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Dream Team

Global Gaming Business presents 25 People to Watch for 2020

Dream Team

In the 18 years that GGB has been producing “25 People to Watch” in our January issue, there rarely has been a collection of individuals more suitable to watch than those for 2020. In what may be a watershed year for gaming, 2020 will see further expansion of sports betting in the U.S., competitive market evolution, the finalization of the Eldorado Resorts purchase of Caesars Entertainment and the after-effects, more attention paid to responsible gaming and its ramifications, and rapidly advancing gaming technology. The honorees this year will have significant impacts on all of the above.

Nominations for the 25 People to Watch are made throughout the year and submitted to GGB’s Editorial Advisory Board, who make the final determinations.

This year, a record number of women were included—11 of the 25 names—reflecting the growing importance that women are achieving in the gaming industry.

Looking back on the 18 years of People to Watch, it’s important to understand just how influential the people profiled in this feature have become. Just in year one, 2003, there were some impressive profiles: Peter Carlino, the CEO of Penn National Gaming, who went on to rock the industry by introducing the REIT formula with Gaming & Leisure Properties, Inc.; Linda Chen, who operates the Macau properties for Wynn Resorts; Mark Brown, then a Trump casino executive, now a major executive in Asia. The next year wasn’t too shabby either with Gavin Isaacs, who has become the head of several major companies, and Valerie Spicer, one of tribal gaming’s leading women. Later, Pansy Ho, Dick Haddrill, Mark Macarro, Bobby Baldwin, Bill Paulos, Ron Allen, Bobby Soper, Larry Woolf, Tony Marnell, Jim Allen, Keith Smith, Kazuo Okada, John Acres, Andrew Pascal, John Connelly, Francis Lui, Andrew MacDonald, Stanley Crooks, Tim Wilmott, Ramesh Srinivasan, Anthony Sanfilippo, Cath Burns, Jason Giles, Stephen Crosby, Rob Goldstein, Anna Sainsbury, Matt Davey, Paul Steelman, Ed Tracy, Marco Sala, David Lopez, Cody Martinez, Jay Snowden, Simon Thomas, Russell Sanna, Mark Birtha, Jeff Hamilton, Kristian Nylen and many others have graced these pages, proving that these 25 people each year are the movers and shakers.

So keep an eye on this group of 25 people. More likely than not, their influence will change the gaming industry. —Roger Gros

 


For the Next Seven Generations
Stephanie Bryan, Tribal Chairwoman and CEO, Poarch Band of Creek Indians

As a child on an Indian reservation in the Deep South, Stephanie Bryan spent untold hours at work in the fields, watering crops, pulling weeds, then delivering baskets of vegetables to community elders. Their gratitude for the simple harvest remains vivid in her memory.

Like many other tribes, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI), who occupied much of Georgia and Alabama, “endured poverty, discrimination and other significant challenges,” says Bryan. “But we were resilient and overcame generational poverty to emerge strong and successful.”

Today, as tribal chairwoman and CEO of the Poarch Band, Bryan oversees a 3,000-member tribe with a growing casino empire, multiple diversified business ventures, and considerable political influence. In 2019, the PCI Gaming Authority offered its home state a multimillion-dollar payout and $350 million per year in exchange for a monopoly on gaming in Alabama and the right to offer Class III games. According to Bryan, that deal, if approved, could generate more than $1 billion in revenues its first year alone; she calls it “the economic stimulus that our state needs and deserves.”

 

Creek Rising

The tribe’s economic ascent began in August 1984, when, after years of struggle, PCI finally won federal recognition from the U.S. government, giving it the right to operate a gaming facility.

“During that time, our tribal elders would sell chicken plates to raise money for leaders like Chief Calvin McGhee to travel to Washington to petition the government,” recalls Bryan. “That was a huge battle for us, but one that brought our community together with a common goal”—to create an industry that would lift its people out of poverty and sustain them across generations.

In April 1985, the Poarch Band opened a 1,500-seat bingo hall in rural Escambia County. “It enabled us to provide our citizens with jobs, public safety, better health care, and decent housing,” says Bryan. “From that one meager establishment, our gaming and business footprints have expanded far beyond what any of our elders could have imagined.”

The list is long indeed, and getting longer. PCI now operates casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery, Alabama; the Wa She Shu Casino in Gardnerville, Nevada; the Renaissance Aruba and Renaissance Curacao resorts in the Caribbean; as well as racetracks in Alabama and Florida.

In 2018, PCI made headlines with its deal to buy Sands Bethlehem in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt (now Wind Creek Bethlehem) for $1.3 billion. Bryan calls the acquisition “a remarkable milestone in our success story.”

“In 2015, we had set some aggressive long-term goals for our businesses and tribal government,” she notes. “Wind Creek Bethlehem was part of that vision-casting session and marks an unprecedented investment opportunity for the Poarch Band.” PCI is now looking at the Illinois gaming market, and plans to develop a $275 million casino resort in Homewood, a suburb of Chicago.

The Poarch Band isn’t stopping there, says Bryan. “Today, we have over 20 businesses, and continue to look at ways to diversify and offer employment opportunities in various locations. Some of our businesses include OWA, a development in nearby Foley, Alabama that includes an amusement park with restaurants and other amenities, a sports field complex and a hotel. We’ve also partnered with a developer to build and operate hotels across the southeastern region of the United States. We own a burgeoning aviation business based in Huntsville, Alabama, and a media firm there, as well. And we have farming interests and a metal works business that does work for the aeronautics industry. We believe it’s important to create jobs across sectors.”

 

From Strength to Strength

Needless to say, Bryan’s schedule is often “crazy-busy,” but she calls it “a good busy.”

“I tell my children all the time, life is about balance. My work as a tribal leader and CEO is challenging and stressful, but the reward is much greater because I am serving, helping people and giving back. That’s what motivates me every day.”

Among the highlights of her professional life was meeting President Barack Obama.

“The first time I met him, I actually teared up; having grown up in a poverty-stricken community and being able to meet the president of the United States—it was a history-making moment for me,” she says.

She said as much to the president, who replied, “We’re both making history, because I never thought I would be president.”

Once a single mother who lived in tribal housing, worked three jobs while attending college, then opened a state-licensed day care center so she could work from home, Bryan thanks her mother and grandmother for their unstinting support and love.

“Without them helping me,” she says, “I’m not sure where life would have taken me.”

These days, in her rare spare time, the chairwoman enjoys reading, yoga and being with her family, kids Keisha, Brannon, and Niki, and husband Keith, whom she calls “my biggest cheerleader.”

Bryan acknowledges that gaming has “completely changed the quality of life for not only our tribal members, but for many others as well,” and helped the tribal economy grow by more than 100 percent. “Our elders are taken care of, our youth have educational opportunities, our people have great health care available to them, and we are so thankful for that.”

Yet she envisions a future “where we are no longer attacked because we are Native American and a ‘gaming tribe.’ We’ve taken the opportunities available to us and sought prosperity and self-determination. We’ve been able to positively impact many other lives as well—around 9,000—through job opportunities. We’re good neighbors in the communities we do business in, and we believe in leaving things better than how we found them. That’s something that I’m personally very proud of.”

Vision-casting herself, Bryan says, “The future I see for the tribe that I love so much is one in which our people are grounded in love for others, where we use our resources to make the world a better place, and where our language, culture and history are continuously shared and passed down in perpetuity.

“Our goal is to provide sustainable growth for the next seven generations.” —Marjorie Preston

 


World Traveler
Justin Carter, General Manager, Hollywood Casino Toledo

Justin Carter is general manager of Penn National Gaming’s Hollywood Casino Toledo and oversees the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course. At 42, Carter is having a blast. When he talks on the phone, you feel the smile.

Carter fell into gaming. With a chemistry and biology degree, “I fancied myself a pretty darn good scientist and went to work as a research chemist,” he recalls. He became a supervisor and attended business school, where Caesars recruited him.

“I’ve been very fortunate not to say no at the wrong time,” he says. “As opportunities provided themselves, I jumped into it. That has paid dividends and sent me to a lot of different places.”

When he met the executive team at the Caesars St. Louis property, he says, “The guys were having such a great time. I thought, ‘I don’t know what these guys are doing, but I need some of that.’ You could go to work every day with a smile on your face.”

He started as a president’s associate, a storied position in the Harrah’s/Caesars organization.

“When I look back, working as a front-line team member, slot attendant, paying customer jackpots, answering calls, dealing with irate customers; I remember those moments,” he says. “That helped shape me as a leader. I always think about the downstream effect of my decisions; how will it affect those having to follow those rules?”

His first assignment was in the Bahamas as part of Caesars’ pre-opening team. The project never happened because of the 2008 recession.

“This is where it gets really fun!” he says. He went to Caesars Atlantic City as slot performance manager, then to Harrah’s Kansas City as director of continuous improvement.

He was later tapped by Michael Silberling, who ran Caesars’ international operations at that time: “He asked how I would like to move to South Africa’s Emerald Resort and Casino outside of Johannesburg, as operations executive, in charge of a casino, safari park, luxury lodge, golf, all on 800 acres.”

