JAMES MURREN HAD A LOT TO LOSE when he was being courted by top executives at MGM Grand to join the company as chief financial officer in 1998. A veteran Deutsche Morgan Grenfell gaming-stock analyst who had been a member of this magazine's All-America Research Team for five years, Murren loved his job. He and his wife, Heather Hay, a top consumer products analyst with Merrill Lynch and fellow All-American, were living the good life: They had a spacious apartment overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, an 18-acre farm in Murren's native Connecticut, a beautiful baby boy and another on the way. Joining Kirk Kerkorian's hotel and casino empire in Las Vegas meant uprooting the family -- not to mention Hay's career. And the pay? "When I saw the compensation package, it wasn't, at first blush, compelling," he says, estimating the offer at about one tenth of his cash pay on Wall Street.

But there was something attractive about becoming part of a company he had long admired, and Hay challenged him to reconsider the offer. Alex Yemenidjian, who at the time was leaving the CFO job to become head of the MGM movie studio, ultimately offered what proved an irresistible analogy. Being a gaming analyst, he said, was like reporting on a sporting contest from the sidelines, whereas working at MGM represented actually being on the field. "He said, 'Wouldn't you want to be on the field?'" Murren recalls. "And I did. I wanted to be on the field."

So, at a time when top-ranked analysts commanded seven-figure paychecks, Murren signed a four-year contract that paid him $375,000 annually to be MGM's finance chief. Hay continued to run Merrill's global consumer products research group, from Las Vegas; she left that job in 2002 and now heads the Nevada Cancer Institute, a research facility the couple founded in 2003. In August, Murren was promoted to COO of the gaming company, now called MGM Mirage.