Shortly after Cosmopolitan opened in December 2010, CEO John Unwin stopped to fill up his car at a gas station when a stranger approached him to ask if he was “the guy from Cosmopolitan.” “I said I was,” Unwin says, “and he replied, ‘Well it’s great; we love it. It’s about time somebody brought some new ideas here.’”

Unwin couldn’t agree more. “Las Vegas is such an exciting, sexy place,” he says. “But it just needed to be brought up to speed a little bit.”

That’s why when Unwin, 54, landed his dream job at the small—if only by Vegas standards— resort and casino, he put the pedal to the metal. Unlike some of Unwin’s past employers, including Caesars Palace where he was general manager, the one-off property isn’t part of a large conglomerate. Unwin says that’s partly why (despite not having the “advantages to economies of scale and support when you’re part of a big company”) it’s become so popular. “We are very nimble because we are a small company and can respond quickly to the needs of our business and customers,” he says. “We do a lot of local business; they like us.”

It was a 30-year journey from his bouncing around the Strip for the first time at the tender age of 23 to confident Vegas CEO. That inaugural trip, in 1982, made such an impact on the now-seasoned traveler that he created the Book & Stage in its memory. “I went to one of the casinos, and they had a lounge that was open to the whole casino floor,” says Unwin, who grew up in Seattle but was living in Orange County at the time and already working in the hotel industry. As he played two-dollar blackjack and quarter craps, “there was B.B. King himself, playing in the casino lounge.” The wide-eyed and young Unwin loved bragging to his friends back home of his brush with fame—even though he wasn’t even really a fan. He went on to cut his teeth at Fairmont, Marriott, and Westin hotels, slowly working his way up the hospitality chain. These days he rubs elbows with such A-listers as Jay-Z, Adele, and Stevie Wonder.

The former Ian Schrager Hotels COO moved to Vegas from NYC in spring 2004 to work at Caesars Palace before resigning five years later to take the number-one spot at Cosmopolitan. It’s clear, however, that the fun-loving boss still retains some of the innocence he exhibited during his very first trip to Vegas: “When you’re opening something, it’s like throwing a party and hoping everyone’s going to show up,” he says. Show up they did, and he admits that the gig overall is “like playing at Yankee Stadium.” There’s been so much buzz around this tiny casino-that-could that Unwin estimates it had 12 billion media impressions worldwide its first year. This year, Unwin has spent his time fine-tuning the business’s operations. He purged what didn’t connect with customers and supplied more of what did, such as food and beverage offerings and high-end gaming areas, including the year-old Talon Club. “The first six months of the first year we lost about $19 million,” he says. “Through the first six months of this year, we made about 43 million.”

But he isn’t resting on his laurels. “That’s a really good trajectory,” he says. “But I have plenty left to do here.”

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