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Mitchell Etess: private man, public persona

Lee Elci, the radio talk show host, recalled the first time he ran into Mitchell Etess outside the studio. By then, Elci had known his sometime co-host for the better part of a decade.

“It was at Stop & Shop,” Elci said. “He was buying ice cream. My reaction was, ‘You’re not supposed to be out. You’re not in a suit and tie.’ It was like Batman without the mask on.”

In the spinning classes Etess leads at Shoreline Fitness in Old Saybrook, a cyclist might never learn the instructor’s identity.

“For the longest time, I didn’t know who he was,” David Weiss, an East Lyme resident, said after an April class. “Then I heard people calling him 'Mitchell,' and I recognized his voice from the Lee Elci radio show.”

An image of Etess as a man of mystery hardly jibes with his high public profile, which the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut will celebrate Wednesday night when it presents him with its 2015 Citizen of the Year Award. Etess, 57, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, has long been the face — and voice — of one of the region’s most successful enterprises.

Etess joined the Mohegan Tribe’s nascent gaming operation in 1995 and has been with it through plenty of thick and, more recently, thin. Now, after six or seven of the lean years, he believes it's rebounding. Nevertheless, he's going forward with his retirement this fall, which he said he began planning long ago.

“Since 2008, it’s been difficult,” he said during an interview at his Lyme home. “I don’t have it in me anymore to do justice to it, and I didn’t think it was fair to keep doing it. It’s not that you put in some 18-hour days, it’s that even if I work eight hours, when I go home, it’s always there. … I don’t want to say my work is done, but everything we’ve done for the last seven years has put us in a position to do what we’re doing.”

He acknowledged a reserve that seems at odds with his public persona.

It has to do with growing up at a hotel, he said, and not just any hotel. Grossinger’s, the famous Catskills resort in Liberty, N.Y., thrived for decades, providing Mitchell Grossinger Etess with an invaluable introduction to the hospitality business.

“It was such a big thing,” he said of the hotel, where the guests and the hostess, Etess’ grandmother, Jennie Grossinger, were celebrities. “In a place like that, you grow up asking yourself whether people want to be your friend because they like you or because they want to swim in the indoor pool. It makes you guarded.”

At 13, he started minding the kiddie pool, then supervised the renting of the chaise lounges. He worked in the clubhouse, in the golf shop and finally at the front desk — in addition to doing “everything else that needed to be done.” At Columbia University, he considered becoming a sportscaster and announced the Ivy League school’s basketball games. Playing varsity golf cost him some air time when the pursuits conflicted.

After his sophomore year, he took a semester off to work as a convention floor manager at Grossinger’s. When he graduated, he became the assistant manager, and when his older brother Mark left the family resort, he succeeded him as general manager, the last of three siblings to remain at the property.

Etess met his wife, Karen, at Grossinger’s, and they got married there in 1982. Their first daughter, Piper, was born there a few years later. He thought they might stay, but the family sold the property in 1985 and it closed in June 1986, never to reopen.

“So much of our life began there,” Etess said.

A year or so ago, with MTGA set to partner on a Catskills casino project, Ralph Guardiano, a principal of Outthink, an Essex-based marketing agency and a director of The Day, accompanied Etess on a visit to the upstate New York region.

“He’s like royalty up there,” Guardiano said. “The newspaper publisher’s got more pictures of Mitchell on his office walls than pictures of his own kids. ... Mitchell’s standing where the hotel used to be, all that’s left is the rubble, and he puts his hand in his pocket. He had this slouch about him. So I took his picture from behind. When he saw it, he said, ‘Don’t ever use that picture.’

“He kind of wears his heart on his sleeve.”

The Etesses’ post-Grossinger’s itinerary would include stops in Albany, N.Y.; Traverse City, Mich.; Pinehurst, N.C.; Atlantic City, N.J., and St. George, Utah, before the family settled in Connecticut.

