Chief executive officers are held accountable for the success (or failure) of their organizations. The decisions they make are critical to the operations and future viability of their companies. They have an immense responsibility to set the standard for the organization and the direction for the future. In these trying economic times, their jobs are especially difficult as they strive to provide job security while balancing decreased revenue with escalating costs.
In choosing the leaders to feature in our annual “Most Respected CEOs” article, the editorial staff of Nevada Business polled prominent business leaders throughout the state, culled through dozens of nominees, visited with their employees and selected six outstanding individuals. Those chosen are as diverse as the organizations they run. However, they are connected by a common denominator; they are all respected by their peers, and by the team they have mobilized to achieve a common goal. Here’s a glimpse into Nevada Businesses’ 2009 Most Respected CEOs.
Michael Montandon,City of North Las Vegas
Before 1997, North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon never imagined he would run for public office. At the time, this Phoenix, Arizona, native had a Bachelor’s degree in finance and an established career in commercial real estate appraisal, which he learned from his mentor—his father, still in the business. His passion for public affairs was aroused while he was president of his homeowners association and a subsequent stint on the former mayor’s Task Force for Wages, Benefits and Finance.
Montandon, 45, has loved being mayor, is five months shy of finishing his third and final term, and plans to run for governor of Nevada.
During his mayoral tenure, which requires 20 to 30 hours of weekly commitment, Montandon has established a goal for North Las Vegas and ensures that all personnel, decisions and tasks are in accordance with that aspiration.
“Our vision is to create a place where people choose to live, not where they live by accident or can only afford to live,” said Montandon.
To that end, he has overseen the installation of hundreds of acres of new parks along with other crucial infrastructure—roads, water lines and sewer plants.
“We have literally taken North Las Vegas from small town to big city,” he said.
Montandon oversees a 2,256-member staff, which includes police force employees. He fosters morale by maintaining a positive attitude; making known his values and priorities up front; and remaining accessible around the clock to employees and all city residents. He admits, he gets 3 a.m. phone calls about malfunctioning street lights.
He sets an example by working hard. Montandon, who worked his way through college, spends about 25 to 30 hours per week as a business development consultant for two local companies, Core Construction and Nevada Construction Services. He sits on several boards and volunteers as a Boy Scout leader; his two sons are in his troop.
“I am most proud of my family,” Montandon said. “We have the greatest family.”
Kara Kelley, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce
One aspect Kara Kelley loves about her job as president and CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce (LVCC) is getting mentored by a different executive each year. In fact, the LVCC is where Kelley, 40, has grown up professionally, she said.
She began working there nearly 14 years ago while pursuing a Master’s degree in political science. She had experience working on political campaigns, lobbying the Legislature and student teaching for Dina Titus, now a U.S. congresswoman. She held six positions at the Chamber before becoming its CEO in 2002.
Today, at the helm of the organization, and in about 60 hour work weeks, she manages the business of serving the organization’s 7,000 business members. She is the Chamber’s chief fundraiser, lobbyist and spokesperson.
“Our hope is that we help our members grow and become strong and prosperous so they can create jobs and expand the economy,” she said.
Kelley has also made strides advocating on behalf of the business community. In the upcoming legislative session, she plans to pursue various government reforms on behalf of the LVCC.
This Las Vegas native, who values and empowers her staff, has created a workplace atmosphere and benefit structure that respect workers’ on-the-job contributions and outside lives. For instance, employees get 24 hours, per year, of paid time off for community service.
Her philosophy that constant improvement is vital drives her and the expectations she has for her employees. Kelley challenges her team to be innovators and remain focused on creating value for Chamber members, but also recognizes the importance of having fun too.
Her staff says that she leads by example, often collaborating on strategies and decisions and does not micromanage. Kelley is authentic, does what she says she will and strives to communicate regularly and clearly.
When not working, Kelley spends time with her husband and two daughters, watching movies, playing games, hiking, cooking and traveling. To fit that in, she turns down requests for her time when necessary, limits herself to three evening events per week and, when at home, turns off her phone.
“I think I have balanced the challenges of being a working mother pretty well and have been able to demonstrate to my daughters that being a successful professional, mother and wife are not mutually exclusive,” she said.
