Sometimes the most important figures in any industry aren’t the visible leaders. Often, the most influential people lurk behind the scenes, making things happen, swaying opinion, moving the pieces around so the people and businesses they influence can prosper and develop in the most sensible way.
The list of the Global Gaming Business 10 Most Influential People may not dazzle casual observers of the gaming industry. Most of the people mentioned within are hardly household names.
But for those who are true students of the industry, the 10 people profiled here are very familiar. They are the people who others consider when planning moves, taking steps or considering the future.
No, these are not the most powerful people in the business. These are not the most visible folks. But these are clearly people that other people listen to, take counsel from, and respect at such a level that their influence spreads far beyond their limited scope of operations. And these are people you need to know, whatever your role in the gaming industry.
The King of Technology
President, Gaming Laboratories International
For companies that manufacture slot machines and gaming systems, there is only one place to go when they develop new technology to get the endorsement necessary to achieve success: Gaming Laboratories International. The GLI certification is the imprimatur when it comes to acceptance by regulatory organizations, gaming operators or systems developers.
Ironically, however, the founding of GLI wasn’t planned. James Maida was working for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement in the late 1980s when gaming legalization began its first wave. The Midwest riverboats were legalized in several states, but there was no way for them to tell whether the slot machines that would be placed on the boats would be up to the standards claimed by the manufacturers. Maida, who also was attending law school at the time, decided to put together a company that would independently test the machines.
“The states needed a test lab,” Maida explains. “They were faced with two choices: go to a state test lab that was already running but would not have their best interests at heart, or invest millions of dollars and open up their own lab, which was, for many of the small states, not reasonable.”
So Maida and his investors put together a company that would do the work for those states in an atmosphere of integrity and transparency.
“It was a natural that regulators from all over the country could come to a single source and share resources,” he says.
From those early days, Maida says they went to talk to every new jurisdiction that was considering gaming and discussed their services and how they could make the process logical and transparent.
“Even today, we’re talking to at least half a dozen states about what we do and we can do for them,” he says.
But GLI didn’t just stop in the United States. It now has offices in every major gaming jurisdiction around the world and is clearly the “gold standard” when it comes to testing and evaluating machines and systems.
The GLI Certification-known as “GLI 11”-is what every company strives for when producing a new gaming machine or system. Maida says it was a process of examining regulations from around the world pertaining to technology.
“We merged all the regulations into a single document and compiled the best practices,” he says. “Over the past five to eight years, we developed standards that are as high as you can get in terms of technical competence. And we set the bar high because it’s never easy to raise the bar, if you set it too low.”
“And the manufacturers want to know that they meet the higher standard so they can get into every market that they desire,” he continues. “It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll get in, but it gives them confidence that their products will be accepted almost everywhere.”
In many cases, GLI is the first company into a jurisdiction when word gets out that they are considering the legalization of gaming. But Maida says the company doesn’t act as either an advocate or cheerleader for the gaming industry.
“We don’t try to tell them that they should legalize gaming,” he says. “We don’t know their economy. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding their consideration of gaming. We’ll get them assistance if they need an economic study, or need to know the social issues surrounding gaming, or a review of regulations in other jurisdictions. We’ll get access to that information.
“But when it comes to actually advocating gaming, that doesn’t happen. If they decide that they want gaming, we will help them get it regulated properly. The question whether or not to legalize gaming is usually a legislative or parliamentary decision, and we can offer facts and data. But we’d never get into suggesting exactly what they should do.”
Nevertheless, GLI is often called to go before legislative committees or gaming boards whose members are political appointees. Maida says the company doesn’t take that into account.
“We don’t get involved in the political process,” he says. “We’re not Democrats. We’re not Republicans. We’re not independents. We’re just interested in good regulation of gaming, and that’s how we stay out of the politics.”
Maida says the current economic climate is spurring the legalization of even more gaming.
“If you go back to 1989 and consider every recession we’ve had since then, gaming has expanded,” he says.
“Riverboat gaming came about in the early ’90s. There was a further expansion in the midpoint of that decade.
And now we see a tremendous number of states and countries looking at gaming to raise revenues without raising taxes on the other businesses and citizens.”