Two years later—back in the U.S. he was almost immediately offered the Caesars Empire Casino in London. “I said, ‘OK, no problem!” When he thought he was coming home from there, they gave him the Manchester235. Later, the Nottingham and Glasgow casinos were added to his job.

He returned in 2014 as assistant manager of the new Horseshoe Cincinnati, working for Jay Snowden. When Snowden joined Penn National—eventually becoming CEO—“I thought so highly of him that I moved over. I can’t say enough how good that has been for my career,” he says.

Since then he has managed the Hollywood Casino & Inn at Charlestown Races and Hollywood Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. When Penn acquired two more casinos, he managed all three.

Today, at the Hollywood Casino Toledo, he says, “We pride ourselves on the fun, food and entertainment. We do a great job creating an environment that if you come here you will have a great time. We routinely have highest scores in customer service. You meet extremely friendly people whose first port of call is making sure you have a great time. Our team members love being here.” —David Ross

 


An Amazing Run
Lorrie Bamford, Vice President of Corporate Compliance, General Counsel, Gaming Capital Group

When Oklahoma gaming tribes want to build or renovate a property or invest in new equipment, they frequently turn to Gaming Capital Group (GCG). In addition to funding, the Newcastle-based firm also provides informed financial advice that helps clients flourish in an ever-changing financial environment.

GCG’s breadth of services makes it “very rare” if relatively new, according to Lorrie Bamford, vice president of corporate compliance and general counsel.

“GCG was formed in 2006 to help the Chickasaw build Riverwind Casino” in Norman, Oklahoma, Bamford says. “That one-off project was so wildly successful, the tribe trusted our leadership and had us partner with them in everything. We’re now in over 26 jurisdictions with more than $1 billion in capital financing. It’s been an amazing run.”

Bamford manages the legal minutiae of the multi-pronged business, ensuring regulatory compliance in all 26 jurisdictions, each with its own regulations, rules and procedures. She not only provides legal counsel but shapes policy, oversees education and training, manages prize claims, stays on top of a small mountain of constantly regenerating compliance reports, and keeps abreast of any legal or contractual matter of importance to the firm and its clients.

And the role suits her, she says. “You have to enjoy research, and finding the answers in different codes of law. You have to enjoy having 26 different laws applying to different situations and finding a solution,” she says. “You have to be a problem-solver.”

Though she’s often knee-deep in paperwork (or the digital equivalent), Bamford says people skills are also indispensable to her job. “It’s essential to be able to talk to people and understand their needs.”

One of 11 kids, Bamford grew up in poverty in Dallas, Texas, but always had her eyes on the skies. “I knew from an early age I wanted to be a lawyer, but I never expected to go into gaming, especially being from Texas,” where most forms of gaming are illegal, she says. She got her introduction after moving to Oklahoma for law school, and joined GCG in 2012, spurred on by a colleague who knew her work in contract law.

“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about gaming or Native American law.’ She said, ‘You’re smart, you’ll figure it out.’ I figured, ‘Why not? Let’s try and see what happens.’ I’m so glad I took that chance. I was naïve at first, and had no idea of the sophistication of these operations.”

Bamford made it a point to meet regulators and gaming commissioners, “especially those I met through Global Gaming Women. What a fantastic organization! I got plugged in with them as soon as I could, which enabled me to see women in leadership in the industry.” She cites GCG President Sherri Lance, CEO Rolen Miller and CFO Matthew Weber for supporting her professional ascent.

“Because of them, I’ve had this success,” she says.

In addition to being a respected industry professional and justice of the Supreme Court for Oklahoma’s Delaware Nation, Bamford is also a fitness star. “Ten years ago, I weighed 330 pounds. My doctor told me if I didn’t change I wouldn’t see my kids (Aaron and Sarah) grow up. So I started running.” A super-fit Bamford is now training for her third marathon, and has also become a motivational speaker. “With my background of poverty,” she says, “I like to help people realize they hold the pen to write their own story.”

She had one problem with her nickname: Hellcat. “I use it in my motivational speaking and smoking cessation coaching: how we all have an inner hellcat. Facebook made me take it down, because they said it wasn’t my legal middle name.

“Well, I’m a lawyer. I filed a petition with the Logan County District Court and had my middle name changed to Hellcat. Facebook put it back.” —Marjorie Preston

 


Accidental Inspiration
Ellen Whittemore, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Wynn Resorts

Becoming a gaming attorney wasn’t the plan for Ellen Whittemore. As a young attorney fresh out of law school, she took a job with the Attorney General’s Office in Nevada.

“I was in the Civil Division at the time and I was representing occupational licensing board and the board of medical examiners that granted doctors licenses,” Whittemore explains. “It was a very interesting position. The chief of the Civil Division had resigned and that position was open. I asked (Attorney General) Brian McKay if he was going to appoint me and he told me he was going to transfer me to gaming. I was disappointed, but he said I’d thank him later. And I have. Many times.”

From the AG’s office, Whittemore landed at Lionel Sawyer & Collins, at the time the most prestigious law firm in Nevada.

“My experience at LSC was exceptional for the quality of clients that it attracted,” she says. “As an attorney you want to have the best clients and ones that have interesting situations so you can develop professionally and really help your clients.”

Whittemore says LSC represented many “interesting” clients including the Detroit City Council when gaming was being contemplated there; MGM Resorts on their joint venture with Pansy Ho in Macau; and some in-depth legal work with manufacturing companies like IGT and Scientific Games.

After leaving LSC, Whittemore started her own firm with MGM as the largest client. Two years ago, she joined Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

“They had been courting me for a couple of years,” she says. “It’s a great law firm and I thought I had a home there.”

But that was before Wynn Resorts President and CEO Matt Maddox called.

“Matt explained to me that the company was at a point where it needed a person with gaming regulatory experience as its general counsel,” Whittemore says.

And the regulatory body that was most concerning for Wynn was the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

“The regulators were very disappointed in the company at that time,” she explains. “We have a longstanding reputation in Nevada and regulators there appreciated the changes that we’ve made and were continuing to make. In Massachusetts, we weren’t very well known. It was a different environment.

“But I approached it the same way I approach any regulatory board. You have to give them full transparency. They need to know everything about a company and everything about the individuals within that company. I told them at the very first meeting that I will always tell them what’s going on—good, bad or indifferent. The only way you can be successful in this position is to understand that transparency is the only approach that will work.”

Whittemore says she’ll take the same approach in Japan where Wynn Resorts is bidding for one of the casino licenses that will be issued within the next couple of years.

As one of the first women to practice gaming law in the state of Nevada, Whittemore and Wynn Resorts play an active role in the promotion of the Global Gaming Women organization.

“It’s great to be able to bring young women in the industry and give them the opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals and the power to show that we can do it and let’s help each other get there. The power within this organization is just incredible,” says Whittemore. —Roger Gros

 


Movement in Macau
Ho Iat-seng, Macau Chief Executive

Politics in any gaming jurisdiction is a tricky thing, but in Macau it’s got an entirely different layer of complexity: the Chinese central government.

When the two terms of former chief executive Fernando Chui Sai On were concluded there

wasn’t much debate. The anointed candidate to replace him was Ho Iat-seng. A former president of the legislative assembly, Ho was a stealth candidate. Though his name had been mentioned in the past as a possible chief executive, his low-key approach kept that speculation to a minimum.

But Ho seemed to be the logical choice. He was from a prominent Macau family—not the Stanley Ho family but Ho Tin, who moved from Zhejiang province to found a industrial company in Macau in 1956.

Ho Iat-seng was born in Macau but never lost connections to the mainland—and therefore the power of the central government. He studied at Zhejiang University and was a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Zhejiang province for almost 20 years. Ho also served as a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Ho will inherit a challenging climate in Macau, both business and social.

On the business side, a slump in the Macau casino industry is causing consternation among investors if not immediately the operators. A trade war between China and the United States clearly is having an impact, as are stricter controls on the flow of money from the mainland into the gambling enclave.

Also on the horizon is the looming renewal of the Macau gaming concessions, scheduled to expire in 2022. Up until now, the government has been very tight-lipped about what the plans are, except for extending the concessions of SJM and MGM China to ensure that all concessions expire at the same time.

“It’s one of the biggest and most complex issues the chief executive will have to deal with, because there are many stakeholders involved,” Glenn McCartney, associate dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Macau, told the South China Morning Post. “He will have to determine what sort of landscape he wants. But, perhaps most importantly, he will have to guarantee that this re-tendering process won’t bring any instability.”

Socially, the Macau natives are restless. While Macau has avoided the freedom protests occurring across the bay in Hong Kong, young people in Macau want more opportunity and a more diverse economic system—one not largely dependent upon the casino industry. Ho also needs to address a housing shortage in a city where land is at a premium.

The early days of Ho’s administration have been eye-opening. He retained Paulo Martins Chan as the leader of the Macau regulator, the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau (DICJ). The stability that Chan has brought to the regulatory process is recognized by the industry.

