibility was to transcribe testimony for a number of scientists who got their clearances revoked. “The scientists had been invited to a ‘soirée,'” he sarcastically told a crowd at the Venetian. “You know, these wine-and-celery affairs, wine-and-cheese affairs – and me, I wanted hot dogs and hamburgers and pastrami sandwiches.”
“Little did they know that these were Communist-infiltrated cells; but every one of them had the same story,” he said. “They went to soirées, and the conversation consisted of why they were here on Earth. And I said to myself, ‘These guys are the greatest scientists in history, and they’re asking themselves, Why are they here on earth? This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of. There have been countless billions of people that have lived since the Neanderthal man, and not one person has ever found out why they’re here on earth, with any degree of certainty – don’t they know that?'”
Regardless of his own skepticism, Adelson figured he’d attempt to see things from their perspective, imagining himself at a more relatable “corned-beef soirée” trying to figure out why he was here on Earth. First, he thought it was to feel good, but then he decided that that was too selfish. What about helping others? “If I make other people feel good, I feel good!” He added, “I literally, mentally, went like” – he paused, brushing his hands together in a dismissive gesture – “it’s over with! I don’t have to think about that issue ever again in my life.”
“I know that a lot of people think that guys like me succeed by stepping on the broken backs of employees and other people,” Adelson said. “But they don’t understand that we, too, have philosophies and ideals that we adhere to very scrupulously.”
Fresh out of the Army, he found work alongside his brother Lenny packaging toiletry supplies bound for hotels. Adelson then embarked on a flurry of business ventures aimed at improving the lives of others, or in his own words, making people feel good. He and Lenny together launched De-Ice-It, which sold a chemical spray to help clear frozen windshields.
When that didn’t work, he became a mortgage broker, then he sold ads for financial trade publications, then he advised companies looking for financing and, all the while, he also managed to invest in some real estate. “My father used to say, ‘Sheldon, you’re like that horse stuff – you’re all over the place,'” Adelson shared with investors at a conference. “Until I was 32, I thought I couldn’t hold down a job.”
By his mid-thirties, he estimates his personal net worth was somewhere around $5 million. That was before he lost his first hard-earned fortune. “You cannot be an entrepreneur if you don’t take risks,” he says.
Adelson struck gold in the 1960s when he joined Chafetz and another friend from the old neighborhood, Ted Cutler, in a charter tours start-up. His role in the company was to acquire funding, and as the business took off, he spearheaded efforts to take the organization public, after which point, their stock’s value soared to nearly $100 a share.
Now at the helm of New England’s largest tour operator, he treated himself a bit, buying a new house and adding a state of the art bowling alley to it. However, when the market crashed in 1969, he lost the vast majority of his wealth, which was largely tied to his stock’s value, and was forced to sell his new home.
With their charter tour operation bleeding cash, the group of venture capitalists decided to split up the company’s various functionalities. One partner, Ted Arison, who had previously helped co-found Norwegian Cruise Line, took the opportunity to purchase two cruise ships that belonged to them, ultimately he’d turn his initial $100,000 investment into what is today known as Carnival Cruise Line (this cruise company currently has an estimated market cap of over $25 billion).
Adelson, on the other hand, picked up the publication arm. “I had a little experience with publishing companies when I was young,” Adelson explains in an interview with Innovel Travel Tech. “My father published a taxi trade paper for the taxi industry. I learned how to drive by driving the plates and the layout to the printer, which in those days, was about 35 miles away.”
In addition, he hoped to start developing condominiums throughout America’s northeast corridor, it was a form of housing he felt was severely lacking in the region.
Having read about a condominium conference being arranged in California, Adelson flew to the golden state eager to learn about the industry. He was there more so for the education and didn’t care much about exploring the exposition hall. Following a speaker series, he wandered around the venue and noticed some snacks in the event’s press room. He technically owned a publication, although it hadn’t released a single issue yet, and thought to himself, “I’m press,” as he closed in on a tray of baked goods.
“I go in and chizzle some coffee and danish pastry,” he discloses. “While I was there, the lady behind the desk was complaining about her boss. I gave her a shoulder to cry on and I learned what the show was all about. I had never seen what an exhibition was, and before I left that show, I was only there for a couple of days, I realized I was gonna go into the show business.”
Adelson returned to his team excited to launch the first issue of his publication along with a trade show to go with it. “I told my colleagues about it,” he remembers. “One guy said, ‘I know you can sing, Sheldon, but you’re not that good.'”
Eventually managing to get the whole company on board, they put together a data communications trade show on the heels of AT&T being broken into several different companies. The industry was something new, with up and coming players, and Adelson got into hosting exhibitions for it on the ground floor.
