Though Donald Trump’s popularity among women voters is woefully low and he has recently been subject to criticism over his treatment of female employees, the former chief of his casino empire swears that The Donald waxed all gaming rivals as a champion of female executives. “I laugh about the women’s issue,” Mark A. Brown told Fortune. “Donald was great with women. We had women running casinos, marketing, and legal. Under Donald, we had more women in top positions by far than any other operator in Atlantic City.”
Few managers got a closer view of Trump’s skills as a debt-hobbled casino operator, wily negotiator, flamboyant promoter, and, as he describes it, strong advocate of women in the workplace, over a longer period than Brown. The Atlantic City native started working for Trump in 1989 when he was in his late 20s, as SVP of casino operations at the Trump Taj Mahal. Six years later, Brown was running one of Trump’s three major casinos, the Trump Marina. And in mid-2000, Trump tapped Brown to be the COO of his troubled, publicly traded gaming enterprise, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts.
Over the next five years, Brown succeeded in paring costs and raising the casino’s pre-interest cash flows, but he could never surmount Trump’s double-digit interest rate junk bond debt. “We tried to restructure the debt to get back to where we could breathe,” recalls Brown. “We hit our highest numbers in 2002, and were still strangled with debt.” Despite Brown’s best efforts, Trump Hotels––later renamed Trump Entertainment––filed for bankruptcy in 2004, and Brown departed the following year.
The collapse of Trump Hotels––it would go bankrupt again in 2009 and 2014––punished bondholders and left equity investors with virtually worthless shares. Still, Brown has nothing but praise for Trump as a manager and mentor. “I worked for four of the top people in gaming, Terry Lanni, Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson, and Donald, and there’s no comparison,” says Brown. “Donald is the most impressive.”
Brown, whom Fortune spoke to by phone while he was traveling in Asia, continued, “You may love him or hate him. But when you get past all the theatre, there’s a great brain there. He’s not only very sharp, he also knows how to listen, and how to deal with every type of person out there. I learned more from him by far than any of the other top people.”
Trump gave Brown full authority to build a team, and enthusiastically endorsed his choices of women for leading roles. “We had a female executive running the Taj, and four other women in top operating positions in the casinos, including the director of hotel sales at the Taj,” says Brown. “Women headed overall marketing, VIP services, and our head counsel was a woman, as well as the top two people in HR.” Trump, he says, “knew all of them, and would call the chief of the Taj at 2 a.m. for an update on the day’s gaming receipts.”
Brown spent countless hours at Trump’s side, visiting beauty pageants, touring the casinos, choosing top entertainment acts, and negotiating with service providers, most memorably attorneys. “Donald never took a glass of alcohol, ever,” says Brown. “On the road, he wasn’t exactly into healthy eating—it was pizza and burgers.” Trump, says Brown, especially enjoyed the comfort fare at the scenic but hardly upscale Ivy restaurant in Los Angeles. “He wouldn’t be bothered with fancy dinners,” notes Brown. “He’d get a bowl of spaghetti and a diet Coke, and we’d be in and out in 20 minutes.”
Shadowing Trump was a primer in shrewd negotiating. Brown watched as the mogul routinely outfoxed his own attorneys. “When we had difficulties around 2000, the attorneys would say we owed $5 million, and Donald would tell them, ‘You’ve been with us since 1990! We’ve paid you so many millions!'” says Brown. Then, Brown continues, Trump would joke, ‘You know you guys are crooks, you know half the bill is phony!'” Instead of taking offense, the lawyers’ resistance would crumble. “Donald would pay them half, say $2.5 million. They’d have their picture taken with him, he’d sign it with his autograph, and they’d be on their way.”
Trump could also be rough with his lieutenants. “Is he tough?” says Brown. “He demands perfection. He’ll chew your head off. Then, 10 minutes later, he’ll say, ‘Mark, let’s go eat.’ He drops the the tough treatment fast.”
Brown went on to leading positions at Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts, and he now oversees the development of a multi-billion dollar gaming resort in Saipan. But his mentor occupies a near-mythical influence. “A lot of the stuff he does in politics is for show,” he says. “Offstage, I can’t say enough good things about him. Paul Ryan spends two minutes with Donald and he sees a different person.”
For Brown, Trump dwarfed all rivals as a “walking billboard.” And as our conversation closed, he assured me that Trump has his vote.