When it comes to forming a successful team and guiding it toward a single goal, any hackneyed sports coach will tell you that the toughest part of the process isn’t the transition from bad to good—rather, the hardest jump to make is to go from good to great. Then, once you become great, you have to find new ways to sustain that excellence over a long period of time.
For Aristocrat Gaming, the rise to the top has been gradual, but the last five years have solidified the slot supplier as the industry’s best, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The company’s reign of excellence can perhaps best be attributed to its commitment to continuous innovation for both its technology and its team members. A proven lineup of smash-hit titles such as Buffalo Gold and Lightning Link coupled with a global presence in all major markets can make it easy to fall into the mindset that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but Aristocrat prefers to think of themselves as the hunter rather than the hunted, constantly engaged in a battle against complacency and stagnation.
In addition to these internal pressures, external hardships such as the Covid-19 pandemic and economic ebbs and flows have really put Aristocrat’s mantra of “Our People, Our Customers, Our Business” to the test, and all signs indicate that it’s weathered the storm beautifully. In March, the company repeated its title as Top Overall Supplier at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming’s annual EKG Slot Awards, along with a slew of other honors.
But as far as Aristocrat is concerned, that was in the past, and the only thing left to do now is to set its sights for the future, both at the upcoming G2E 2022 show and beyond.
The Importance of Leadership
When Hector Fernandez was appointed president of Aristocrat Gaming in June 2019, nobody knew what was in store for the next two-plus years, especially for a company with a global presence and over 6,000 employees. However, despite the fact that it’s been “a fascinating journey” with “a lot of challenges and a lot of fun activities,” Fernandez has maintained an optimism and tenacity that’s been a key force in driving the company’s upward trajectory.
With an extensive background in finance, Fernandez is familiar with bottom lines in a way that not many executives are, and he’s well aware that sitting back on your heels doesn’t equate to growth. He notes that for years prior to his appointment, “we were very good at hunting and chasing the incumbents that were ahead of us,” but now that that goal has been reached, “we must have the mentality that every day we have to disrupt ourselves. Because if we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will.”
These disruptors aren’t always physical, either—Fernandez became CEO in March 2022, and his entire tenure thus far has been in the midst of Covid—but rather than play it safe and cut back on company spend, he made it a point to double down on the people-customers-business philosophy.
And, if anything, that’s made the decision-making process “a lot easier,” because instead of “having a lot of points of view and arguing different sides of the coin, we always said, ‘we will start with the safety of our people, and we will make sure we’re servicing our customers, and ultimately, if we make all those right decisions, that will drive the business.’” The hardest thing to do in any business is to make things simpler, and so far, Aristocrat has been able to do more by focusing on less.
Fernandez and his team have found a way to shut out all the distractions and noise and focus on their bread and butter, that being game design. Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady famously says that his favorite Super Bowl is the next one, and Aristocrat has adopted a similar mindset.
“We continue to scale the products that have worked, that players and customers have rewarded us with, and then we’re scaling on top of that,” he says. “But again, we think it’s incredibly important for us to show that power of diversification that we have built. We now operate 11 global studios, soon to be 12. And a lot of that is disrupting ourselves. The other thing, too, that I will point out—and we do declare this financially, publicly—we spend 11 percent to 12 percent of our revenue back into D&D. There’s no other public company that is doing that.”
This continual reinvestment is best highlighted by the diversity of the company’s recognitions—at last year’s EKG Awards, not only did Aristocrat take home the title of top supplier, they also collected awards for new premium games, new core and premium cabinets, video reel games, third-party IP branded games and proprietary branded games. And sticking with the theme of constant disruption, they also claimed the title of most improved supplier.
Putting People First
The reason why it’s so difficult going from good to great, as the same hackneyed coach would explain, is because it’s hard to motivate people to improve without pushing them away, especially in business. For two-plus years, companies have had to get creative in order to keep employees engaged in the midst of Covid uncertainty, social unrest and growing inflation, which is a challenge that Stacey Zeleznik, Aristocrat’s chief people and culture officer, has embraced head-on.
Over the course of the pandemic, Zeleznik says that the company implemented a new “all.flex” policy, which allowed employees to “have choices on the way they work, and where they work.” While these may seem like small changes, they have had a tangible impact on employee morale and retention during a time that some have coined as the “Great Resignation”—according to Forbes, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in 2021 alone, the most on record.
“In this environment,” she says. “that’s becoming increasingly important.”
With that in mind, the goal for Zeleznik and the rest of the leadership team is to cultivate a culture that emphasizes accessibility, and never devolves into an “us versus them” mentality. Global production requires a lot of moving parts working in tandem with one another, and the company’s commitment to putting its people “at the center of every decision we make” cannot be overvalued.
“Everything we do is geared toward making Aristocrat Gaming a magnet to those seeking success,” says Zeleznik. “We’re very proud of our culture. We want to maintain our culture. We monitor our culture very regularly, through engagement surveys. Our engagement of our people, we are above benchmark consistently. And that’s important. It’s important for us to maintain the development, the advancement of people. We’re truly a global company.”
Additionally, collaboration between employees is also an important aspect of scaling a business to the degree in which Aristocrat has been able to achieve thus far. The company’s Chief Supply Chain Officer Deanne McKissick notes that the diversity of the workforce has manifested in the form of what they term as “Employee Impact Groups (EIGs),” or small clusters of staff members who share similar interests, characteristics and cultures. According to McKissick, these EIGs “bring forward ideas to us, if they want to celebrate this, or if they want to educate our population about a holiday or a cultural event—something that’s important to them.”
There are over a dozen groups currently active throughout the company, both in the U.S. and internationally. Investing in employee engagement often doesn’t cost a lot; it just requires consistency and transparency in order to build trust and respect among a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.