But he dismissed Lionel Leong, who headed up the SAR’s second most important department, the Economy and Finance Ministry. Ho appointed career bureaucrat Lei Wai Nong to succeed Leong, who was a successful businessman prior to his public service. The move surprised veteran Macau observers.

So the reign of Ho Iat-seng is likely to be more stormy that any of his four predecessors since the handover of Macau was completed in 1999. But stability is likely to be his signature as Macau enters the 2020s. —Patrick Roberts

 


The Tribal Life
Conrad Granito, General Manager, Muckleshoot Casino

Passionate and pragmatic, Conrad Granito wins everywhere he goes.

The general manager of Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, Washington, the largest tribal gaming operation in the Pacific Northwest, has developed strong economic foundations for tribal nations around the country for three decades.

Now he builds atop a foundation.

Granito leads a multimillion-dollar transformation of the locals casino into an anticipated four-star destination resort set for a full unveiling in 2021. The signature project will add a 20,000-square-foot event center and 400-room luxury hotel as well as expanded gaming and dining options, among other amenities.

This will be the latest example of a formula that has worked at Granito’s properties.

“What we have done at all the places, including here, is understanding our place in the market,” Granito says. “You don’t have to be everything to everybody. To use a retail analogy, there are some properties in this area that would be like a Nieman Marcus. Some would resemble a Macy’s. We are the Target in that reference and we market to that audience. We listen to our customers and give them what they are looking for.

“Instead of having 10,000 people show up when I only have 4,000 betting terminals for them, it’s better to have the right 4,000 people showing up. You have to identify your market and make the right re-invest.”

Prior to assuming this role in June 2014, Granito served as general manager of Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder, Louisiana. During his five-year tenure, he directed the significant expansion of the property’s footprint while increasing sustainability and profitability. Granito also helped Santa Ana Star Casino near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Sky Ute Casino Resort in southwest Colorado achieve record results.

While revenue tells one story, human interaction unveils another, keeping him grounded.

“One of the reasons I love this business is because of what it does for the tribes,” he says. “All the advancements in the elder care, education and infrastructure, etc., has made many of the them sustainable communities.

“When we were transforming Isleta from a bingo hall to a full-fledged casino, an elderly woman I had seen often on the gaming floor motions me over,” he says. “She puts her hand on my arm and says “thank you for making us proud of who we are here.’ Oh my God, when you consider what gaming has done for people. I still remember the day she said that.”

Granito also has served as president and chief operating officer of GameTech International, a global gaming technology company. He’s also lent his tribal expertise as a consultant on more than 58 gaming projects, ranging from feasibility studies to the establishing of internal controls. —Dave Bontempo

 


On the Money
Colleen Birch, Senior Vice President of Revenue Generation, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

Revenue management in hospitality once was about as precise as throwing darts at a board. Blindfolded.

In 2001, when Colleen Birch worked the front office at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, conversations about room prices went something like, “‘Oh, we would probably get another $20—but maybe we should lower the rate,’” Birch recalls. “We did it without a lot of data or measurement, and a lot of those decisions were gut-driven.”

Birch persuaded her manager to make her the property’s first-ever yield manager.

“It was my job to make better pricing decisions to yield greater revenue outcome.”

Her current position, as senior vice president of revenue generation at the Cosmopolitan, is a natural progression; she optimizes the customer mix “so that every revenue outlet—hotel, restaurants, spas, casino—sees the benefit.”

Birch’s career path was never linear, or particularly intentional. Though hospitality is part of her DNA (her mother worked in the airline industry, her father in hotels), the field didn’t quite click for her. For several years, she alternated working as a nanny in Seattle and managing a bar in Bristol Bay, Alaska—and helped to turn the place into a profitable venture for the first time.

By the time she enrolled in the Harrah Hotel College of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1999, Birch’s path was clear. “You can be a revenue manager who learned the operational side,” she says. “I’m an operations person who learned the revenue function.”

Far from making seat-of-the-pants decisions, she routinely looks at the revenue picture from 90 to 120 days out, “keeping a 10,000-foot view on pricing and the demand.”

Among her role models is George Markantonis, former Caesars hotel executive and now president of the Venetian and Palazzo.

“He gave me my first shot at working at that organization. George had a genuineness as a leader, and a vested interest in all the people who worked for him.” Another is Cosmopolitan CEO Bill McBeath. “Bill is just incredibly ‘on’ all the time. He could read a 300-page P&L and find the one thing that didn’t look right,” says Birch. “I’ve learned great lessons from him.”

She now is glad to serve as a mentor herself, and was the recipient of UNLV’s John Yaskin Mentor Award in 2017. Thanks to her own circuitous route, she says, “I can tell a junior or senior, ‘It’s OK to not know what you want to do.’ No job is a bad job if you’re good at it, and it’s OK to try something and say, ‘That’s not a career or a management style for me.’”

Off the job, Birch recharges with tennis, off-roading, and mostly, travel with friends and family, including two teenagers, Gavin, 16, and Lily, 13. She says the Cosmopolitan “is like a third child.”

In December, the luxury resort will mark its 10th anniversary. Birch says 2020 “brings a fresh resurgence of the resort with exciting new restaurant offerings, beautifully renovated guest rooms and our continued commitment to delivering luxury service. We look forward to welcoming both new and returning guests to see all that’s new in the year ahead.” —Marjorie Preston

 


Untangling the Web
Itsik Akiva, Chief Operations Officer, American iGaming Solutions

It’s been more than 20 years since the launch of the first online casino, and 10 years since smart devices became ubiquitous. But some gaming corporations are still struggling to migrate successfully into the online space.

In that often baffling environment, Itsik Akiva feels perfectly at home.

Akiva founded American iGaming Solutions to help online companies devise marketing and product strategies, optimize their performance and expand into new markets. The company is one of a few U.S.-based consulting firms with deep expertise in a relatively recent phenomenon, especially stateside: iGaming.

Some operators mistakenly think it’s easy to shift online, Akiva says—and that’s where their trouble begins. “It seems like a basic no-brainer, but in reality, it’s a different language and a different mindset at a different pace. Things happen at a moment’s notice. The entire cycle of operations is much faster. So the decision-making process has to be faster. The interpretation has to be faster.”

With markets opening at a rapid-fire pace, operators may act hastily “to avoid being left behind. They partner with platform providers without even knowing the market conditions or regulations. They make deals they cannot change, and a lot of things that make sense are left behind or not tackled properly.”

He likens the process to matchmaking. “You don’t just go and marry someone before you get to know them—and divorce is always expensive. If you make the wrong choice with a platform provider, switching is going to cost you money, revenue, customers and market share.”

American iGaming’s goal is to ensure that its clients start off on a firm footing, with service or platform providers that are a good match and an informed strategy. It’s basically a two-man operation: Akiva and his partner Jason “Wolf” Rosenberg. “But we have a core staff to call on for specific projects. That model allows us to be nimble and bring in expertise according to our clients’ needs.”

Akiva began his career as a marketer and political strategist in Israel, then moved to the greater Boston area to start a career in online gaming. Today, his consultancy works with small and medium-sized operators as well as giants like the Golden Nugget Casino, which runs one of the most successful online casinos in New Jersey.

His primary message is simple: look before you leap into the digital universe, and don’t venture forth without an experienced guide. “People want to engage online because that’s where the industry is going,” Akiva says, “but we will continue to preach that it should be done right from the start, with the right processes for operators and clients.” —Marjorie Preston

 


All Inclusive
Kim Barker Lee, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, IGT

As a 10th grader at Friends Seminary in New York City, Kim Barker Lee founded the organization CARE (Cultural Awareness Reaching Everyone), “the equivalent of a diversity and inclusion group focused on the experience of students of color.”

Today, that early commitment seems prophetic; in her role as vice president of diversity and inclusion for IGT, Lee is among the gaming industry’s most visible proponents of those precepts.

Born in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Lee calls herself “a reflection of that community: my mother’s side of the family is African American, and my father’s side is Puerto Rican.”

Despite growing up with limited economic means, Lee was rich in encouragement, support and shining role models.

“I never, ever heard the words, ‘You can’t.’ I always heard the words, ‘How can we help?’” she says. Her mother was the first person in the family to go to college and took her young daughter to class with her.

“More than anything else,” says Lee, “her example informed who I am as a person, and the deep respect I have for people who struggle to do things differently for themselves and their family.”

Lee went on to Yale and New York University Law School, and served as general counsel for Northstar Lottery Group, a majority-owned IGT affiliate. There she met one of her most important mentors, Connie Laverty O’Connor, then CEO of Northstar, who later continued in senior leadership roles with GTECH/IGT.

“It was my first time interacting with a woman who was a business leader at that level, and part of her philosophy was to mentor, to teach, and to sponsor. I came to IGT because of Connie; I have this role because she encouraged me to apply when she saw firsthand how diversity and inclusion informed my leadership style.”