Joe Crisci, Crisci Builders
Crisci relocated his family from New York to Las Vegas in 1984, where he then launched and still operates, a commercial construction company that dabbles in custom home building and millwork.
“It’s been such a blessing to move here,” he said. “I don’t miss the cold. When I left, I threw away my snow shovel and I hope I never have to shovel snow again.”
Crisci Builders, Las Vegas Chamber’s 2008 Small Business of the Year began in 1990 with a license prohibiting projects over $250,000. Today, with unlimited liability, Crisci erects major projects, such as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Crime Scene Investigation Laboratory and Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus.
Originally from Youngstown, New York, Crisci, 61, manages his company as he would a sports team, drawing from his physical science degree and 13 years of teaching physical education and coaching football, track and swimming in Glen Falls, N.Y.
He hires experienced employees who share his ethics and philosophy and lets them do their jobs undisturbed. He does not settle for mediocrity, believing any task can be achieved with the right amount of effort. He is consistent, positive and, as he said, unafraid to “remove the bad apples.” Crisci expects his 35 employees, many who have been with him for 15 to 17 years, to treat each other and the clients with respect, integrity and honesty. He provides his team with health insurance coverage, a matching 401(k) program and annual bonuses.
“I feel that I’m honest. I listen, I don’t always do the talking and I care,” said Crisci.
With regard to the community, Crisci Builders is donating its time and energy to build the Casey Jones Clinic, a 1,230-square-foot, free healthcare clinic for children under 18.
Crisci himself is president of the Nevada Neuroscience Foundation, an organization that improves the quality of life for people with chronic neurological conditions, their families and caregivers. He became involved with the foundation after seeing the hardships face by his son Scott, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 12 years ago. (Scott, doing well, is Crisci Builders’ director of marketing.)
“I think through our foundation we’re making their lives a little easier,” Crisci said.
This CEO refuels through regular boating excursions (an 18-year hobby) and vigorous workouts.
“Life is good,” Crisci said. “I have a company to be proud of, a family that loves me and friends that I cherish.”
Craig Galati, Lucchesi Galati Architects Inc.
Ray Lucchesi, and the staff Galati led the company to where it is today, focused and debt free.
He helped implement a sociological approach to architecture that differentiates the firm from its competitors. It entails understanding the underlying purpose of each client’s project and then allowing that to influence the architecture. For example, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce wanted a new facility that fostered a cohesive, collaborative atmosphere. Therefore, LGA incorporated open office systems, spaces for teams to meet and did not include a conference room in its design.
“Having the social science expertise helps us to get to the point where we can really leverage our architectural skills for the most meaning,” Galati, 48, said.
LGA’s projects have included R&R Partners’ corporate office and the Desert Living Center and Gardens at the Springs Preserve.
This president, self-described as “action oriented, but grounded in vision,” finds success in engaging employees for input, even on significant company decisions. One such effected decision was to initiate a 401(k) program directed by an outside manager and instituting an employee investment committee. To further engage his employees in the decision making process, Galati has established a board of directors, which consists of four employees and two shareholders.
This native Las Vegan wants all 25 staff members to enjoy their jobs. Therefore, he strives to maintain a nurturing, collaborative atmosphere where everyone works on meaningful projects. He truly cares and respects the employees, company and clients, he said.
Galati’s community involvement includes speaking to various organizations on business-related subjects, such as ethics, strategic planning and customer service. He is also a member of the Las Vegas Chamber’s Government Affairs Committee and the American Planning Association. He has penned two books, “Admit It!: 21 Things You Already Know But Apparently Have Forgotten Regarding Client Service” and “A Man in Transition: Reflections on Relationships, Leadership and Life.”
In addition to his accomplished work as an author—he’s contemplating drafting another business guide. In his spare time, Galati spends time with his wife of 25+ years and two boys, coaching one son’s soccer team and reading business-oriented books. He admits his mind never stops. “I’m always thinking about whatever we’re engaged in and doing,” he said. “At times I’m so thankful for it, but sometimes I wish I could turn it off.”
