Bill Harrah stands as one of the most influential figures in gaming history. The company named for him is currently the world’s largest gaming operator, and his focus on efficient management and effective marketing has become the industry standard.
Harrah’s gaming career began in Venice, California, when in 1933 he bought out his father’s interest in a bingo-style game on the Venice boardwalk. Biographer Leon Mandel attributes his immediate “classing up” of the gambling operation to an innate sense of “The Right Way of Doing Things” that would guide him throughout his career. Harrah indeed fired the shills [employees hired to simulate play] and added padded stools and drapes to the gambling facility.
But Harrah’s new business occupied a precarious legal perch. In 1937, Harrah wearied of his struggles with the law and moved to Reno, where he opened a bingo club called . The club promptly failed due to its poor location two blocks away from the cluster of gambling halls in downtown Reno.
For the next decade, Harrah owned a series of small bingo parlors in downtown Reno. In 1946, he opened a larger gambling hall called Harrah’s Club. There, Harrah focused on providing outstanding customer service and attention to detail: later employees would rush to replace burned-out lightbulbs almost instantaneously, for fear that Harrah’s wrath would come down upon them.
In 1956, Harrah opened a Harrah’s Club at Lake Tahoe. In order to stay open during the slow winter, Harrah inaugurated a bus program that delivered patrons from across northern California to his casino. Both the Reno and Tahoe casinos became extremely successful, and both subsequently added hotels.
Harrah brought pricinples of standardization to the fore: all employees were thoroughly “Harrahrized” before allowed to serve the public. Thus, all customers could expect the same high level of service no matter when or which property they visited.
Harrah was generally content to let his top executives run daily operations, and devoted much of his time and money to an extensive collection of automobiles that was, at the time of his death, assessed at over $40 million.
In 1971 Harrah’s offered its first stock to the public, and in 1973 it became the first gaming company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Harrah died on June, 30, 1978, during heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. On his death, his attorney Mead Dixon became executor of his estate and chairman of the Harrah’s board. In 1980, Dixon orchestrated the sale of Harrah’s to Holiday Inn, a purchase that created the company that is today Harrah’s Entertainment.
In 1985, Harrah’s family endowed the University of Nevada’s Las Vegas with a generous gift to support hotel management education. Today, the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Adminsitration is one of the world’s top hotel programs–a legacy truly worthy of this gaming pioneer.