In her current position, “I like to say I have a department of three, but the hands of 12,000 employees, many of whom are passionate and excited to do this work,” says Lee. “Our strategy has three pillars: People and Processes, Organizational Culture, and Players, Customers and Communities. “IGT’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Council, which now comprises 25 leaders, is creating regional councils in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia Pacific, EMEA and also in Italy. It ensures that our strategy has a global reach and that leaders, managers and employees all are engaged in embedding D&I into our work and people practices and the way we interact with our customers.”

A 2018 report by McKinsey & Company drew a bright line between diversity and performance, showing that gender, ethnic and cultural diversity in the workplace are more likely to result in above-average profits. IGT is committed to ensuring that its workforce “reflects the diversity of the global communities” it serves; CEO Marco Sala has called it “a business imperative.”

Lee says creating a culture of inclusion is “sometimes uncomfortable, but critical.”

“You probably need equal doses of patience and persistence to do this work. Moving the bar on diversity takes time, positive communication, creativity and the ability to adapt. There is no blueprint for D&I. You have to measure your progress, stick to your goals and have accountability. It also takes commitment at the top, which for IGT has led to our successes to date.”

On the home front in Rhode Island, Lee enjoys reading, knitting, jewelry-making and spending time with her husband, Maurice (Mo) Lee Sr. and 17-year-old son, Maurice Jr., who is now filling out applications for college.

Lee’s personal motto, “Lifting as we climb,” originated in the Black Women’s Club Movement of the late 19th century post-abolition era.

“I remember being one of the only African American women who was a partner at my law firm, and the only woman lawyer in negotiation sessions. As we grow,” she says, “we have a collective responsibility as leaders to bring a community of people with us, and to elevate their voices and experience.” —Marjorie Preston

 


Eye on America
Ian Bradley, Chief Strategy Officer, SBTech

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and its ban on sports betting in May 2018, there were many established sports-betting suppliers ready to grab a piece of the newly legal action in establishing retail and online sportsbooks in the U.S.

Some, like SBTech, were at the front of that line. SBTech, based in the Isle of Man with a network of nine global offices, has earned a bevy of industry awards for its sports betting platforms and services, which comprise complete sportsbook solutions including kiosks, payment services, casino integration and a bonus engine, in full-blown retail sportsbook setups including TV monitors, cashiers and kiosks, as well as more simple sportsbook operations and complete online sports-betting solutions.

SBTech services sportsbooks in 23 regulated markets across the world, but its most-watched moves these days are happening in the U.S., where it established a Las Vegas office as a hub to prepare for the floodgates that opened for sports betting in the U.S.

The company’s U.S. beachhead is well-established, with current clients in New Jersey including online market leader Golden Nugget, where both retail and online sportsbooks are powered by SBTech; Resorts on the online side; and Churchill Downs, through its BetAmerica brand, with a full platform of sports betting and online casino games. The company’s technology also fuels three books in Mississippi casinos.

SBTech is now poised to grow with the sports betting market in the U.S., and leading the charge will be Chief Strategy Officer Ian Bradley, whose pedigree includes not only the past three pivotal years with SBTech, but eight years with Sporting Solutions, the B2B provider of the Sporting Index that dominates more than 80 percent of the sports spread betting market.

“At Sporting Solutions, I helped build up the B2B business working with partners across the globe, including William Hill, Skybet, Tabcorp and others,” Bradley recalls. “It provided a very good entree to the B2B side of the business. Now, my role is across departments, where I am responsible for trading and risk management, and work with the product and technology team, looking to emerging markets.”

For the coming year, Bradley will perform a balancing act between maintaining growth in SBTech’s European base—it just won the sports betting platform contracts for lotteries in Sweden and Finland—with a U.S. client base that now includes New Jersey, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arkansas and Oregon. “We’re live in most all of these states, and we’ve been busy setting up the new partners and getting them live with our solutions,” Bradley says.

Growth in the U.S. has been made a bit easier, he says, thanks to industry veteran Gavin Isaacs, the former Scientific Games CEO who became non-executive chairman of SBTech a year ago. “Gavin’s brought a lot of experience and contacts, and has really helped us in the U.S. market already,” Bradley says.

The key to growth in the U.S., he notes, will be to stay on top of the sports betting market as it grows. “We’re always looking at the news around particular legislation that might be coming through,” says Bradley. “Getting early entry into the new states as they go live is very important, so we need to be on top of the technical requirements for each state, to make sure our solution is compliant and within the requirements of the legislation.”

Bradley says SBTech has a leg up in the market because the company offers what he calls the most flexible sports betting platform in the business. “We don’t just build a feature for a branch; we build it on a core level,” he says. “It’s important to understand the requirement for whatever we’re going to build, and build it flexibly enough that it can be rolled out in Europe or rolled out in the U.S.” —Frank Legato

 


Nearing the Summit
Peter Jackson, CEO, Flutter Entertainment

In an industry marked by mega-mergers, this one was among the most audacious: the October 2019 marriage of Ireland-based Flutter Entertainment, parent company of iGaming giant Paddy Power Betfair, and The Stars Group of Canada, which owns PokerStars.

When the alliance was announced, Morgan Stanley analysts said online betting revenues for the combined group would be 50 percent higher than next-in-line Bet365 and twice those of Ladbrokes Coral owner GVC, with more than 13 million customers in 100 global markets. By Flutter’s own calculations, on a pro forma basis, its annual revenue would have been £3.8 billion (US$5 billion) in 2018, making it the world’s largest online betting and gaming operation in the world.

It’s the Everest of online gaming deals, and at the summit is CEO Peter Jackson, who is laser-focused on the growth of sports betting in the United States. (He’s said May 14 “may become a company holiday” at Flutter—referring to the date in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned PASPA.)

Jackson has held previous roles at Worldpay, Trevelex, Banco Santander, Lloyds Banking Group and HBOS. When he assumed his current role in 2017, the company hailed his “track record of leading substantial businesses with international reach and a combination of technology and digital consumer sector expertise.”

“Banking is a highly regulated, international industry with country-specific regulation which adds a number of layers of complexity to how businesses operate,” he agrees. “The gambling industry is progressing down a similar path, and this experience allows us to be a strong voice in leading responsible operations across all of our jurisdictions—investing in tools and processes to ensure the protection of our customers, while building sustainable relationships with them.”

Asked about Flutter’s plans for the U.S., Jackson says, “We’ve now successfully launched our FanDuel sportsbook in six states, four online in New Jersey, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and two retail in New York and Iowa, and we’ve been very encouraged by our progress to date.

“States are opening up in different ways at different speeds, based on their legislative agendas. So our goal remains to be live in as many states as we can, as quickly as we can, delivering a strong product offering to all of our customers.”

It seems his confidence is warranted. In the third quarter of 2019, Flutter reported a 174 percent year-on-year increase in U.S. gaming revenues.

“This highlights the strength of our product offering and the cross-sell opportunity for both new and existing sportsbook customers,” according to Jackson.

The proposed agreement, expected to be complete in the second half of 2020, “will accelerate delivery of all of our core strategic objectives,” he says. “We are very excited about the international growth prospects for the combined group. The stars are aligned for the combined group.” —Edward N. Healy

 


Compliance Before Commerce
Lori Olk, Vice President, Regulatory Compliance, Konami Gaming

Lori Olk’s typical work day can include due-diligence investigations on her company’s vendors and suppliers, background investigations on company employees, researching new business, ensuring her company remains compliant for licensing in more than 300 gaming jurisdictions, serving as her company’s liaison on all company and individual background investigations with each regulatory agency in those 300-plus jurisdictions, and dealing with whatever new day-to-day issues come up in any of these areas.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more capable of handling all these compliance and risk-management issues for slot supplier Konami Gaming than Lori Olk, the company’s vice president of regulatory compliance.

Olk took on a lot of those tasks since she was elevated to vice president last July, but the ability to handle them comes from 23 years of experience as a compliance official for slot companies going all the way back to Powerhouse Technologies, where she began as a licensing analyst in 1997, and in the same position after Powerhouse was bought by Anchor Gaming.

IGT elevated Olk to senior regulatory compliance analyst when the slot leader bought Anchor Gaming in 2001. Beginning in 2005, she served three years as regulatory compliance manager for server-based gaming pioneer Cyberview Technology, then back to IGT when it acquired Cyberview.

For nearly nine years, she has been with Konami Gaming, beginning as regulatory compliance manager in 2011. She has honed and perfected her craft on her way to heading the regulatory compliance department—with all those extra vice-president duties.

Add to that an expertise in M&A. “I’ve been through three acquisition/mergers,” she says, “having dealt with and handled the dynamics of the due diligence processes and non-negotiable timelines.

“Yes, it’s a lot to manage,” Olk says, “but I’ve got a great team. We’re busy, and we’re growing, so we have to stay on top of all the new statutes, new regulations and new markets. Every day is different, and I’m happy about the challenges. I look forward to what’s to come.”

