Willie Davis: A Hall of Famer on the football field and in the MGM board room By Howard Stutz, Executive Editor, CDC Gaming Reports April 21, 2020 at 7:34 pm Willie Davis was a giant, both on the football field and in the board room. Davis, who died last week at age 85 of kidney failure, had a well-documented Hall of Fame football career as a defensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers during the era of Vince Lombardi, winning five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowls with the team. His business career following his NFL retirement was equally distinguished. Davis was a successful entrepreneur in the broadcasting and beverage distribution industries, which landed him on the boards of several Fortune 500 companies. One board Davis joined, in 1989, was MGM Grand, Inc., at the insistence of his friend, billionaire, and MGM founder Kirk Kerkorian. Years earlier, Davis was on the board of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios when Kerkorian controlled the company. A 2017 profile of Davis in Investor’s Business Daily featured a quote, attributed to Kerkorian, describing Davis as “smart as a whip.” “I thought so well of him and what he could bring to the board, but he was just such a kind person,” Kerkorian said. When Davis retired from the MGM board in 2014, he became a Director Emeritus, a title given to just two others – Kerkorian and longtime board member Melvin Wolzinger. Willie Davis, far left, as MGM board members and executives, take part the bell closing ceremony for the New York Stock Exchange at the opening of CityCenter in 2009 Davis was part of every major growth decision that created what is now MGM Resorts International, which operates more than two dozen gaming and non-gaming properties in six states, including 13 on the Las Vegas Strip. “Willie Davis was an unforgettable figure who effortlessly transitioned from an NFL Hall of Fame legend to a successful leader in the world of business,” MGM Acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle, who joined the company in 1998, said in a statement Monday. “As a member of MGM’s Board of Directors, Mr. Davis provided invaluable insight and leadership, working closely with founder Kirk Kerkorian and members of the board to make MGM Resorts the company it is today. We join his family and fans in mourning his passing.” The same year Davis joined the upstart MGM Grand, Kerkorian’s newest Las Vegas enterprise acquired the Marina Hotel and Tropicana Golf Course. The site’s 104 acres provided the land necessary for the MGM Grand Las Vegas, which opened in 1993 with a 5,000-room hotel-casino along with a theme park. I can recall covering a 1990 MGM Grand shareholders meeting, held in the showroom of the Desert Hotel-Casino, which Kerkorian had acquired three years earlier. Not comfortable with large crowds, Kerkorian would usually hand these types of meetings over to his trusted lieutenants, men like Fred Benninger, Terry Christensen, Alex Yemenidjian, Terry Lanni, or Jim Murren. While Kerkorian steadfastly avoided the newspaper’s photographer, Davis gladly shook hands and posed for photos with everyone who asked. As the company expanded – acquiring Mirage Resorts in 2000 and Mandalay Resort Group in 2005, along with developing the $9 billion CityCenter complex on the Strip, which opened in 2009 – MGM’s board also grew, in both size and scope. Willie Davis at one of his radio stations in Milwaukee Davis, the first African American to sit on the board of a major casino gaming company, saw to it that diversity in leadership would be a part of the company’s plan. In 2002, former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman joined the board, becoming MGM’s female African American board member. Following the Mandalay Resort Group acquisition, renewable energy consultant Rose McKinney-James, a Mandalay board member, joined the MGM board, becoming the panel’s second female African American board member. Herman and McKinney-James continue to sit on the board. Davis was a strong presence on the board over time, which included several notable business, gaming, and political titans, such as former U.S. Secretary of State and retired general Alexander Haig. The MGM board position wasn’t Davis’s fulltime job; he owned several Milwaukee-based radio stations through his All-Pro Broadcasting company. Davis also bought a failing Schlitz Brewing Co. distributorship in South Central Los Angeles in 1970, turning the business into a money-making operation that he sold in 1988. He also served on the boards of Sara Lee Corp., Dow Chemical, Schlitz, and the National Association of Broadcasters, and spent 11 years on the board of the Packers. Davis was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981. In 2012, Davis published his autobiography, Closing the Gap. Written in collaboration with freelancers Jim Martyka and Andrea Erickson Davis, the book covers his time with the Packers, his business career, and his “pursuit of excellence.” In the book’s forward, Davis’ former Packer teammate, quarterback Bart Starr, wrote that Davis “took his work seriously, both as a football player and later on in his many business ventures. That discipline has led him to unbelievable success. Willie has been the same great guy. He’s been very humble, looking at hard work and success as a responsibility.” Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.