How Casino Mogul Phil Ruffin Made His Billions – And Shows No Sign of Slowing Down

Why Trust Techopedia
Why Trust Techopedia

The Phil Ruffin story has as many layers as his Las Vegas casinos have entertainment options.

Ruffin, a self-made success with a net worth upwards of $3.4 billion, turns 89 in March 2024 but remains actively involved in his business operations including the Circus Circus and Treasure Island – with another major casino on the way.

Among the headlines in the Ruffin life story is his ownership of hotels, his expertise at navigating the Las Vegas business maze and his friendship with former President Donald Trump.

So, how exactly did he make so much money? Here we explain the casino mogul’s story.

phil ruffin
Image: J. Scott Applewhite via Forbes

How Did Phil Ruffin Make So Much Money?

Phil Ruffin has always looked for the next opportunity, from the realization that there was more out there for him than there was at school to never becoming complacent in the business world.

Modest Beginnings

Phillip Gene Ruffin was born to Lebanese immigrants during the depths of the Great Depression, March 14, 1935. The prospects for wealth and luxury were certainly long shots, at best.

Potter County, Texas (Amarillo is the county seat, just more than 100 miles north of Lubbock), was home for only a short time.

Ruffin, the youngest of five children, moved with his family to Wichita, Kansas, where he spent most of his formative years and was educated at Wichita North High (1950-53).

A good athlete, Ruffin won wrestling titles and went to Washburn (Kansas) University on a wrestling scholarship. Ruffin dropped out during his junior year as business major to pursue entrepreneurial interests in the real world.

From selling burgers to beginning a long relationship with convenience stores, Ruffin grew his various businesses and capitalized on one big idea – self-serve fuel stations – to raise his profile.

Ruffin convinced oil company leaders the marriage of self-serve gas stations and convenience stores would provide improved profits, and, by his mid-to-late 30s had opened more than 60.

“There was a lot of opposition from the major oil companies,” Ruffin said in an interview with Las Vegas Sun. “They said women wouldn’t pump their own gas, that men in suits wouldn’t put gas in their cars.”

Always looking ahead for the next growth opportunity, Ruffin converted his gas station success and jumped into the hotel business.

His first foray into the hotel industry, a Marriott in Wichita, found success in the late 1980s due to Ruffin’s insistence on top-quality customer satisfaction.

The self-serve gas and convenience store coupling was a wild success for Ruffin, who found his path to riches when he doubled down on the burgeoning marriage of high-end hotel-casinos.

A Leap into the Casino Business

With a common-sense approach that underscored the importance of leveraging assets and minimizing debt loads, Ruffin set out to grow his empire via hotel resorts and casinos.

In 1995, he acquired the Crystal Palace in the Bahamas for $80 million, and, in 1997 he capitalized on the success of that resort.

Ruffin borrowed $50 million to help acquire the Las Vegas Strip property New Frontier. The price? Fewer than $200 million.

Continuing the search for sweet deals, Ruffin sold the Bahamas property for $147 million in 2005, and, with an eye on further riches in Las Vegas, sold the New Frontier property for a staggering $1.24 billion in 2007.

Much bigger plans in the world of gambling began to materialize, and a pirate-themed Las Vegas destination became the difference between millionaire and billionaire.

Ruffin purchased the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino from MGM Mirage in 2009 for $775 million.

Ruffin again pushed the customer-satisfaction asset to the forefront – literally, continuing the staged pirate battles at the small lake on the casino’s Strip side that entertain thousands each week.

According to multiple revenue reports, the Treasure Island remains a profit machine with approximately $400 million filling the coffers every year.

Completing his Las Vegas run of acquisitions was the purchase of Circus Circus in 2019 for $825 million.

Although the timing could scarcely have been worse – the pandemic caused Las Vegas to basically shut down – Ruffin has overseen the re-imagining of the property, and the Las Vegas tourist industry has come blazing back to life.

But Wait, it’s More Than Hotel-Casinos

Ruffin continues to see profit from his numerous convenience stores.

He also owns Casino Miami, in Florida, along with other hotel properties that include a 50% stake in a hotel and residential space named for his good friend Donald Trump.

This hotel, the Trump Las Vegas, is a traditional property and not a casino.

Phil Ruffin and His Best-Man Partnership With Donald Trump

Through common interests (hotel and casino industry, real estate and wealth building), Phil Ruffin and former President Donald Trump developed a strong friendship.

Now more than 20 years after establishing a relationship, Ruffin and Trump remain close. Ruffin is a frequent contributor to Trump’s election campaigns and was among those at the forefront urging Trump to seek the presidency again.