Asked the most important of all her duties, Olk names three. “First is to mitigate risks for the company,” she says. “I’m always instilling with everybody that comes on board that it’s compliance before commerce. I also feel it’s important to ensure the company can achieve its financial plan and meet its customer commitments through the continued execution of all our jurisdictional applications—and to make sure, before the business starts, that everybody who has to be licensed is licensed.

“And third, obviously, ensuring proper licensing or ongoing compliance across all jurisdictions that Konami serves.”

In 2020, those efforts will support new markets, new players and a lot of opportunity for growth of Konami Gaming, which has embarked on an effort to expand its product library and its footprint in current and new jurisdictions.

Olk says to achieve that, she will continue to surround herself with the best people. “The biggest challenge for me will be to retain the top talent in my department,” says Olk. “The gaming industry has grown by leaps and bounds. We have a lot of fierce competition out there. However, I’m very confident. Konami has a great company culture. Employee happiness means lower turnover and better company performance. When employees are loyal and companies perform better, it’s a win-win.

“I’m excited for the opportunity at Konami. There’s a lot of opportunity for growth.” —Frank Legato

 


Double Down
Fawn Sharp, President, Quinault Indian Nation and National Congress of American Indians

Fawn Sharp, recently elected to a two-year term as president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), is an outspoken advocate of her people. Not only the 3,000-member Quinault Indian Nation based in Washington state that she also leads as president but all Native Americans.

A leader who knew at an early age that she wanted to fight for her nation’s rights to self-determination and to persuade the federal government to honor its commitments to the Quinault, she recalls, “I felt I was called at this time to advance tribal self-determination. I knew at the age of 12 what treaty abrogation was.”

One of her first acts as president of NCAI, which she won with 62 percent of the vote, was to address the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States Oversight Hearing on the “Broken Promises Report.” She urged legislators to make good on funding promises that remain unmet 16 years after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights first brought them to the attention of Congress.

Sharp obtained her law degree from the University of Washington in 1995. She was Quinault Tribal Court associate judge as well as an administrative law tax judge for the state. She then became attorney general of the nation. Sharp was 35 when tribal elders urged to her run for public office.

She says, “I took a leave of absence as attorney general and spent time meeting and talking with elders. I ran a traditional campaign, which means I didn’t campaign.”

She was appointed by Governor Gary Locke trustee for Grays Harbor College, was a governor of the Washington State Bar Association, trustee of Washington State Bar Association Indian Law Section, vice president and founding member for the National Intertribal Tax Alliance, and director/secretary of the Quinault Nation Enterprises Board.

Her experiences as judge shaped her philosophy.

“My role as a judge helped me to understand that injustices aren’t always as they appear,” she says. “There are root causes for behaviors and injustices.”

Sharp feels she is often underestimated. “I think I still get underestimated,” she says. “When I was a young professional, I looked like I was 12. When I registered to be a judge I was mistaken for one of the judge’s kids. Even now I tend to think people underestimate me and not see me for who I am. I’ve had to overcome being taken seriously, as a young professional, as a woman and as a Native American.”

Her nation operates the Quinault Beach Resort Ocean Shores Hotel and Casino on the shores of Puget Sound. Sharp urges gaming tribes to use the leverage gaming gives them to enter the field of international diplomacy.

“I think gaming revenues could be utilized to participate in international gaming. It’s a great opportunity to engage in international trade, diplomacy and bilateral relationships with other countries,” she says. —David Ross

 


The Golden Rule
Sandra Douglass Morgan, Chairwoman, Nevada Gaming Control Board

Every chairman or chairwoman (there have only been two) of the Nevada Gaming Control Board has reaffirmed the status of Nevada regulations as the “gold standard” for the gaming industry. And that hasn’t changed since Sandra Douglass Morgan took the reins as the second consecutive female chief of the board.

Morgan invoked the “gold standard” again in November when the board issued stronger regulations concerning sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. The new amendment to the existing policy requires all casinos employing more than 15 people to implement written policies and procedures “prohibiting workplace discrimination or harassment of a person based on the person’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, or national original, including, without limitation, sexual harassment.”

In less than a year, Morgan is now up to speed. She admits her learning curve included a lot of consultations with longtime employees of the board about processes and procedures—“They probably think I’m in the weeds a little too much,” she laughs—to really understand how the agency works.

“I’m asking about the policies and the regulations, when they were enacted, why they were enacted, are those threats or concerns still active that we need to continue to be vigilant,” she says.

Since she was previously a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission, the “judicial” side of the bifurcated Nevada regulatory structure, Morgan says she felt familiar with the industry, but not complacent.

“You never know what you don’t know until you’re on the board,” she says. “I knew I was up to the challenge but I don’t think anyone really knows what the board does until you’re in it.”

Responsible gaming is an important consideration for regulators today, and Nevada is no different. Morgan says the board follows the policies established by the legislature, but she’s making it personal.

“I’ve reached out to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, as well as the national organizations, to get a better understanding of the issues and to see if there are best practices in other jurisdictions we should be emulating.”

Morgan points to the gambling court set up in Clark County as another way Nevada is leading the nation. The gambling court intervenes in crimes surrounding problem gambling the same way a drug court does.

“I want to commend Judge (Sheryl) Moss for setting up the first gambling court in the nation,” says Morgan. “She’s been a champion of problem gambling and is always looking for ways to help people afflicted with this illness.”

As for the gold standard, Morgan says it’s not going to be a static distinction.

“I not only want to maintain this reputation but enhance it,” she says. “We have such a strong regulatory system that we’re consulted by new states coming into gaming about how to do it right. We have a strong land-based regulatory system and our online and interactive members are increasing, so it’s important to stay ahead of the curve.” —Roger Gros

 


Helping Hotels Thrive
David Woolenberg, President and Chief Operating Officer, Duetto

David Woolenberg has found a home at Duetto.

Duetto is the rapidly growing producer of software that helps more than 3,500 hotel and casino properties in 60 countries optimize pricing strategies, intelligent reporting and revenue. Woolenberg, who joined Duetto as chief revenue officer in July 2018, was elevated to president and chief operating officer of the company in September.

He feels a home at San Francisco-based Duetto because it applies the principles of e-commerce to success in the hospitality/gaming industry. Prior to Duetto, he spent 15 years at e-commerce company Digital River, where he was general manager and senior vice president of sales.

Woolenberg joined Duetto not only because the company’s software packages are in his technological wheelhouse, but because of the company culture instilled by the firm’s three co-founders—CEO Patrick Bosworth, CTO Craig Weissman and Marco Benvenuti, formerly chief marketing and strategy officer and now company advisor.

“When I decided I was going to move away from Digital River, I was very clear in some of the things that I wanted,” Woolenberg says. “One, I wanted to go to a place that had a really a great culture, where people were excited about the business and what they were doing. Also, because I’d spent 15 years in e-commerce, I really wanted to find a place where I could leverage some of that experience. When I came upon Duetto, I was really excited personally. My family and I love to travel, and stay in great hotels. So, I already had a passion for that part of what Duetto does.”

The founders of Duetto had developed pricing and revenue strategy software for Wynn Resorts, and now provide hotels and casinos with software that ensures a pricing strategy that returns the best profit to the operator.

“As I learned more about the business, I was really excited about what we are doing,” says Woolenberg. “In hospitality, you have a lot of technology that surrounds hotels, but SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) technology and COD technology have not really permeated this very large segment of the global economy like it has in other industries. I really thought it was just an interesting kind of problem to solve.”

Also, as a longtime sales and revenue officer, Woolenberg says he was excited to learn the ins and outs of the new business. “I really had no idea about the culture of revenue management and revenue strategy, and all the complexity that was behind the scenes in a casino hotel, and just thought it was fascinating,” he says. “Then, having spent quite a bit of time with the three founders, Patrick, Marco and Craig, their passion for the industry, their passion for the business, was really exciting to me.”

Looking ahead to 2020, Woolenberg says his main priorities are to continue the rapid growth of the company by recruiting new talent and capturing a wealth of new business he says is there for the taking.

“Duetto has a remarkably strong brand given the relatively short history of the company,” he says. “We’re seven-plus years old and we have this brand that people recognize in our chosen vertical market. People are interested and people are getting excited about our story.

“We have this awesome mix of hospitality talent and technology talent and that’s always been there since the beginning of the company. And so I get this really cool mix of meeting with people from both sides of that spectrum, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

The growth of Duetto is undeniable. According to Woolenberg, the company’s workforce is growing annually at around a 40 percent clip.

“We are going to be doubling down on our core capabilities, which are pricing, forecasting, analytics and personalization. And that, in many ways, is what casino hotels and hotels hire us to do. And the best thing we can do is to get better and better at that, and continue to innovate and lead.” —Frank Legato

 


Home Game
Dana Schwartz, Sales Executive, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

Although she grew up in Las Vegas, Dana Schwartz went about as far away as you could go to attend college. Boston University was a nation away, but each summer she’d come home to Las Vegas and do an internship with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), or with R&R Partners, the marketing arm of the authority.