A New Show
After building the first show, he built four or five more and purchased another that involved the federal government in Washington D.C. “I didn’t have a lot of money and I couldn’t hire a lot of salespeople,” he says. “I was THE salesman. I went on the road and sold companies space in the exhibition hall. That’s where most of the money was in developing a trade show.”
One of Adelson’s exhibition’s featured a micro-computer component. In due time, it appeared to him that personal computing was poised for a massive explosion in demand. Therefore, companies selling services, software, technical hardware, computers, and more would need an event to showcase cutting-edge innovations. This show became COMDEX.
Originally restricting the show to persons directly involved in the computer industry, COMDEX evolved into a major tech convention, with the industry making ground-breaking announcements and releases there. Numerous small companies from around the world rose to prominence following an appearance at COMDEX, additionally, industry leaders sought the coveted chance to be a keynote speaker. Six or eight years after the show launched, Adelson received a rather disgruntled call from Bill Gates, he wanted to know why he hadn’t yet been chosen to give a keynote address.
The first COMDEX conference attracted 4,000 paying attendees and grew to over 100,000, becoming a launch platform for key technologies. Bluetooth and USB had conference programming and associated exhibition floor pavilions to help these technologies and start-up companies be seen in such a large event and marketplace.
In the late 1980s, COMDEX was opened to the general public, which skyrocketed attendance. As a result of greater foot traffic and a preference to avoid depending on tedious third-party exhibition hall operators, Adelson planned to construct his very own convention center in Las Vegas.
The Casino Business
Adelson then started to reimagine the Las Vegas resort model. Based on his overwhelming success in the convention industry, he believed he could fill hotel rooms on weekdays (as Sin City always delivered a dependable weekend crowd) by bringing in traveling businessmen. While other hotels on the strip almost entirely profited off gambling, adding exhibition space to his concept would allow for another lucrative revenue stream. It also gave him room to improve the overall guest experience. Up until his arrival on the scene, visitors didn’t really have any amenities in their rooms; this was on purpose, owners believed it’d force people to go down to the gaming floor, maybe even causing them to play a hand or two.
“It was ridiculous that people had to go down there,” he thought. “You know, at one time, they didn’t even have TVs in the rooms because the owners of the hotels and casinos were afraid that people would stay in the rooms and wouldn’t go down to the casino because they were watching TV.”
In 1989, Adelson bought the old Sands Hotel for $128 million dollars and established a new company, Las Vegas Sands. The move was more about getting the land for a convention center than it was about running a casino. He immediately constructed America’s largest exhibition facility next to the hotel. Oh and after not too long, he wanted to bring Venice, Italy to the bone dry Nevada desert.
There’s this video on YouTube where he’s going back and forth with a woman while standing amidst the grandeur of the real Venice, Italy – she is skeptical that he can actually recreate the city’s beauty. “To the eye, it’s going to look as authentic as it looks here,” he tells her. She rebukes, “that’s what I want to see, what the eye is going to see. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying I’m worried, okay, you’re not worried!”
“It’s being done,” he reassures her while stretching his arms out exclaiming, “this is Las Vegas, this is it!” She shakes her head, lamenting, “oh, no! But Sheldon, this is the real Venice! You are dreaming!” He explains to her, “I’m making a two and a half billion-dollar bet on this and I believe it’ll work. I’m quite confident it’s gonna be a winner. There is no equivocation in my mind whatsoever, none. because I can feel it! Of course I’m dreaming, every project starts off with a dream. This is a vision, this is a dream.”
Sale of COMDEX
In 1995, Adelson sold Comdex to Softbank of Japan for $862 million – earning himself a personal payoff of just over $500 million. By 1996, he leveled the original Sands property and built a new Italian-inspired luxury resort, which was appropriately named the Venetian. Sin City’s gaming establishment had mocked him for the alternative business model, but as conventions flocked to Las Vegas, and his hotel became the second most profitable in town, he was proven right. Encompassing every minute of 60 years old, Sheldon was just getting started.
It’s important to note, throughout the majority of his life, he was not aware of the term “entrepreneur,” and frequently, to some degree, wondered what was wrong with himself. An old business colleague of his once revealed, “he said that before he heard the word he’d always thought he was a floater with a short attention span.” The trajectory of Adelson’s life did not involve consistent upward mobility, rather, it shows a few peaks among many valleys.
In an incredible biographical piece written by Connie Bruck, The New Yorker reports that Jason Chudnofsky, a business investor, recalled a meeting, in the mid-eighties, at the kitchen table in Adelson’s home in a Boston suburb, where he was living with his first wife, Sandra.
