WSWA Honors Larry Ruvo
with Lifetime Leadership Award
Larry Ruvo has had a storied career and his list of accomplishments span the worlds of business and philanthropy. He has been in the wholesale liquor and wine business for over 40 years, and has directed Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada since 1969, during which time SWS has become Nevada’s largest wholesale liquor, wine and beer importer and distributor. In 1995 he founded the Keep Memory Alive foundation benefiting the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute. After partnering with Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health opened in 2009 and has provided more than 55,000 patient appointments, treated 12,000 unique patients and built one of the largest Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials programs in the country including more than 60 trials with the participation of more than 500 individuals. His list of awards would fill an article alone, and this month the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America is bestowing on Mr. Ruvo a well-deserved Lifetime Leadership Award. We sat down with him to get his take on this prestigious award and the paths his life has taken.
Like me, you were raised in Las Vegas when it was basically a small town. What are some of the aspects of that small town life that you miss in today’s Las Vegas?
Nothing. For those of us who grew up here it’s still a small town. I have a great number of friends who I grew up with, and it’s still a very close-knit town. Also, I like that there are more amenities. Years ago we didn’t have the quality of medicine, restaurants, or quality of schools that we have today. I loved that period of my life when my hometown was small, but I’ve watched Las Vegas evolve into a world class city that retains the old Vegas charm with new world sophistication.
Your parents Angelina and Louis Ruvo were the respected and well-liked owners of The Venetian Restaurant in Las Vegas, one of the city’s most successful Italian restaurants of its era. What lessons did you learn from them that helped develop your acumen for running a successful business?
It started by watching both my parents taking great care of their customers and employees, and their involvement with donating back to the community. Moreover, I learned attention to detail; without question my mother was fastidious with cleanliness in the restaurant. Everything was spotless and had to be immaculate.
How has growing up in Las Vegas contributed to your understanding of the unique complexities and demands of the hospitality and gaming business in Las Vegas?
I’ve been on all sides of it. I worked as a busboy, front desk employee, waiter, supplied hotels, and I’ve run large clubs and hotels. I’ve grown to understand two things: first, I know the importance of having product continuity. You can’t be running out of product during peak times. Second, the depth of your bench is key, and you make sure you have a deep bench through training. You have to have someone available to fill in whenever your best employees have to be out or on vacation so it’s important to train employees to fill in different roles.
Early on in your professional career, you worked at the Sahara Hotel, opened up Caesars Palace and opened up the Frontier then went on to become the youngest manager at the time to run the entire hotel operation on the Las Vegas Strip, excluding the casino. How did these early experiences help shape your managing style?
I was fortunate to have a group of friends around me who were seasoned pros like Burton Cohen and Milton Frank. I was never afraid to ask questions or listen to their advice. They were always there to answer my questions, guide and help me. I knew how fortunate I was to be given such an opportunity at a young age, so I didn’t want to blow it; I was smart enough to ask questions, and most important to LISTEN!
You spearheaded the establishment of the now legendary UNLVino wine tasting, which is now recognized as America’s largest wine tasting charitable event www.unlvinocom. How have you seen this event grow and develop over the years?
Just this past Saturday night I took my family to dinner at Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill in Downtown Summerlin. One of the chefs, Christian Ephrem, came out and said, “Mr. Ruvo I want to shake your hand. I went to UNLV and received a scholarship and I just wanted to say thank you.” To get that acknowledgement in front of my family put a smile on my face and a bigger smile on my wife Camille’s face and my kids were proud. That’s what UNLVino is all about, to raise money to help academically talented, yet financially dependent young students. As UNLVino gets bigger we’re able to help more students and it’s a way of giving back to a city that depends on hospitality.
You are well known as being one of the community’s greatest philanthropists and were honored in 1999 with the Community Leadership Award from the Points of Light Foundation, received Man of the Year awards from the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the Food and Beverage Directors Association, and numerous other charitable organizations. To what do you attribute your life of generosity and of wanting to give back to the community?
It starts with my mother. I was an only child and growing up we didn’t have much. We lived in a very small two bedroom, one bathroom house. I remember one night hearing a terrible argument going on, and my parents never argued. A new church St. Anne’s was being built, and my mother had made a pledge. My father said, “We don’t even have enough for our own house.” My mother said, “God will take care of it,” and that ended the argument. I believe in the old adage ‘the more you give the more you get, and the more you get the more you have to give away.’ I’m proud to be a part of this incredible city we live in.
The Lifetime Leadership Award from the WSWA is quite an honor. What awards have you received that you are also proud of?
Because of my dear friend George H.W. Bush, I received the Points of Light award and that was quite remarkable. Also, I am passionate about anything that has to with education, so awards given by UNLV and The Meadows School, for example, are quite meaningful. I am very proud to have been part of the growth of both of those institutions. Also, since 1921 the Cleveland Clinic has only bestowed a total of 21 Distinguished Fellows awards, and I was #20 and my wife Camille was #21.
You have been the driving force behind the establishment and growth of educational activities at Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada. What advances have you seen made in this area at your company?
The education starting with our employees, and not just sales staff, but all our employees, is paramount to making sure we continue to be a leader in the industry. More recently, the evolution of our new Southern Wine and Spirits Training Academy, which I’m very proud of, has allowed us to reach beyond SWS employees, and to reach our customers and allow those individuals that want to get into beverage service to receive guidance to be true experts, whether in sake, wine, spirits or beer. So it’s a great benefit to our customers and to the individuals taking classes. Many people have come by and said they’ve never seen a facility like this anywhere in the world and I respond that it’s because there isn’t one. And the people teaching the courses are sake experts, a Certified Cicerone, Master Sommelier...the teachers are the equivalent of PhD professors, and every bit as good as the building is beautiful.
Sadly your father suffered from the ravaging disease of Alzheimer’s, from which he passed away in 1994. How is the Keep Memory Alive foundation and The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, both of which you founded, helping to eradicate this horrible disease, as well as MS, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other brain diseases?
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has become one of the most important brain health centers in terms of caring for patients and their caregivers, and our clinical trial programs are second to none. We have an incredible team of researchers working to hopefully find a cure for these neurodegenerative diseases.
What do you see on the horizon for Las Vegas and what challenges do you see facing your hometown in the years to come?
Any town’s success is dependent on leadership of the community and state. Because of Governor Sandoval’s commitment to education, Las Vegas will reap the benefits for years to come. At the same time, we need to make sure to support our hotel college that will train the students to be able to run these hotels in a world-class manner. In a town this big, growing as we’ve been fortunate to do, the creativity we’re enjoying takes really qualified people and that’s a challenge we’ll need to meet head on. The new UNLV Hotel College embodies a commitment to excellence and will be really important to what we will need to do to supply the work force for the future. Finally, I would like to see education beyond just the world of hospitality and medicine elevated to a new level. That work is beginning, as the state has a newfound focus on education, and the Cleveland Clinic has brought world-class leaders here in neurology, and the Cleveland Clinic has a urology office in Las Vegas as well. And, I can honestly say the quality of chefs is as good as any in the world, shopping is extraordinary and as we reinvent our town we see it becoming a destination with more to offer than ever before.