But following her college career, she took a job with a Los Angeles public relations firm to start her career.

“When the (Las Vegas National Hockey League team) Golden Knights revealed their logo, I knew I had to come back,” she says. “It was so exciting, and I vowed that I wasn’t going to miss another historic moment in my home town.”

Luckily for Schwartz, the LVCVA offered her a position as a sales executive and her career shifted into high gear. She now is involved in leisure and sports marketing sales. But her focus is esports.

“It’s an exciting time because esports is such a new segment of the market,” she says. “I’ve been attending all the conferences to learn about how esports can help bring more people to Las Vegas.”

And Las Vegas is well positioned to attract the demographic that enjoys esports.

“We’ve got several casinos that are making esports a priority,” says Schwartz. “But with the entertainment, the nightclubs and all the things that you can do in Las Vegas, esports fans have many choices.”

And esports blends into sports marketing, in which Schwartz also has a role.

“Las Vegas has long been a mecca for sports marketing, whether it’s the National Finals Rodeo or World Fighting Championship,” she says. “When these groups come to town, I help to find them accommodations at hotels to house their participants.”

She says the LVCVA has some big plans for sports when the new Raiders stadium opens later this year, and she’s eager to participate.

“Lisa Motley, who is the director of sports marketing and special events, has some great plans for the next year and I can’t wait to get started.”

Schwartz also helps entertainers find hotel rooms for their retinue and staff.

“If someone is coming to town with a residency and needs to find space for their team, we can help them with that,” she says.

But esports is the focus for Schwartz. There are a few casinos with esports programs, and she’s strategizing with them to attract tournaments, conferences and other esports events to Las Vegas.

“We’re working closely together to bring these events to Las Vegas,” she says. “Tournaments can be a big event for Las Vegas and the casinos.”

Schwartz believes that esports in the U.S. is just getting started and that Las Vegas is getting in on the ground floor.

“They always have a great time when they come to Las Vegas to play or watch esports,” she says. “We’re preparing for more events and more esports involvement.”

While Schwartz says that betting on esports isn’t something she’s involved in, it could add to the attraction of Las Vegas for esports fans.

“We welcome any development in the esports field that we can use to help promote Las Vegas.” —Roger Gros

 


Tapping New Markets
Drew Pawlak, Vice President and General Manager, Latin America, AGS

When gaming supplier AGS acquired Georgia-based slot supplier Cadillac Jack in 2015, the company got more than an excellent core slot platform on which to build—the company inherited a thriving operation in Mexico.

Cadillac’s footprint of distributed games in Mexico at one time had numbered as many as 9,000 units, but the supplier had not reinvested a lot in Mexico as it pursued a Class III domestic casino business, and after the acquisition, AGS was determined not only to rebuild the Mexico footprint, which had dropped by more than 3,000 units, but to expand its growing library of Class III games to the rest of the Latin American market.

For this task, company President and CEO David Lopez turned to an expert.

Drew Pawlak had spent nearly 27 years in business development, first for laser-tag system supplier Ultrazone, where he oversaw building the business in North and South America. But it was his 12 years at international gaming testing firm BMM Testlabs that made him perfect for the task at hand. As senior vice president of business development for BMM, Pawlak developed a powerful network of contacts throughout Mexico and Latin America.

Pawlak joined AGS in 2016 as vice president and general manger-Latin America. Since then, the company’s footprint in Mexico is back to more than 9,000 total footprint, with record sales in 2018 contributing to 13 percent of AGS’ total AEBITDA. The company is now actively seeking out new and upcoming business across South America and the Caribbean. And Pawlak is using that established network of contacts to helm that effort.

“My first time in Latin America was in 1992, and I have been actively working in that region since,” Pawlak says. “I spent a tremendous amount of time in Peru. BMM’s South America headquarters were there, and I worked all the regional shows. It was a fantastic market for BMM and a fantastic market for gaming in general.”

Since righting the ship in Mexico—“2018 was a record year, and our Mexico business is on track this year exceed last year’s numbers,” he says—Pawlak is concentrating on expanding the company’s footprint in established and emerging markets across Latin America.

“First, we had to identify what Latin American markets we want to enter and prioritize those,” Pawlak says. “Then we needed to make modifications to the platform and the library to make sure we have a product that complies, and that we believe would perform.” The first AGS games went live in Argentina in November, and Pawlak says Peru is next, slated for the second half of 2020, followed by Chile. AGS is selling directly and working with distributors to place its products in Latin America.

Pawlak says the AGS Mexico team will be responsible for driving the company’s expansion in Central America and the Caribbean—Panama, Dominican Republic, Belize and other growing markets.

Pawlak’s other responsibility is to stay ahead of the introduction of gaming in new jurisdictions. For Latin America, that increasingly means the potentially huge market of Brazil.

“I’ve been entrenched in the Brazilian market for the last 13 years with the old operators and obviously the suppliers, who are clients and friends of mine from BMM,” Pawlak says. “I believe that AGS is in a very good position should Brazil legislate, and I believe that they will.

“We’re ready for Brazil. We’ve got a complete library of games—we currently supply Latin bingo in the Philippines, so our box originates in Brazil. AGS has a ground game, which is going to be the key to success for any international supplier into that region.”

Meanwhile, the company continues to grow its business in Mexico, methodically introducing new cabinets such as the ICON and the Orion family, and the parade of new games that go with them.

AGS is poised to grow in Latin America and continue its momentum in Mexico, and at the center of that growth will be Drew Pawlak. —Frank Legato

 


Experience Counts
Jeff Hartmann, Co-Founder and President, Experientia Development Partners

Jeff Hartmann is co-founder and president of Experientia Development Partners, where the future of gaming lies, not in gaming, but in the amenities associated with it. Experientia is Latin for “experience.” Experientia develops “modern, authentic, amenity- driven experiences that complement existing casino resort destinations.”

“Experientia Development Partners is a real estate development company that focuses on gaming, bringing dining, entertainment, branded food and beverage to Native American casinos,” says Hartmann. “An example would be the Swingers indoor miniature golf concept. It draws interest to take a closer look. It’s a classic boy-meets-girl with a little golf and music.”

Hartmann leveraged his years at Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) and as CFO for Mohegan Sun.

“Taking the work we did at the Mohegan and bringing it to other clients,” he says. “New amenities that will drive repeat business by new customers who may not be visiting the casino property. We integrate various concepts and work with existing gaming operators to create a fantastic gaming experience.”

Hartmann is associated with the concept that the future of gaming is non-gaming.

“The future of gaming will have a lot of non-gaming in it,” he clarifies. “It is creating an entertainment experience for all ages. Whether you are an esports player in your low 20s or a new sports betting customer who wants to have a great craft beer and throw some darts while he watches his game, it’s for getting people to stay on the property for longer periods.”

He adds, “We get hired by existing gaming customers and look at demographics and see who is not coming and how do you get them to come? What do they like to do? We help our clients using data-driven experiences.”

What works at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina won’t necessarily work in Palm Springs. “We curate a program specifically for that property,” he says.

Experientia is the developer, owner and leasing agent of The Shops at Harrah’s Cherokee, a $115 million project of 223,000 square feet, with 150,000 square feet of dining and entertainment. It will have 45 shops. The project is being developed under a long-term lease with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“It’s kind of a complementary project,” says Hartmann. “The band is evolving and building more hotels and adding our retail dining experience. It will make a great resort even better. It’s a project that will have regional brands and some of the national draw from food and beverage.”

When Hartmann contemplates casino resorts five or 10 years from now he envisions “a fully integrated entertainment experience, with food and beverage and core gaming. It can easily toggle back and forth. The day is over where sportsbook and poker is behind a wall. They will have to be able to react quickly. The open floor concept is the future, because it can be easily manipulated with changing floor layouts. You have to have that kind of floor to be able to move quickly.” —David Ross

 


Seizing the Moment
Robert Ziems, President, Global Chief Legal Officer, Director and Corporate Secretary, Aruze Gaming

Robert Ziems’ professional history has been one of accumulating knowledge. After graduating from Drake University Law School in 1995, he spent seven years honing his legal skills—including law firms and a stint at Station Casinos.

But Ziems’ career in gaming would ultimately be on the supplier side, beginning in 2002, when he began two years as assistant general counsel for Aristocrat Technologies and as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Mikohn Gaming and its successor, Progressive Gaming International.

Ziems has been with Aruze Gaming for nine years, during which time his education has continued—a year as senior vice president of business development, then as executive vice president and general counsel, and in 2015, when he was made Aruze’s global chief legal officer. Two years later, he was made director and corporate secretary, in addition to his CLO duties.

During all this time, Ziems continued his business education, earning an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business in 2018. A few months later, he was elevated to president of Aruze Gaming—in addition to those three other titles he still retains, chief legal officer, director and corporate secretary.