“I remember sitting with him,” Chudnofsky said. “He had a T-shirt on and was eating Chinese food out of a carton. He said, ‘Work with me, Jason, and we’re going to be dealing with ministers!’ I said, ‘What church?’ He said, ‘No, not church! Ministers of countries!’ I was skeptical, knowing his past history.” Chudnofsky continued, “Sheldon had lost a lot of money.”
Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Macau, China had been a Portuguese colony since 1558, and after the Communists took over China in 1949, became the only real estate in the country where gambling was legal. In late 1999, the territory got handed over to the People’s Republic of China as a special administrative region. The Chinese were planning on transforming the landscape into Asia’s Las Vegas.
In July 2001, a meeting was arranged between Adelson and the Vice Premier of China, Qian Qichen. Their dialogue quickly shifted towards how many hotel rooms the Las Vegas Sands Corp. could potentially construct in Macau. “I don’t know,” Adelson told Qichen, as he recalled in trial testimony. “I said, ‘well that all depends on how many people can come here.'” (Chinese citizens were required to obtain a, sometimes notoriously difficult to come by, special permit to visit Macau.)
“He [Quichen] said, “how many do you want?’ and I said, ‘wow.’ Of course, I didn’t say, ‘wow,’ right in front of him, but – I mean, when I left there I said Bill [Sands Executive], ‘did you hear what I heard? Do you think there’s a possibility that he can open the gates to Macau?'”
Geographically, Macau is comprised of a peninsula and two very small islands a short distance away from each other. When the Chinese government gave Adelson his gambling license and land to build his Casino on, he had a hard time finding the construction site. “I went out there and I couldn’t find the land!” he remembers. “I went back to the government and said, ‘I didn’t find the land!’ They said, ‘it’s under the water. you bring in barges of sand and fill it in.’ I said, ‘okay, I guess we could do that.'”
This first swampy real estate is where the Sands Macau would be built and subsequently opened in 2004. After pumping a staggering $265 million into the project, Adelson made back his initial investment in just a year. China eased travel restrictions to the former colony, which led to a 145% spike in visitors, amounting to 10.5 million mainland Chinese tourists.
Owning 69% of the stock, he took Las Vegas Sands Corp. public in the last month of 2004, his personal net worth surpassed billionaire status shortly thereafter. By 2007, Macau was the number one gambling market in the world, bringing in a quarter of a billion dollars more than the Las Vegas strip. That same year, Adelson opened the $2.4 billion Venetian Macau, an architectural marvel that is the world’s second-largest casino, the largest single structure hotel building in Asia, and also the seventh-largest building in the world by floor area.
As gambling revenues in Macau multiplied, so did Adelson’s net worth, according to the Times, in the two years after his company went public, he earned roughly a million dollars an hour. Always full steam ahead, he opened The Palazzo in Las Vegas at a cost of $1.9 billion on New Year’s Eve in 2007 (going into 2008). Upon its completion, The Palazzo displaced the Pentagon as the largest building in the United States in terms of floor space and became the second-largest hotel in the world.
A 2020 article by Casino.org indicates that Macau is the world’s richest gaming market – GGR totaling $36.45 billion the year before. By comparison, Nevada is the second-largest casino jurisdiction, total gaming win coming in at a little more than $12 billion in 2019.
Marina Bay Sands Singapore
The Marina Bay Sands is one of the most iconic manmade structures on our planet, it functions as an integrated resort fronting Marina Bay within the Downtown Core district of Singapore.
After winning a hotly contested bidding war to get the project, Las Vegas Sands initially committed to investing $3.85 billion into Marina Bay Sands. Due to escalating costs of materials, such as sand and steel, and labour shortages owing to other major infrastructure and property development in the country, The Telegraph places the property’s total cost of development at $5.6 billion.
Designed by Moshe Safdie, the business-centric resort includes a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000 sq ft convention-exhibition center, the 800,000 sq ft The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, a museum, a large theatre, world-renowned restaurants, two floating crystal pavilions, art-science exhibits, and Earth’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines.
Forbes reports, in 2018, Sands generated $1.7 billion in room revenues, with Marina Bay Sands contributing $393 million (~23% of room revenues) despite a 12% share of Sands’ total room inventory. Las Vegas Sands reported a total of $13.7 billion in Net Revenues for full-year 2018.
“After the first dozen or so businesses, I realized that the only way to get ahead was to do things different, different than the way it was being done,” Adelson shared during an interview with the Global Gaming Expo. “Then I came to learn, if you do things differently, success will follow you like a shadow and you can’t get rid of it.”