Perhaps no move was more pivotal than the one in 1988 to Atlantic City, where Mark Etess, a rising star in the casino industry, was president of Trump Plaza and was to become president of Trump Taj Mahal and a new company, Trump Sports and Entertainment. The elder Etess arranged an interview for his brother, which led to Mitchell’s hiring as Trump Plaza’s manager of public relations.

About a year later, on Oct. 10, 1989, Mitchell Etess checked into his hotel room after attending a Manhattan news conference for the promotion of an upcoming fight between Vinny Pazienza and Hector Camacho. Awaiting him was a phone message that he knew was intended for his brother. He called his brother’s assistant to deliver the message, mentioning that he heard there had been a helicopter crash.

“When she (the assistant) seemed upset, I said, ‘Did you know anyone on it?’” Etess recalled. “She said 'Mark' and started crying.”

Mark Etess and two other Trump executives had died when a helicopter returning them to Trump Plaza from the news conference crashed on a Garden State Parkway median. The pilot and co-pilot were killed, too.

“It was a huge funeral,” said Etess, who gave his brother’s eulogy. “Hundreds of cars. It didn’t seem real to me. The Trump organization was devastated, Trump Plaza was devastated.”

Jack O’Donnell, then the Trump Plaza president, made Etess senior vice president of hotel operations, assuring him it wasn’t because he felt sorry for him. That promotion eventually led to Etess being named senior vice president of marketing. His casino career was in full swing.

“When you’re the owner’s son, you have to work twice as hard to prove you deserve your job,” Etess said. “I’ve felt that my whole life.”

Etess left the Plaza in 1994, taking a job as vice president of marketing at Players Island, a casino then opening in Mesquite, Nev. Within a year, he was simultaneously offered jobs at the Desert Inn, an iconic Las Vegas casino, and in Connecticut. He and Karen asked their daughters which they preferred. Piper was then in the fifth grade and sister Maxie, the third.

“In this business, you don’t stay in one place too long,” Etess said. “We figured if we could get the girls through high school here that would be a success. Now one of them is teaching high school (the other's in advertising) and we’re still here.”

Etess’ impact on Mohegan Sun was soon felt, according to Len Wolman, a member of the partnership that helped the Mohegan Tribe develop the casino in Uncasville. The partnership, Trading Cove Associates, helped hire the managers, including Etess, who in turn hired the 5,000 employees who had to be on board for the casino’s 1996 opening. Etess began his Mohegan Sun career as senior vice president of marketing. In 2004, he was named president and chief executive officer of the casino and two years later became CEO of MTGA, too.

“I have the utmost regard and respect for him,” Wolman said. “He has to be one of the best marketing people I’ve ever worked with. He has a number of traits that are outstanding, like his transparency. With him, what you see is what you get. He’s a real guy, he’s genuine and has tons of energy. He finds it hard to sit still for too long.”

Etess said his biggest accomplishment was developing talent at Mohegan Sun.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of, without question,” he said. “There are so many success stories. Bobby Soper (Etess’ successor at MTGA’s helm) is an obvious example, but then there’s Jennifer Ballester, who started as a receptionist and is now director of public relations …”

Kevin Brown, the Mohegan tribal chairman, said Etess’ legacy is secure.

“He has been central to the development and mentoring of tribal members who have moved into positions of responsibility,” he said. “He has personally touched so many people.” Brown also credits Etess with helping the tribe “achieve our strategic vision,” which includes involvement in a multi-billion-dollar plan to develop a South Korean casino project.

Etess said his biggest disappointment was MTGA’s 2014 failure to win the Greater Boston casino license that went instead to Wynn Resorts.

“To this day, I firmly believe we were the best choice,” he said. “But even in defeat, it changed the perception of us as a company. People saw that we were in the same league with Wynn. We knew we were on that level, but until then other people didn’t. The people who brought Korea to us did so because Wynn, (Las Vegas) Sands and MGM were busy with other projects.”

Etess revealed no big plans for retirement beyond spending time with Karen and the rest of his family. He and Brown are talking about him continuing in some role with the Connecticut Sun, the tribe-owned women’s basketball team.

He shouldn't doubt that many wish him well. And not because they want to swim in the indoor pool.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck

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