Ziems couldn’t have taken the helm at Aruze at a better time, as the company has been experiencing a genuine revival thanks to increased R&D efforts that have yielded products like the Muso-27 (winner of a Gold Medal in GGB’s Gaming & Technology Awards) and follow-up cabinets in the Muso line, along with innovative new electronic table games like Roll to Win Craps and unique slot games like the pachinko-style PachinCoin, a simulated pachinko game with no spinning reels.

Ziems says it’s all part of his personal ongoing education, which has advanced with every new position following his strictly legal start. “When I first got to Mikohn, I did some business development work,” he recalls. “When I started with Aruze, I actually started in a business development role.”

His progression of positions at Aruze, though, has given him a better understanding of the operations side of the gaming supply business. “We have a small production facility here, which gave me an understanding of the logistics of production and getting product out to customers,” Ziems says. “And then, much more involvement on the finance and accounting side, and plenty of interaction with the group.”

Completing his MBA, he says, put the cap on the preparations he would need to assume the president position last year.

The innovation has continued under Ziems’ watch with new products such as Hawaiian Fishing, the follow-up to Aruze’s groundbreaking community-style fishing game; and PachinCoin, a combination of pachinko and pinball that offers a fast-paced scoring of credits as a video ball bounces around pinball-style pegs.

Ziems says to watch for more innovation to pour out of Aruze’s R&D department, centered mostly in Tokyo, in 2020.

“One of our greatest priorities is just to continue to provide entertainment and value to the players and the customers,” Ziems says. “The ‘E’ in Aruze sands for entertainment. (The complete acronym is a bit complicated.) It’s a really big deal for our founder that we provide good value and entertainment to players.

“I think we’ve got room for improvement, even though we’re not a young company… We can be more modern in some of our approaches to the ways we do business. And that’s a significant priority for me—getting our team to focus on being more efficient in the way we do things.”

Creating the right corporate culture also is critical, he says. “I’m big on the philosophy in which people take ownership of their roles,” he says. “Each job is important, and each person needs to feel like they’re a significant contributor to the company.”

Ziems says one of his biggest opportunities for 2020 is to increase the floor share and ship share for Aruze’s games. “We naturally fill about a 3 percent-to-5 percent floor share, so I think there’s tremendous opportunity for us to increase our ship share and floor share,” he says. “The Muso cabinet has been well-received; it was innovative in so many ways. And our R&D team is putting together such entertaining product, like the PachinCoin game. I think there’s great opportunity for us to increase our floor share and ship share.

“One of our biggest challenges is meeting customer demand. I hope we are busting at the seams to try to build the games and ship the games fast enough to satisfy customers.”

It’s a good problem to have. —Frank Legato

 


Where The Wind Blows
Matthew Wesaw, Tribal Council Chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and President of the Pokagon Gaming Authority

That didn’t take long.

Matthew Wesaw, the tribal council chairman, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, and president, Pokagon Gaming Authority, which oversees the management and operations of the tribe’s Four Winds Casino gaming enterprises in New Buffalo, Harford and Dowagiac, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana, barely had time to enjoy the casino opening of South Bend in 2018.

Phase II has already begun.

Four Winds South Bend began an expansion featuring a 23-story hotel tower with 317 rooms, the Pokagon Gaming Authority says. There will also be a spa, convention area, meeting space, ballroom, lounge, bar & grille, outdoor roof-top swimming pool, and terraces with spectacular views. The hotel will be the largest in South Bend and the city’s second-highest building, behind only the Liberty Tower.

“The expansion project will turn us from a bigger small property to a larger mid-sized one,” Wesaw says. “We are excited about this and we still have space to expand again, but it is also important that we don’t over-build. With the way gaming is going online, brick-and-mortar facilities could be in trouble down the road.”

That favors beefing up the amenities side of the equation. The large, striking hotel will not only become a visual magnet, but enhance the property’s ability to extend gaming stays.

“When you look at our market, the south and west is territory that does not have properties in that proximity,” Wesaw says. “By having the hotel, we can draw from greater distances and still expand in the markets we are already in. We will be able to put people up now. A day trip of more than a couple of hours drive each way is hard.”

Wesaw fashions a rich portfolio. During his 26-year career as a Michigan state trooper, he served as vice president of the Michigan State Police Troopers Association before retiring in 2001. He later represented the group as the director of government relations until 2008.

Wesaw has become the recipient of three gubernatorial appointments and was the first Native American to serve in the cabinet of a sitting governor in Michigan. In 2013 Wesaw was selected as the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

He has balanced several factors: civil rights and law enforcement, employees and management. These interests often clash, but Wesaw believes it does not have to be that way.

“What carried over is that everybody deserves the same respect and opportunity to be treated fairly,” he says. “It does not make any difference who you are, or where you are, everybody has the right to live in a good place, have a good job and to be treated the right way.” —Dave Bontempo

 


Digital Determination
Michael Marino, Senior Vice President, Loyalty & Digital, Caesars Entertainment

Michael Marino enjoys an integrated age. Several areas blend into one for the SVP, loyalty and digital, for Caesars Entertainment. He oversees the Caesars Rewards Loyalty program, which consists of customers from Caesars’ gaming, hospitality, and online businesses.  Marino also is heavily involved in the Caesars.com e-commerce business, digital media, and the Caesars Rewards mobile app.

Marino and his area of specialization ascended in the past decade.

“There are three achievements which I am most proud of,” he says. “The first and most recent is rebranding Total Rewards to Caesars Rewards. We believe that the rebranded program will strengthen our ability to attract new members both for gaming and hospitality.

“The second is designing the first true loyalty program on social games, which connected our games operated by Playtika with Caesars Rewards so our members could earn credit in our program while playing online. And the third goes beyond gaming, which is truly to digitize our business.

“Digital engagement was unheard of when I joined the gaming industry in 2012. Today, our guests engage with us through our leading digital products including our chat bot (known as Ivy, the virtual concierge), our website and mobile app.”

Marino sees a big 2020 on the horizon via Caesars and Eldorado.

“The biggest and most visible project for 2020 is integrating Caesars Rewards into the nationwide Eldorado footprint,” he says. “This integration will build the largest network of casinos in the world and allow our Caesars Rewards members the ability to earn and redeem credits in almost every jurisdiction that offers gaming. But behind the scenes, we will continue to improve our capabilities to personalize our guest communication to provide the right offers to the right guest at the right time.  As the gaming industry continues to evolve to serve guests interested in more than solely gaming, our ability to personalize offers will ensure we can suggest to our guests the best experience for them.”

Marino’s previous roles within Caesars included vice president and executive associate to the chairman, president and CEO and director of marketing analytics.

Prior to joining Caesars, Marino worked at Bain & Company and Capital One Financial. He holds a BS in computer science and an MBA from the University of Virginia.

Marino obtained priceless insight along the way from industry professionals.

“I have had some great mentors over the years, but three lessons stand out above the rest,” he says. “First, don’t mistake activity for results, as ultimately we work in a results-based business. Second, don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. I have adopted an agile approach over the years to launch quickly and optimize. And most importantly, we play a team sport. Individual accomplishments don’t matter if the team doesn’t win the game. MVP and Coach of the Year are individual awards that are awarded to people who lead great teams.” —Dave Bontempo

 


Infinity and Beyond
Mario Kontomerkos, Chief Executive Officer, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment

Talk about having a full plate!

As CEO of Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, Mario Kontomerkos has responsibility for the enterprise-wide business that includes the Mohegan tribe’s casino in Connecticut, a commercial casino in Pennsylvania, management of a commercial casino in Atlantic City, a partnership with two other tribes, Louisiana and Washington state, and plans for a massive integrated resort at Incheon Airport outside of Seoul, South Korea.

First task recently for Kontomerkos was to protect his home field against competition from Massachusetts—MGM in Springfield and Wynn in Boston. He says the impact of the two casinos has been minimal and credits the management team in Connecticut. In addition, he says, Mohegan has been preparing for this competition for several years by expanding the appeal of the property.

“Strategically,” Kontomerkos says, “we strongly believe that non-gaming amenities are an important element of the guest experience and differentiator. Since opening the doors of our flagship property in 1996, we have been ahead of the competition offering guests an array of options that are more than just gaming. Mohegan Sun introduced to the Northeast market a world of play that had only been seen in Las Vegas offering gaming, dining, shopping, entertainment and meetings and convention space all under one roof.

“Heading into the new millennium, Mohegan Sun evolved into the next level of integrated entertainment resorts—one that combined the excitement of gaming with world-class hotel accommodations, acclaimed dining, vibrant nightlife, luxury shopping and live entertainment events including the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena which now ranks among the top three entertainment venues in the world.”

As for Mohegan’s other U.S. casinos, Kontomerkos is enthusiastic. He points to increases in revenue in Atlantic City despite the introduction of new competition, positive growth in a declining market in Louisiana, and a need for more capacity at ilani in Washington state as the business expands.

“We have been very pleased with the results thus far which have been in line with our expectations,” says Kontomerkos. “The properties have fared well despite increased competition from the new commercial casinos in upstate New York.”

But the big prize is Korea, where the company plans to invest $5 billion in the Inspire Integrated Resort. Kontomerkos says its proximity to 10 million residents of Seoul and another 10 million visitors to Korea makes it very appealing.

