You thought it was tough being the CEO of a bank these days; the casino industry has been just as brutal. Bankruptcies and near failures abound. The difference is that the U.S. government bailed out the banks. No such luck for casinos. Just a year ago, MGM, LVS, WYNN and others were trading at all-time highs. What a difference a year makes.

CEO pay has also been one of the most hotly debated topics during this economic crisis. Congress has even gotten involved by passing new legislation regarding executive pay. With that as a backdrop, our annual survey of CEO performance demonstrates that a chief executive can perform well even in the worst of circumstances.

10 Best Performing CEOs

TOP PERFORMERS

Our annual survey evaluates the stock performance, EBITDA growth and market capitalization of public gaming companies and then compares it with CEO pay. The outcome is an index that determines whether a CEO earned his or her paycheck.

Richard Haddrill at Bally Technologies topped the list this year, with an HVS Value Index of 156 (see chart “10 Best Performing CEOs”). His rating means that despite the economic downturn and his $3.7 million in total compensation, he still was underpaid by nearly $2 million. In fact, Bally Technologies was one of only three companies to see a rise in their stock price over the survey period. WMS and Churchill Downs were the others. Additional top performers included Lyle Berman, Andre Hilliou and Steve Wynn, all past winners of our survey.

It was interesting to see an even split between operators and suppliers in this year’s Top 10. Usually there has been a decided advantage for one side or the other.

Top Gaming Salaries

SALARY and BONUS

The average salary of a gaming CEO was $710,000, which was almost identical to last year’s survey. The largest salary went to Steve Wynn at $3.5 million. Nine of the Top 10 salaries were $1 million or more (see chart “Top Gaming Salaries”). The average bonus, on the other hand, went down dramatically, from $900,000 in 2007 to $300,000 in 2008. Most bonus plans were based on financial metrics such as profitability, and 2008 was a rough year. The largest bonus also went to Steve Wynn at roughly $4 million, but that was $3.5 million less than his bonus the previous year. We further note that 15 gaming CEOs received no bonus at all in 2008.

Gaming Industry CEO Survey

LONG-TERM INCENTIVES

Long-term incentives for gaming executives were predominately in the form of restricted stock grants and stock options. Sixteen of the CEOs had a blend of both. The average value of L-T incentives was $1.2 million, not much different than the $1.5 million the previous year. These types of incentives tend to be programmed over a long period of time so it was not surprising to see little movement. We note that the median L-T incentive was only $300,000, which illustrates that a few very large stock packages were granted. The largest incentive went to Lorne Weil at nearly $8 million. Weil gave up his CEO seat at Scientific Games but remains chairman.

Each of the top 10 incentive packages was greater than $1 million. We found it startling to see the average market capitalization for a gaming company go from $5 billion to $2 billion, demonstrating the destructive force of the economic meltdown. Likewise, overall compensation for gaming CEOs went down by almost $1.3 million in 2008.

RICHER, POORER

The list of gaming’s richest CEOs didn’t change much year over year, but the value of their stock holdings has been greatly diminished. For example, Sheldon Adelson was worth $19 billion at the end of 2007, and at the end of 2008 was worth only $1.5 billion. Steve Wynn and Micky Arison remained billionaires as well but saw the value of their stock decrease by 50 percent.

As the gaming industry is in survival mode, we predict that executive compensation will continue to fall. Not until the economy rebounds and consumers start spending discretionary dollars will things improve for the industry and its CEOs.