Joe Billhimer, president and CEO of Hard Rock Biloxi earns Casino Journal's Gaming Executive of the Year honors for his dedication to rebuilding a dream.

Joe Billhimer's dedication and resolve in rebuilding the Hard Rock Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina earn him honors as Casino Journal's 2008 Gaming Executive of the Year

There really isn’t a good time for a massive hurricane to strike a $235 million casino that’s under construction. But there certainly is a worst possible time for such a storm to hit-two days before its opening.

Just ask Joe Billhimer, the 44-year-old president and CEO of the Hard Rock Biloxi, which was destroyed by Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, just 48 hours before the property’s grand opening.

After two years of wangling with torturous insurance and reconstruction issues, the Hard Rock finally conducted its grand opening on the lucky date of 7-7-07, much to the zeal of the Biloxi area’s residents and public officials alike.

Set over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on sturdy concrete pillars rather than barges that before held the casino portion of the original structure, the new Hard Rock property features 318 guestrooms in a 12-story hotel tower; 1,445 slot machines and 50 table games; the full-service Rock Spa; a unique beach pool; the Rise ultralounge; retail stores; five restaurants including a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and the trademark Hard Rock Café; and a 1,400-person entertainment venue that features some of the most in-demand concerts and events.

The property has generated almost as much praise as the resort’s 44-year-old president. And it’s little wonder that Casino Journal has selected Billhimer as its Gaming Executive of the Year.

“There’s certainly no doubt Joe deserves the award,” said Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “With all the obstacles he had to overcome rebuilding what amounted to an almost brand new $200 million property, you have to admire the dedication and commitment he injected into the Hard Rock-and not once but twice. Very few in the industry could have pulled off that feat.”

One who agrees is Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association.

“I have known Joe for several years,” Martin said. “While he is not from this area, he quickly gained the respect and support of the locals and has continued this propensity among his peers, as well. There was never any doubt that Joe was committed to Biloxi and to reopening the Hard Rock. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is lucky to have him.”

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway was more succinct: “Joe’s level of energy has been relentless on bringing the Hard Rock back to where it is today-and we’re very proud of the work he’s done.”

‘It's bad, Joe'

To gaze at the 12-story white and alabaster concrete structure with its sharp architectural lines and beautiful azure hues, and 112-foot-tall Hard Rock sign in the classic shape of a Peavey guitar, it’s hard to believe that the 8.5-acre property only 23 months earlier was the site of twisted rebar, crumbled concrete and broken glass.

As Katrina began gathering force over the Bahamas and moved westward toward the Gulf Coast, Billhimer and his staff conducted an orderly evacuation of the newly- built hotel. Then he drove 120 miles to Destin, Fla., to wait out the storm.

“We had been through three different storms since construction began, and we had hoped to shut down for a day or two and then return for the opening,” Billhimer said. “But during the storm, when all the lines were down and there was no phone communication, I got a text message from one of the owners.”

The message read: “It’s bad, Joe. Real bad.”

The Category 5 storm-which was later determined to hit land as a strong Category 3-proved to be the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the nation’s history. The storm generated between 70 and 130 mile-an-hour gales and 100-mile-per-hour sustained winds, tearing through the entire southern portions of Mississippi and Louisiana, ripping up trees by the roots, destroying homes and structures and flinging about trailer trucks as though they were Tonka toys. The storm killed more than 235 people in Mississippi and displacing tens of thousands, while in New Orleans, La. and surrounding areas, there were over 1,550 deaths attributed to Katrina.

When Katrina came ashore in Biloxi, it destroyed the entire casino section of the Hard Rock, and scattered building materials, debris and priceless memorabilia several hundred yards in every direction.

Elvis Presley’s Army uniform was found several months later floating in the water. A velvet jacket once worn by John Lennon was found by local residents several blocks from the ravaged casino.

After Katrina subsided, Billhimer returned to what was once Biloxi’s vibrant Gulf Coast to instead find a battered war zone.

“It’s hard to describe what we saw,” Billhimer explained. “Virtually every building, every landmark, everything that we were used to seeing was gone.”

As for the resort itself: a 65-ton commercial shrimp vessel crashed into the barges that supported the casino, causing considerable damage. The casino itself was a shambles. The resort’s offices and 318-room hotel structure, which rested on dry land, suffered damage as well, though less severe.

Many others would have walked away, never to return. But Billhimer never considered quitting.

“If you know me, you understand that giving up is not an option,” he said.

Taking care of business

The first pressing issue Billhimer had to deal with was the fate of the 1,400 Hard Rock employees that were scheduled to go to work immediately.

Billhimer, who had started his career in 1984 as a craps dealer at the old Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, tapped into his depleted business account to issue the first week’s payroll to his employees.