“The vision for Inspire is to create a true destination resort, with a comprehensive set of family-based entertainment offerings to attract and offer an unparalleled experience to both foreign and domestic Korean visitors,” he says.

In addition, Inspire should appeal to visitors from North Asia.

‘“Inspire’s location on Yeongjong Island alongside Incheon International Airport gives it direct access to the sixth busiest airport in the world with 62 million passengers in 2017 and expected to grow meaningfully with Incheon’s continued expansion.”

Kontomerkos is confident in the future of the company.

“With a robust and aggressive growth and development plan set ahead,” he explains, “we are hitting all marks to strategically grow the business. The Mohegan Tribe and MGE’s role as one of the top developers of integrated resorts is no surprise based on the tribe’s history of perseverance and overcoming adversity. We are where we are supposed to be at this point in the company’s evolution.” —Roger Gros

 


Conducting the Symphony
Cathryn Lai, Senior Vice President, Products and Marketing, Scientific Games

Gaming supplier Scientific Games is pioneering on many new fronts in 2020, from its vast and diverse—and growing—game library to new technologies that will change the way people fund play, change the way operators interact with and learn about their customers, and bring new customers into the casinos.

Leading all these efforts as senior vice president of products and marketing is Cathryn Lai, whose career has been one of managing innovation in the slot sector.

Lai’s background isn’t that of your normal slot-sector executive. First and foremost, she is a musician. She graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelor of music in piano performance and audio technology, earned her master’s degree in music from the University of Houston—also in piano performance—and spent nearly three years on the faculty of DePaul University’s School of Music.

Lai, in fact, ended up in the gaming industry by way of music. She earned her MBA in strategic management at DePaul in 2005, and went to work as a product manager for Shure Inc., the dominant company supplying microphones to working musicians around the world.

“I come from a creative background by nature through the music lens, a technical background through the audio engineering piece, and the business background with my MBA, so it was a good mix to work into product, especially in gaming,” Lai says.

In 2008, she took her product management expertise to the gaming industry in Chicago, where she spent five years as senior director of product management at WMS Gaming, moving to Scientific Games as vice president of products and strategy in 2014, when SG acquired WMS.

Lai has been senior vice president of products and marketing for Scientific Games since December 2018, and is now conducting a symphony of a different kind—managing what is arguably the most diverse product lineup in the business, from video and premium games to a dynamic lineup of stepper games to the SG Game Service, an ecosystem offering players a unified experience across slots, table games and the emerging sports betting business.

For 2020, Lai’s concerto will extend across all channels. “We’re rolling out a campaign called ‘Reimagine Play,’ which is really about the player focus,” she says. “In addition to the slot side, it’s about how we are creating a unified player experience across all channels.”

Part of that is the SG Game Service, which itself reimagines the power of a server-based gaming offering. “SG Game Service incorporates a lot of elements that tie all of the business units and products we have together,” Lai says. “It’s an on-premise, server-based product, where the games reside on this local server, but what it does is actually bridges all the different pillars of our product.”

Either on the game service or on the floor, those products are already causing a splash. “We launched our new Wave XL cabinet, and we augmented our library with a lot more content to support that launch,” Lai says. “We’re rolling out the TwinStar 5-Reel Mechanical cabinet with a new Dancing Drums game. We’re also bringing back some of the classic hits that did really well in the five-reel space.”

Other highlights to come include the spectacular TwinStar Wave XL Horizon hardware platform, which made a huge splash at G2E, as well as unique offerings like Gold Fish Frenzy, a true-physics pachinko game with no spinning reels. “We had a ton of new products, hardware and games, but one of the most notable was Gold Fish Frenzy,” Lai says. “That was the sleeper of the show, because it was so different, and helped show more of the depth of what Scientific Games is capable of.”

For 2020, Lai says she looks forward to seeing how some of the emerging technologies displayed at the show will be adopted by operators. “If you look at technologies we showed (at G2E) like object recognition, vision technology and the server-based gaming, that’s going to be a big focus for Scientific Games in 2020. It’s going to evolve the player experience and drive more value to the operator. Some of these technologies will be a game-changer for casino floors in the future.”

That’s in addition to great core products, she says. Add in the new Quartz cabinet, a table-game progressive on the GM Atlas operating system, system-based bonuses through the Elite Bonusing System with iVIEW 4, and new technology that can remove both cash and plastic club cards from the casino equation, and Lai will be orchestrating quite a diverse symphony indeed.

She’s done it before. In music, and in gaming. —Frank Legato

 


Integrated Leader
Ayako Nakayama, Representative Director, Japan IR Association

The Japan market is already the focus of operators, regulators, and other key stakeholders around the globe as it comes to fruition after decades of waiting. Several prefectures have announced their intentions to seek one of the three licenses currently available under the Integrated Resort (IR) Implementation Bill. Several operators continue to position themselves in one or multiple jurisdictions to seek a partnership in the development of one of these IRs. However, one of the individuals leading that charge in the education of IRs across Japan is Ayako Nakayama, the representative director of the Japan IR Association.

As the leader of the Japan IR Association, Nakayama is leading the charge in building and promoting the IR industry across Japan. She also has been the public face of the emerging industry at various gaming conferences and events held around the world. She has used her position to help establish cross-border collaboration within and outside of the industry both domestically and internationally.

Serving as a conduit between operators, business leaders, the government and other key stakeholders, Nakayama has planned and managed to join the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Platform through the Japanese government. Her previous work in the IT industry has offered her perspective in how systems integrate and how a larger global scale of development can play a role in achieving the goals established for IRs in Japan. The focus of these initiatives for Nakayama and the Japan IR Association is the planning and managing of activities that emphasize women’s success in the IR industry, diversity, sustainability, and regional development support

Since the inception of the Japan IR Association, Nakayama has successfully organized and implemented a series of IR-related seminars connecting industry experts and operators to educate members of the Japanese Diet and local governments. These sessions have included efforts on non-gaming amenities such as entertainment and other key aspects in the development of integrated resorts. They have been instrumental in connecting stakeholders to gain a deeper understanding of economic impacts, job creation, and development of the hospitality industry throughout Japan.

Nakayama continues to be a driver in promoting and educating interested parties in Japan on the development of integrated resorts. Whether it is her presence within Japan or on the international scene, Ayako Nakayama will be one to watch in 2020 as IRs finally move forward in Japan. —Brendan Bussman, Global Market Advisors

 


Engineering Success
Mackenzie Haugh, Senior Director of Engineering, Gaming Laboratories International

Who says work isn’t fun and games?

Mackenzie Haugh has employed both of those phrases for two decades at Gaming Laboratories International.

“It’s been fun for me from day one,” says the International Falls, Minnesota native, who joined GLI in 2001 and serves as its senior director of engineering. Haugh’s roles run the gamut of impersonating a hacker—thus identifying a product’s security vulnerability—to directing entrepreneurs toward regulatory approval via knowledge of each state’s laws. That approval culminates a long testing process, complete with substantial investment from the developers. A blessing from GLI often spearheads a product to market.

“Like many of my peers, I entered the industry of regulated gaming quite a long time ago with no prior (meaningful) understanding of it other than a Scorsese film,” Haugh says. “I was immediately fascinated by the complexity and customization within each market and enlightened by all of the regulations in place to protect players.

“But I consider the dedication and passion from all of my colleagues throughout the years that has and will keep me in gaming.  Our industry is full of smart, engaged individuals who are oriented to help each other.  It’s refreshing and inspiring.”

Haugh has extensive experience in the regulatory compliance testing of games, platforms, systems, hardware, and peripherals for land-based, server-based, lottery and interactive products. He is responsible for directing, controlling, and improving engineering activities across GLI laboratories in Colorado and Vancouver. Haugh interfaces with government regulators, suppliers and operators around the globe to ensure products meet the expectations of the field.

“We also engage them and help them understand what they are trying to do,” he says. “We know the regulations of all the jurisdictions. The other day, someone had a request for a product in 13 markets. We started asking questions and determined that if we just took two markets away, we saved them 40 percent of what the cost would be.”

Haugh says GLI is obsessed with anticipating its customers’ varying needs.

“One example can be finding a betting strategy in a math model to reveal an RTP above 100 percent, discovering a vulnerability in a geofencing solution which would allow off-jurisdiction gaming, uncovering a calculation error which reports revenue incorrectly by a factor of a hundred,” he indicates. “These are just a few examples of how we assist our clients from a product evaluation perspective. And product evaluation is only the tip of the iceberg in how we anticipate needs and deliver solutions for our regulator, supplier and operator customers.”

Haugh says product designs are more complex and diverse than ever and time to market has never been more important. This makes GLI hone its capabilities even more.

“We have to keep pace with all technologies to ensure we can demonstrate that all products fully meet the requirements for each market,” he indicates. “We constantly learn new development methods and make new tools to expand testing coverage while meeting market demands. —Dave Bontempo

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