How She Leads: Cindy Ortega, MGM Resorts

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the careers of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

When it comes to winning support from her boss, Cindy Ortega considers herself extremely lucky. As senior vice president for corporate sustainability at MGM Resorts International, she counts on CEO James Murren to add to her green business agenda rather than trimming ideas back. "He's about us flying and doing more than we think we can do," Ortega said during a phone interview from her Las Vegas office.

Given that scenario, the breadth of MGM's activities is hardly surprising, nor is the attention sustainable business measures receive as a management guidepost across the organization.

Its progress (so far) is notable: The ambitious City Center Project holds more Gold LEED certifications than any other new construction project and 15 MGM resorts have been recognized with Green Key ratings for environmental conversation in the hospitality industry. MGM is also putting the finishing touches on one of the largest commercial, on-site solar installations in the world: a 6.2-megawatt installation atop the Mandalay Bay Resort.

Ortega, a former CFO for the $10 billion company's corporate services division, believes her financial background is invaluable in winning credibility for unproven initiatives. Equally as important is this former cowboy's success in corralling support from MGM's 62,000-plus employees.

What follows is a transcript of her recent discussion with GreenBiz senior writer Heather Clancy, edited for length and clarity.

Heather Clancy: How does your financial background help in your role as a chief sustainability executive?

Cindy Ortega: It wasn't an accident that the company created this position from a finance person, because I think that we recognized that to really get past low-hanging fruit and the easy initiatives and to build a program that is sustainable, it has to be grounded in the business case. … A lot of green ideas are sustainable themselves, but when companies overlook measuring and overlook difficult steps that you would undertake with a normal business program, such as reporting and measurement, then the company isn't aware that the program is continuing to deliver value. Some companies are tempted to move on and do other things. 

Clancy: OK, so then I'm curious about the onsite solar investment. Why are you doing it, and how's the project going?

Ortega: We evaluated around seven different types of solar — big solar systems — over the course of about five years, and we could never get the right combination of regulatory structure together with financial structure to ever get them done, despite everybody's best intentions. We just kept working and working until we found what I call a secret sauce that allowed us to make a business case for solar. I really believe that it will be a leader in terms of adoption in Las Vegas. I think in five years there will be a lot of solar arrays in Las Vegas that produce.

The secondary reason is, of course: We want a diverse energy portfolio. We produce almost 9 megawatts of power ourselves through combined heat and power. When we're finished with this array, it's going to be almost 10 megawatts of solar.

Clancy: Do you have any lessons to share for anyone thinking about a similar installation? 

Ortega: I would say perseverance and ingenuity. We ran the numbers a lot of times. They were really close from a business case perspective. But if you look at how you're deploying capital, you'll [usually] deploy it somewhere else in an energy efficiency initiative first. … So how did we get this array done? Our financial analysts; and I have a guy that works for me that's an expert in energy finance and energy metrics. We looked at things like the insulation benefit in the building by putting the array on. So whereas traditional analytics may not have included that benefit, by us really looking at the fact that the sun isn't shining on the roof anymore and that we don't have the heat transfer in there, that provided us ability to get over our hurdle. 

Credit: Adele Smalley via FlickrDo you know the other thing we did that nobody has done in Nevada that had a lot of ingenuity connected to it? We found a private buyer for the [renewable energy certificates]. One of the barriers in Nevada, the biggest barrier in Nevada actually, was always that the utility purchased the RECs from smaller projects and small projects couldn't get the amount for the RECs they needed to overcomes the financial hurdle. We found a private purchaser and that contribution to the deal helped make the deal economic.  

Clancy: Water conservation is a big concern for your city, and for your state. How is MGM Resorts rising to that challenge? 

Ortega: We break it down into three buckets, no pun intended.

The first bucket is how our facilities operate; that includes inside and outside. Do we have the best technologies for horticulture? Do we have the best technologies installed in our kitchens and in our guest rooms and so on? We make a conscious effort to analyze and review and be the most water-efficient we can inside and out. The second bucket is the processes we use: many of our job classifications use water in terms of what they do to deliver their job every day. We educate our employees about water and about how important it is.