As technology accelerates, however, GLI must remain on the cutting edge and be prepared for any developments that are coming down the road.
“We meet with the manufacturers every quarter,” says Maida. “They tell us what they’re developing and what we can expect in the next year or so and we start preparing.”
Although GLI clients include both manufacturers and regulators, Maida says there is no doubt who is in charge.
“We’re very upfront about it with all our clients,” he says. “We work for the regulators and we work with the manufacturers. Transparency and integrity are the most important things to us. The goal is not to artificially keep some suppliers out of the market. The goal is to show the regulators that the products meet their standards and give them comfort that the equipment in their field will not create any scandals. Whatever the regulator wants rules the day.
“But it’s in our best interest to help suppliers through that process, because the gaming industry doesn’t exist without regulators, suppliers or operators. Everyone has to work together.”
Partner, AndersonTuell LLP
The tradition of Native Americans traveling to Washington, D.C., to advocate for issues of importance to them goes back to the founding of the republic. In fact, in the early days of the city, a hotel was founded on Pennsylvania Avenue specifically to host Indian chiefs and their parties while attending to affairs in the nation’s capital.
So Michael Anderson is simply carrying on a revered institution in Indian Country. While Indian nations are clearly sovereign, they all exist within the United States, so the attitude of the federal government toward tribes is crucial to their well-being. Anderson has the ear of some of the more powerful policymakers in the government, and, along with partner Loretta Tuell, has created what has become the go-to firm for tribes hoping to influence the shape of tribal-U.S. relations in the near future.
The election of Barack Obama-with the near-unanimous support of Native American tribes-gives Indian Country hope that the future will be very different from the past. In some sense, Anderson is trying to temper expectations.
“The transparency and the open-door approach is refreshing,” he says. “But in any government, there are going to be disagreements. And the government is more than just two or three political appointees. There are career, entrenched bureaucrats, if you will, who have not been favorable to Indian issues. While a political appointee can make some difference, the permanent government is always there, whether it’s at Justice, Interior, EPA or wherever they may be. So, we might see modest progressive change, but dramatic change is going to be difficult to accomplish.”
Anderson says a fall “summit” of Indian leaders in Washington, D.C., will give tribes a better idea of how the Obama administration will approach Indian issues.
“According to the administration, it will be a kind of ‘G-8’ meeting of tribal leaders,” he explains. “That will be a time to set priorities at the highest level in terms of consultation, funding, action, supporting economic development. So, that could be a real opportunity. That’s where the ball could really be moved forward.”
Anderson knows Washington intimately, and initially received note because of his background. A member of the Muskogee Creek Nation, Anderson is the great-great grandson of the legendary Muskogee Chief Samuel Checote. After being raised in Oklahoma and working for the nation, he was named associate counsel and general counsel for the Senate Special Committee on Investigations. In 1993, he was named executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. He joined the Clinton administration in 1993, serving as legal counsel and later a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Indian Affairs until 2001. During that time, he was involved in all the “hot button” issues-state revenue-sharing and the scope of gaming, land in trust and reservation gaming issues-and cleared over 100 gaming compacts, including the Mohegans and the Mississippi Choctaw, and many tribes in California, New Mexico and elsewhere.
So when Anderson talks about Native American issues, people listen-especially Congress. He testifies regularly before congressional committees and understands the government process very well. That knowledge will be tested when approaching the recent Supreme Court decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, which seems to limit the ability to take land into trust for gaming purposes.
“This will have a huge impact on gaming acquisitions,” he says. “There are several test cases on the horizon here, and tribes will be looking closely at how the BIA handles them.”
With the recent scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff and tribal lobbying in Washington, Anderson says being one of the few Native-owned firms in D.C. is an advantage, but that doesn’t last very long.
“This business is still results-oriented,” he says. “If you produce results, you’ll get the business whether you are an Indian or not.”