John Ascuaga, John Ascuaga’s Nugget
While working his way through college as a bellman at Shore Lodge in McCall, Idaho, John Ascuaga, now 84, became enamored with the resort business. Though he was nearly finished with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, he shifted gears entirely. Ascuaga left Idaho and pursued a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Washington State University.
Subsequently, he began running various operations for Dick Graves, who owned several Nugget restaurants first in Idaho and then later in Northern Nevada. When Graves opened a 60-seat Nugget coffee shop in Sparks in 1955, he designated Ascuaga, then about 25, to be the shop’s general manager. Thereafter, the two grew the Sparks operation until Graves retired and Ascuaga purchased the business from him. Today, John Ascuaga’s Nugget is a resort casino with more than 1,600 hotel rooms, eight restaurants, convention facilities and a showroom.
“I’m pretty proud of my operation,” the president said.
This Notus, Idaho, native is an honest leader and makes it a point to surround himself with talented, capable people, including his daughter, Michonne Ascuaga, CEO, and his son, Stephen Ascuaga, chief operating officer.
Ascuaga is not known to accept “no” as an answer and believes any goal is attainable with effort. These values come from growing up on a self-sufficient farm that taught him all about hard work.
“Running a business is not always a bowl of cherries,” he added. “You just don’t fold. That is what makes you strong.”
The Nugget employs approximately 1,800 people and Ascuaga is on a name basis with many of them. He takes the time to recognize their efforts, encourages them to move up in the ranks and avails himself to the employees on a regular basis.
“If you don’t have happy employees, you’re not going to have a good place,” he said. “You treat them the way you’d want to be treated.” It does not get any simpler or true than that.
Ascuaga views each staff member as equally valuable. “That person cleaning my leathers downstairs is just as important as my CEO,” he said. “We all have an important part in running this engine.”
Each year this Basque executive helps 25 students pay for college through the company’s scholarship program. Since its genesis in 1956, the Nugget has donated more than $500,000 and assisted at least 500 individuals in this quest.
In his earlier years, work days were long, but now, Ascuaga “comes in late and leaves early,” he said. He is always out the door at 5 p.m. for dinner at home with his wife. For leisure, he spends time on his ranch, being outdoors and playing golf. After decades of devotion to the hospitality industry, which has greatly shaped the economic skyline of Northern Nevada, Ascuaga takes pride in his legacy and enjoys taking a few more moments for himself and family these days.
Ellen Oppenheim, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority
Ellen Oppenheim, 57, has always admired her late grandfather, Sam Gartner, an ophthalmologist, who worked hard and yet still found time for family and recreation. It is no surprise she strives to do the same in her own life.
Working 60+ hour weeks, Oppenheim heads the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. Her job entails leading the group’s some 400 staff members; working with local businesses and the community to promote and market the Reno-Tahoe region to attract tourists and convention groups; and overseeing city-owned events facilities.
Since becoming the RSCVA’s general manager and CEO in 2006, this New York native, with public input, board discussion and staff involvement, developed a three-to-five-year strategic plan for the organization. Under Oppenheim’s oversight, the agency has booked several conventions for upcoming years, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International and the Home, Patio and BBQ Expo. In addition to aggressive business development, Oppenheim has strengthened the RSCVA’s relationships with area hotels, attractions and residents. This improvement will ensure the new business coming to the region will experience a true public-private hospitality partnership.
Oppenheim sits on a number of boards, including The Reno Philharmonic, the National Automobile Museum and the Legends Reno-Tahoe Open.
“I care about the community and want to be involved in the community,” she said. “I have made the time and commitment to follow through and do that.”
Oppenheim has nearly 30 years of government, university and corporate work experience—she has worked for the cities of San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego; Stanford University; and GES Exposition Services. Oppenheim holds a Master’s of Business Administration degree in management.
Her leadership strategies include listening, communicating and setting clear and measurable goals. To attain those aims, she plans, involves people and creates a sense of mission.
“I’m a strong leader, a good manager and focused on getting things done,” she said. “I always strive for the best of professionalism.”
She fosters a positive workplace by keeping employees informed, outlining her expectations and following through with tasks herself.