Phil Ruffin and Trump
Image: pittgriffin/Twitter

Ruffin’s most recent marriage, in 2008 to then-26-year-old Oleksandra Nikolayenko, featured Donald Trump as Ruffin’s best man.

In fact, the two are fast friends in part because their wives – Trump’s wife, Melania, is also eastern European – have a great deal in common and reportedly text each other about raising children and other topics.

Ruffin lauds Trump’s savvy in the business world and was surprised and impressed with Trump’s ability to win the presidency in 2016.

“He’s somebody who wants everybody’s opinion,” Ruffin said in an Associated Press interview. “He’ll summon people over and say, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that?’

“Then he compiles it all in his mind and makes his own decision.”

Prior to being married to Nikolayenko – 2004’s Miss Ukraine –  Ruffin said, Trump would “approve my girlfriends all the time.”

Ruffin continues to donate amounts north of $1 million to Trump’s current re-election campaign.

Phil Ruffin’s Personal Side: Homes & Family

Phil Ruffin and wife Oleksandra Nikolayenko continue to enjoy the spoils of Ruffin’s business success.

The marriage to Nikolayenko is Ruffin’s third.

Before Ruffin married Nikolayenko (January 2008), resulting in the birth of their children Richard (2010) and Malena (2013), he married and divorced Mary Louise Miller as well as Lynne Ruffin, with whom he had three children: daughter Michelle, son Chris and son Phil Jr.

Among the primary duties for the three, Michelle heads up the Wichita Marriott, Chris leads the Wichita Hyatt and Phil Jr. is head of Harper Trucks, the world’s largest hand truck company.

Always a family-centric man, Ruffin remains close to his children – no matter which of his homes they choose for gatherings.

Ruffin has a large estate in Las Vegas, which he purchased in 2015.

The 10-acre property was owned by Gary Primm (a developer of the Strip hotel-casino New York New York), who sold it for a reported $6.7 million.

Phil Ruffin buys Primm estate
Image: Las Vegas Review Journal

Among the specifics within the six-building, 50-room estate: a main living area comprising 15,000 square feet, a guest house, greenhouse, driving range for golfers, and an equestrian center.

Ruffin already owned a house on 12 acres adjoining the Primm property.

Among his other past residences is one that was owned by Kenny Rogers.

Ruffin and Lynne, while married, purchased a house from the late entertainer. Following the couple’s divorce in the early 2000s, Lynne remarried (R.T. Smith) and continued to live there until her death in 2011. After the death of Smith in 2019, the house was renovated and eventually sold for $2.7 million in 2021.

Ruffin also owned a Park Avenue condo, which he sold in 2020 for $6.15 million. He had purchased the 2,200-square-foot residence in 2000 for $2.79 million, according to a report in the New York Post.

Moving Ahead With a Return to his Roots

Phil Ruffin’s net worth has reached the $3.4 billion range, and he’s more than free to choose his future projects.

For now, he’s focusing on his original home turf, Wichita, Kansas, where he continues to own myriad businesses and is eager to launch the Golden Circle, a new casino.

Phil Ruffin bio
Image: bizjournals/Twitter

Capitalizing on Kansas legalizing sports betting in 2022, which includes traditional casinos and online casinos, Ruffin is fully invested in developing a horse racing facility and casino on the site of what was Wichita Greyhound Park.

In addition to providing a live horse racing simulcasting venue, the casino will operate 1,000 “historical horse racing” (HHR) machines. These units, essentially, are slot machines that produce results derived from a database of past races.

The Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission approved Ruffin’s plan last July.

“We’re ecstatic with the news,” son Phil Ruffin Jr. said at the time, adding that he planned to open the casino in late 2024. “It’s an iconic building – it’s been there since 1989, and there’s a lot of space in there; there’s a lot to do.”

The hotel-casino project, with an estimated cost of $84 million, is reportedly going to include a Gilley’s Dance Hall and Saloon along with restaurants (Ruffin emphasized top-quality sports bars) and an amphitheater.

In December 2023, the Park City (Kansas) Planning Commission stamped its approval with a unanimous vote as construction continued into January.

A tireless mogul at 88, Phil Ruffin continues to make the right moves in the business community as he adds to his impressive casino empire.

 

Jay Dieffenbach
Sports Betting Expert
Jay Dieffenbach
Sports Betting Expert

Jay is a Sports Betting Writer at Techopedia.com, and has been working in US sports for more than 20 years. He's worked for Daily Racing Form, the Arizona Republic, The Athletic and FanDuel among other sports and gambling positions.