Godfather of Gaming
Chairman, Jimei Group
The importance of Jack Lam to the Macau gaming industry cannot be overestimated. As one of the largest VIP junket operators in Asia, Lam’s company, the Jimei Group, controls the fortunes of two of the city’s most important gaming companies, Las Vegas Sands and its three casinos and Wynn Macau. The players he brings to Macau are some of the biggest “whales” in the business and contribute mightily to the bottom lines of both companies.
But for Lam, Jimei’s gaming empire continues to expand, using the same players he delivers to LV Sands and Wynn. In addition to his junket services, Jimei operates two casino cruise ships-the M.V. Jimei, out of Hong Kong, and Xiang Xue Lan, with routes between China and South Korea-and has several interests in the Philippines, including Fort Ilocondia Resort & Casino and Fontana Leisure Parks. The company also opened its first casino in Macau early in 2009, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Lam was born in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Hong Kong in 1979 to work with his uncle, who owned a factory there. Lam worked as a bookkeeper earning just HK$1,000 a month (US$125). He accompanied his uncle on gambling trips to Macau and became enamored with the industry. In 1981, he began working as a sub-agent, bringing junkets to the SAR and continuing to establish contacts in the region. He seemed to have an innate grasp of the motivations of Asian gamblers and a sixth sense about what they required and how to treat them. The relationships he built with his customers have created a loyalty that he has parlayed into an empire.
Lam is now preparing for the opening of gaming in Singapore, and expects that city to be an attractive destination for players.
“Singapore is a country with unique attractions,” says Lam. “Its public security, environmental protection, urban planning and green work are doing well.
“When the two gaming establishments open, tourists and VIP players from all over the world will come and enjoy the newly high-quality environment. This initial surge of travelers into Singapore may cause a temporary reduction of customers in other Asian gaming markets, but in the long run, I believe the Singapore market will help to develop new customers, and increase the overall business opportunities in Asia.”
Lam is also looking at other nations in Asia for an expansion of the gaming industry.
“It’s just a matter of time before the gaming industry in Japan will become legalized and regulated,” he says.
“Japan is another Asian country with very attractive elements. Given the opportunity, I would love to participate in this market in my role.”
For his home turf, however, he has confidence that the Chinese government will understand the importance of Macau to the entire country.
“I believe a well-governed country with sound policies must focus on its overall government system, economy and public security,” he says. “The policy-making should not be affected by a certain individual industry.
“The relationship between China and Macau is like that of a father and son. I believe the father will certainly help the son to grow up in a healthy manner when needed.”
Even though some operators want to curtail the VIP junket system in place in Macau and in other regions across Asia, Lam is confident it will remain strong.
“The VIP business will continue to grow in the many years to come,” he states. “As the demand for VIPs increases, Asian markets will need to invest more resources to improve the hardware, software and infrastructure to attract those players.
“When those effects match the demands, the market will, of course, attract more and more customers.”
Judy In Disguise
Senior Vice President and Executive Director, American Gaming Association
One of the casino industry’s best moves in the past 20 years was to set up the American Gaming Association in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. And as head of that organization, the second-best move was to appoint Frank J. Fahrenkopf, the former head of the Republican National Committee under Ronald Reagan.
And maybe the best move Fahrenkopf made when he took over was to appoint Judy Patterson has his chief deputy. While Fahrenkopf has the “name” and the recognition, it’s clear that Patterson does the behind-the-scenes work that is crucial to all associations.
She learned the ropes as the as special assistant to the president of the American Bar Association, and applied what she learned there to the AGA.
In the early days, it was a four-man team, and Patterson said they had to get up to speed quickly.
“One of the industry’s deficits was that there really wasn’t any research about the major benefits of gaming- employment, tax revenues, infrastructure and the other things,” she says. “On the flip side, there was data that passed for ‘research’ by opponents of gaming. If we had not had Harrah’s, which has a strong research department, it would have been much more difficult. Soon thereafter, however, we began doing our own research, both macro and micro, and today we’re a clearinghouse for all data about the industry.”
Less than a year later, however, Congress passed a bill that established the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, supported by gaming opponents, who were planning to use the results to rein in the expansion of gaming.