The best employees also tend to gravitate toward companies that foster upward mobility and internal growth—according to Zeleznik, the slot supplier has invested heavily in its “AFL” project, or “Aristocrat Future Leaders,” which is a program that helps foster young team members and put them on the right path for success in their respective roles.
The more staff-driven initiatives a business provides, the better its internal reputation becomes, and that’s more important than ever in today’s environment. Good news travels fast among colleagues and networks, and it even spreads across industries. A large number of Aristocrat’s staff didn’t start in gaming, which is helpful in accumulating a diverse set of skills and experiences.
“I came from the semiconductor medical device industry,” says Zeleznik. “And there are many on the leadership team—including Hector—that also previously came from other industries. In my example, wherever we go in the world, you know it’s an Aristocrat facility. And you know that culture bleeds through.”
Performing Where it Matters Most
Building a talented, diverse roster and giving them the right tools and resources to perform is difficult in itself, but that effort doesn’t mean much if the execution isn’t up to par. Aristocrat may put its people first, but its customers—and ultimately, its business—are what allows for the growth the company has been able to achieve thus far.
When it comes to gaming, every market is unique in its circumstances and regulations, but one common characteristic among them is high expectations. As a business, it’s often difficult to meet those expectations if you don’t meet your customers where they are.
That becomes a little tricky when you serve more than 300 jurisdictions around the world, but Aristocrat has done well to establish over 20 facilities in key areas from Australia all the way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the company recently opened a massive new Integration Center. The site is now its biggest U.S. hub aside from Las Vegas, and most boardrooms would probably think twice about expanding at that level when there are so many economic uncertainties.
However, for Fernandez, understanding customers and their tendencies is essential to provide them with products that they keep coming back to. He notes that this industry is “complex globally,” so it’s important to pay close attention to “any key indicators that we’re seeing in a specific market.” Building a consistent, standardized brand while also maintaining a high degree of flexibility is certainly a tightrope that is not easy to navigate, but it’s all about finding ways to “stay connected to that customer, to then make sure that we’re driving the right products, the right offerings, which is the most important thing.”
With that in mind, some things are just outside of your control, and even the smartest companies haven’t been able to completely out-maneuver supply chain mishaps. McKissick says that “the past 15 months have been the most challenging time for a supply chain professional” in her career, which has resulted in “bottlenecks” and “struggles with different commodities over time, whether it’s metals or resins.”
Today’s slots involve some highly sophisticated machinery and technology, and it’s been difficult to keep up production while fighting for precious materials against computer, automotive and medical manufacturers, among others.
However, by sticking with its core principles, Aristocrat has used these challenges as a way to rethink old processes, and look for means of improvement.
“It’s been a good exhibit of our collective brilliance,” McKissick says. “We’ve had to go and develop new ways of working with our engineering teams, and say, ‘Hey, we can’t find this; help us find an alternate.’ And we’ve built up a stronger relationship, a stronger dependency on each other. It’s part of the resiliency plan that we’re working through. So, it has been a challenge, but it has allowed us to get better.”
Making a Splash at G2E
For gaming manufacturers, the G2E stage is by far the biggest and brightest, the place where companies empty out the best pages of their idea notebooks. This year, instead of rebranding tired games or touching up old cabinets, Aristocrat will look to make a splash and give players and operators a host of new titles that will eventually become new staples.
According to Fernandez, the company will be unveiling “100 percent new for-sale product,” which, as he says, “is a bit mind-boggling when you think about the amount of product we’ve commercialized.” Perhaps the biggest perk of having an established portfolio, however, is that it allows you to take chances, and try new ideas that you might not have the courage to otherwise. “G2E, for us, is really to demonstrate to our customers the investments that we continue to make,” he says, and not only that, but the feedback received from the show is vital as well, because “addressing real-world problems” for players and operators is “really what G2E is all about.”
In addition to the brand-new slate of for-sale product, the company is also bringing about 70 percent of new for-lease offerings as well. And, just to keep the longtime supporters satisfied, Fernandez insists that his team “is not forgetting the strength of the brands we’ve built,” and will also “showcase a new product” that’s built on the popular Lightning Link/Dragon Link foundation.
When you build a brand as successful as Aristocrat’s, one of the best ways to drive new business is to partner with other well-known companies—in the U.S., there are few brands that are more lucrative and beloved than the NFL. The high-profile partnership was first struck in November of last year, and gave Aristocrat an “exclusive global license” to build and market NFL-themed slots. At the time, Rachel Hoagland, the league’s vice president of gaming and partnership management, said that the NFL was confident in the supplier’s ability to “bring that exciting gaming experience to fans on the casino floor looking to show their love of football.” Now, after months of development, Fernandez is confident that his team has delivered on those promises.
Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is extremely localized, and placing a rival-themed machine into the wrong market could spell disaster for operators. But what about big markets with all kinds of fans? That’s the rub, Fernandez says.
“Part of the reason sports has not worked in this business is if you come to Vegas and there’s only Raiders slot machines, and you’re not a Raiders fan, you’re not going to play that machine,” he notes. “And as we did the research, 40 percent of NFL fans are displaced fans, which means that they don’t live in the city of the team they root for. So, as we signed the deal, we went back to our studios and gave them the challenge for the first time, that said, ‘Hey, you need to make a product that allows a player to walk up to it and pick which team they want to play.’”
Universality is a huge problem to solve, but the company seems to have made decent headway, enough to debut a “prototype product at the G2E booth which we’re quite excited about.” If all goes well, fans can expect to play their favorite team-themed games in time for the 2024 Super Bowl, which, as luck would have it, will be hosted at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.