Running a tribal gaming organization comes with a lot of unique challenges—one of the biggest is governmental relations. Navigating through the morass of gaming compacts, state regulations and federal entities requires a diverse set of skills and experiences, perhaps even more so than that of commercial operators. Few people understand these intricacies better than Kevin Nephew, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corporation (SGC).
Prior to transitioning to SGC in 2014, Nephew spent over 20 years in high-level finance roles for the state of New York, which is where he developed a key mode of thinking, one that has stuck with him ever since: “How do you make things better, faster and smarter?” Throughout his time with the state, he worked in numerous financial capacities, including roles in the Office of Technology, Department of Tax and Finance and the Division of the Budget.
These experiences allowed Nephew to “learn a lot about governmental workings,” and he proudly contributed to “initiatives where we were able to save millions of dollars for New York state.” Working in government also allowed him to “become a student of leadership,” and to see what kind of impact decisions can have on all parts of an organization.
Before he was named president and CEO of SGC in October 2020, he served as vice president of organization improvement & development, where he developed a continuous improvement program that has since become a pillar of the organization, with over 1,000 employees having studied under it.
In addition to the skills and knowledge the program provides, it has, according to Nephew, saved the company “over $1 million in efficiencies” since it was implemented.
“I’ve come to realize there’s no true black-and-white definition of leadership,” says Nephew. “When we went through continuous improvement, I realized that while it really looked at the processes of making better, faster, smarter, it develops leaders and leadership within your organization. One of the beliefs we have culturally is that within an organization and within a society, everyone is the same height.”
As an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation’s Wolf Clan, Nephew has the unique honor of being the first Seneca Nation member to lead the tribe’s gaming arm, which is an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted. Even though he built a successful career with the state, there came a time—one fateful morning, in fact—where he “woke up and said, ‘you know, I really need to come back and I really need to give back to my people.’” That said, he certainly didn’t expect to be in such an influential position just a few years later, but he attributes that meteoric success to “great teachers and great mentors” throughout the organization.
In 2023, SGC will look to keep pace in a New York gaming landscape that is constantly evolving and expanding. Instead of only looking outward, however, Nephew maintains that it’s equally important that the company continues to “look internally to make sure we’re making our investments into our processes,” whether it be in gaming, hospitality or “the guest experience itself overall.”
Nephew says another one of his biggest priorities is to ensure that SGC invests in cutting-edge technology, namely cybersecurity systems, so that “we make sure that our IT infrastructure remains safe” next year and beyond.
“As we go into ’23, it’s about developing our leaders, developing the leadership, but that goes beyond just the center of people,” he says. “It’s all 3,000 of our team members… We also are looking towards more community involvement. It’s interesting, as a corporate structure, we focus on our gaming, but we also realize we have an investment in Western New York. The Seneca people have always been part of Western New York. We’ll always be part of Western New York.”