“For two years, we traveled around the country to each of the hearings getting our information together and arranging witnesses who would tell the true story about the industry,” she says. “There were two benefits to that in the end. Because we were so proactive, the industry came out very well in the final report. And second, it was a call-to-arms for the industry to get more organized. It solidified our role with the AGA and brought the industry together in a way it had never been unified before.”
That unity led to Patterson’s work on other subjects. She organized and chaired several task forces focused on issues such as diversity, taxes, bank secrecy act provisions, communications and responsible gaming.
It’s that last subject that makes Patterson smile. The formation of the National Center for Responsible Gaming is one of the triumphs of the AGA, and it has helped develop groundbreaking research into problem gambling.
“We needed to address this dearth of research on the subject,” she explains. “We knew that 50 percent of gamblers weren’t afflicted with this problem as our opponents claimed, but we had no proof. And if we were going to fund research, we needed to find a way to make sure it was clearly independent. We were fortunate to join with Dr. Howard Shaffer at Harvard, and he helped guide us in setting up the research and the structure.
“It was a leap of faith. I give our members credit. They put their money forward not knowing what the ultimate outcome was going to be. But we have always been better served by investing in research that is peer-reviewed and unbiased than we ever would have been if we arrived at the answer via anecdotal information.”
With the 10th anniversary of the AGA come and gone, Patterson looks forward to expanding the influence of the association by attracting more members. By playing a crucial role in the development and operation of the industry’s largest trade show, Global Gaming Expo and G2E Asia, both joint ventures of the AGA and Reed Exhibitions, Patterson believes that the association will continue to serve and protect.
“We believe that the entire gaming industry benefits from our work,” she says. “Whether it’s tribal casinos or racinos that may not be members, we believe we have a positive impact on the business, whatever kind of facility you operate.”
Partner, Lionel Sawyer & Collins
The road from racket to respectability for the gaming industry has been long and rocky. And we still can’t see the end of it. But if you can credit one person for steering us in the right direction from the start, it’s Bob Faiss.
Faiss had one goal as he entered college: to reach a position of influence in journalism, which he achieved when he was named the youngest city editor for the Las Vegas Sun at that time in the early 1960s. His professionalism caught the attention of a candidate for governor, and when Grant Sawyer was elected, he chose Faiss as public information officer.
“He was a crusading district attorney in Elko County, and ran for the Board of Regents when I was a student at the University of Nevada-Reno,” explains Faiss. “I campaigned for him, and although he did not win, I was very impressed with his character, his love for Nevada and his desire to make it a better place.”
Still, Faiss had no thought of attending law school, but continued with the political career that had overtaken him. But when Sawyer was defeated for a third term, Faiss decided to take the plunge and attended law school in Washington, D.C., with the promise that he could practice law with Sawyer in Nevada.
Faiss had experience at the state and federal levels (serving with President Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s), but nothing had prepared him for the battle with the mob.
Though Nevada gaming had been infiltrated for years by organized crime, efforts were made in the 1950s and ’60s to eliminate any influences of the undesirables. Progress was limited, until Faiss (backed by his mentor, Sawyer) began to re-shape Nevada gaming regulations.
“You have to remember that after the legalization of gaming in 1931, the state played no role in gaming,” he explains. “It wasn’t until 1945 that there was a state tax and the Gaming Control Board was not even set up until 10 years after that. So people had been in business for a long time and had been doing things the way they thought best, and suddenly this system started to be foisted upon them. So there was resistance.”
The Gaming Control Act passed by Sawyer in 1959 gave the board and the Gaming Commission great discretion. Both the courts and public opinion supported this approach. Further tweaks to the system allowed gaming to operate successfully as long as the integrity of the operation and the games was assured. Faiss was involved with many of the regulations and guidelines, so he’s very protective of his clients as they enter the Nevada regulatory system.
“This practice was founded by Grant Sawyer,” he says. “He selected attorneys the same way he appointed regulators. He wanted us to understand that we were not only representing our clients but we are also officers of the system.”
As a key participant in the evolution of the Nevada regulatory system, Faiss says he’s proud that politics are not part of the regulatory scheme in the state.