But our biggest reach actually comes outside of our own walls, through our employees. We have a platform that's a social platform that's our big employee engagement platform around green, and we have really fun badges that you can earn that teach you how conserve water in your own home. In Las Vegas, the most important element of water conservation is to reduce ornamental and horticultural use of water in residences. The way our system works is we extract water from the lake and we use it in our houses and showers and tubs and then we clean it and we put it back in the lake. When we pull water out that we sprinkle our lawns with, that doesn't go back to the lake and that's a problem. So, right now, the best thing MGM does is increase awareness among our employees here about how they can reduce water use every day at home and at work. 

Clancy: A follow-up question: the social platform you're mentioning, what is that?

Ortega: We designed a custom platform for gamification and social networking with our employees all around the idea of green. Our green program's tagline is the Green Advantage, so we named [the platform] My Green Advantage. We decided to do it last year: the board of directors actually were involved in selecting it and in endorsing it, and then we rolled it out across our company. … We have 22 percent of our employee base actually signed on to the platform, and we have very high retention. The reason it's so successful at MGM is because it's part of a big employee engagement campaign called What Can You Do?

Clancy: How important is that engagement? 

Ortega: What we're doing with that platform is we're using it as a bridge into business greening. We are introducing the concept of Green Advantage restaurants right now. Think of all the employees in a restaurant: dishwashers and cooks and waiters and hosts. Instead of using traditional methods, or in addition to our traditional methods like newsletters and posters about how to make the restaurant greener, we're making it interactive with those employees. So for example, when you go to a restaurant, one of the green restaurant parameters is water on request. We allow employees to earn points on My Green Advantage by following certain kind of behaviors. …

ACredit: MGM Resorts Internationalnother thing we're doing at the Green Advantage restaurants is we're replacing fryers. We worked with our local gas company to do a pilot program to stimulate the purchase of high-efficiency fryers. We are talking about how we add put a metal label on that fryer that has our green advantage leaf on it? So, everyday, all the cooks and all the dishwashers and all the people in the kitchen can see tangibly in front of them the things that they're using that the company's invested in that are more responsible to our environment. 

Clancy: What's your most pressing concern and how are you tackling it? 

Ortega: I need to worry about continuing to advance the program on the cutting-edge of technology and on the cutting edge of leadership. It really is not about checking off that green box and going on to something else, it is about investing in the right kinds of technologies. We're doing that in a couple of ways. First, the people who work on my team (and there are 10 of us) spend time investigating them. They pursue the leading edge. [One of my team members] was a judge in the DOE's Lighting Advancement and Innovation contest [this summer], and he is considered a national expert in lighting. 

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor? 

Ortega: There are legions; I have been really fortunate to work with a lot of really interesting and inspirational people. But I would say that probably the best mentor for me is my own father. My first job was as a cowboy: I grew up on a cattle ranch and I spent a significant amount of time with my own father. He taught me to be independent, and as a woman that's my age that was really important. [He also taught me] to trust my own decision-making, and he taught me to appreciate life, the bounty of life and that every day's so precious. I think that that root is probably why I find my job in environment so rewarding.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours? 

Ortega: I think people need to understand their own priorities. If you ask people, "What are your priorities?" you're going to get the same answers from everybody. They're going to say my health or my family or whatever — but something generic. I think understanding your priorities means being more clear about what your priority is. What about your health is your priority? [Maybe the answer is]: "I want to remain physically fit and agile so that as I age I will have a better chance against disease" or whatever.

Then, you have to be strategic about your own life. We're all strategic about the way we manage other things in business and so on. But you need to be strategic about your own life. You need to know where you're going and work towards some kind of strategic approach. 

Finally, I think that one of the most important things in advancing in Corporate America is that you want to be the team member that leaders want on their own team. You want to be a team member that people choose. The way [you go about this] is you work hard, you bring a good attitude and a positive attitude all of the time. You look for better ways to do things. If you do that over the course of years, you're more likely to be on the best teams, and being on the best teams is the most rewarding work. 

Top image of Cindy Ortega via MGM Resorts International.