“The one thing I’m really proud of is our ownership group,” said Billhimer, referring to Premier Entertainment LLC. “Our group didn’t hesitate to do the right thing. We had some money left in the bank, and within a week we had issued payroll and had paid people over $6 million of what we had left.”

When the damage was assessed, Billhimer was forced to terminate his employees, but not before each one received between four and 12 weeks hurricane pay.

Next, he and his management team, along with the owners turned his attention to insurance and reconstruction issues.

Luckily, new insurance policies covering the full value of the resort had taken effect August 15-only two weeks before the storm hit. Still, there were huge obstacles to overcome to collect enough money to repair the damages-estimated at more than $160 million.

“It’s easy to place insurance, but it’s a little more difficult to collect,” Billhimer said. “You have to understand, Katrina was among the world’s worst natural disasters, and the severity of everything were dealing with-from the damage to the claims-were enormous.”

Within the first nine months of the re-construction effort, Premier Entertainment collected $160 million from a conglomeration of American and foreign insurance companies that had issued policies on the resort.

But more money was needed to strengthen and reinforce the new casino, which the owners had agreed should sit on concrete pillars rather than barges.

The newer, beefed up Hard Rock with its myriad of amenities would cost more to develop, and so in early-2006 the owners took on another partner: LUK Ranch Entertainment, a private equity firm that invested $105 million in the project.

But Biloxi officials stressed that while the dedication of the insurance adjustors, contractors and even new partners certainly played a vital part in the rebirth of the Hard Rock, it was Billhimer who should get the most credit.

“Throughout everything that happened, Joe never changed his colors,” Gregory said. “He’s always the same person-always laid back, and he remained calm and spoke with a steady voice during all the turmoil and challenges that we all faced.”

Billhimer credits others he has learned from in the industry for teaching him to stay calm in the face of adversity.

“Anyone can learn the technical skills in a casino, but the best lessons I’ve learned in this business are about remaining calm in the face of adversity and maintaining a good attitude,” Billhimer said. “Sometimes when people are playing for high stakes, things can become a little tense, but it’s always better to have a good attitude. After all, our visitors are here to have a good time, and we’re here as ambassadors of the brand.”

Billhimer considers Bobby Yee, who today heads the Paris Las Vegas and Bally’s Las Vegas casino resorts, as a personal mentor for teaching him the value of customer service.

“I can’t stress enough how something as simple as smiling and saying hello can go such a long way in this business,” he said.

Rising career, rising market

Billhimer’s stellar career is testament to his philosophy.

Eight years after he began dealing craps in Atlantic City, Billhimer relocated to the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a member of the Casino Magic Bay St. Louis and Biloxi opening teams. In 1997, he was named vice president and general manager of the Bay St. Louis property.

Three years later, Billhimer was named president and general manager of Grand Casino Gulfport where he was responsible for all aspects of the property’s operations. In 2003, Billhimer was named president and chief operating officer of the Hard Rock.

In the two years since Katrina battered Mississippi’s gaming industry, 11 of Biloxi’s 13 casinos have reopened, and an additional eight casinos are planned in the next six years. With the casinos, developers are also planning for as many as 12,000 condominium units and more restaurants and other amenities.

Billhimer couldn’t be more pleased.

“It’s really marvelous to see everyone step up to the plate and make the Gulf Coast bigger and better than anyone could have envisioned only a few years ago,” Billhimer said. “This is such a beautiful area, and there are so many exciting things to do here. There are wonderful golf courses, great fishing for marlin, not to mention the restaurants and night life.”

Certainly, the Hard Rock is renowned for its live music venues, and Billhimer knows more about the value of good entertainment than many in the industry.

“Last weekend, we had Eddie Money, Rick Springfield and Patty Smyth at the Hard Rock,” Billhimer said at the time of this interview. “They put on a heck of a show. The entertainment venue we have is second to none. We host everyone from the Doobie Brothers to Kid Rock, and we’re not just focused on booking rock and roll acts. We’re always looking for good music.”

But on a personal level, the casino operator looks for a few minutes when he can relax with his family. They include Terri, his wife of 13 years and their three children-12-year-old Joey, 10-year-old Anthony, and six-year-old Carley.

Billhimer is actively involved in the community and has served on the board of directors for the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center. A long-standing member and former officer of the Gulf Coast Gaming Association, he currently serves on the board for the Gulf Coast Business Council. He is also a board member of the Brett Favre Forward Foundation and the New Hope Center. He is a staunch supporter of the United Way and has been named as one of the Gulf Coast’s top business leaders under 40.

Billhimer and his family live in Pass Christian, Miss. and are active members of St. Thomas Catholic Church.

Like many residents of Biloxi, Billhimer is a little more spiritual today than he was before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

“Anyone who lived through that and who doesn’t appreciate the things we take for granted, like our families and our homes-well, he would have to be a little nuts,” Billhimer said. “For many of us, Katrina certainly put a lot of things in perspective.”