“When people come to Nevada, they don’t ask who knows the governor;” he explains, “they ask who knows the system. Grant Sawyer was wise enough to stay out of the regulatory end of things, and all subsequent governors have followed his lead. Partisan politics are just not part of the system, and all the commissioners and board members past and present would attest to that.”
Ace in the Hole
CEO, Harrah’s Interactive Entertainment
Within days of the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in September 2006, PartyGaming announced that it would withdraw from the U.S. market. The company saw a huge drop in revenue the following year after losing a huge chunk of its customer base, of which more than 50 percent were U.S. residents. But under the direction of Mitch Garber, then CEO of the company, PartyGaming took to an aggressive strategy of mergers and acquisitions that saw the company recover its lost revenue by expanding in other jurisdictions that were more friendly to online gaming operators.
Garber has since left PartyGaming, but he remains a pivotal figure in the online gaming world. He was pegged to head up Harrah’s Entertainment’s newly formed subsidiary, Harrah’s Interactive Entertainment, charged with the task of growing the World Series of Poker and Harrah’s overall online presence. The approach will be similar to what Garber did with PartyGaming, with a strong emphasis on international growth in regulated and open markets.
“The focus with the World Series of Poker is quite simply to maintain and increase its leadership position as the de facto championships of poker and the leading brand globally in poker,” Garber explains. “Today, we have essentially all of the bracelet events taking place in Las Vegas or in London, and I think in order to become a truly global event we want to expand that reach simply beyond Las Vegas and London.”
The WSOP will be modeled after other successful sporting ventures in the U.S. like the United States Golf Association and the Professional Golf Association, where there are a number of different tournaments, some of more importance overall than others, held in jurisdictions throughout the world.
Additionally, the WSOP, along with other brands like Harrah’s and Caesars, will gain international exposure through online gaming. Garber plans to draw on his experience with PartyGaming to help guide the efforts of Harrah’s. The biggest challenge, he says, is to avoid damaging the brands. Everything the company does online has to be up to the level of the company’s land-based operations.
The move toward online gaming, and the man who was pegged to lead it, shows that Harrah’s knows that “legalized and regulated online gaming is going to be a very important stream of revenue in the future,” says Garber.
And while international growth will help the company-especially as it labors under the debt incurred to go private in 2007 and reduced revenues at its Las Vegas and Atlantic City properties caused by the ongoing recession-Garber also believes that the future of online gaming definitely includes the U.S. There is legislation now in both the House and Senate that would create a system for regulating and taxing online operations in the U.S., and while it may still take several years before the market fully opens up, Garber believes that it ultimately will.
“The trends are for open, regulated, taxed and licensed online gaming in the E.U., and I just believe that North America, the U.S. and Canada in particular, are destined to follow suit and to enact a regulatory framework that alleviates the concerns about responsible gaming, minors gaming, and shows that this activity can be run fairly and securely and that it can be regulated and taxed effectively,” Garber says.
The opportunity to grow the company while also perfecting its online presence could give Harrah’s a distinct advantage if and when the U.S. market opens up. Either way, it opens up an additional revenue stream and expands the company’s brand awareness.
And while it remains to be seen just how the online gaming landscape will look in the future, it’s a good bet that with Garber heading up the online operations, Harrah’s will be primed to fully exploit any and all opportunities the online world provides.
One For All
Chairman of the Board, European Casino Association
Ron Goudsmit wants to see a level playing field, where land-based casino operators compete on equal terms with the online casino industry. As chairman of the European Casino Association, one of his main challenges is to make sure that those with the power to make law have at their disposal current and accurate information that reflects the reality of Europe’s multiple and varied casino jurisdictions.
Goudsmit began his casino career 33 years ago, as a dealer at the first legal casino in The Netherlands. On his way up through the ranks of the Holland Casino organization, Goudsmit has held various positions, including a casino directorship and corporate divisional vice presidencies of gaming, international and business development. Since 2008 he has served as secretary of the executive board of Holland Casino.
The ECA is a fairly recent invention. Founded in 2005, the non-profit organization seeks to provide European casino operators with a voice that can be heard by E.U. policymakers in Brussels. Goudsmit was one of the founders of the ECA and in 2006 replaced Anders Galfvensjö, at that time CEO of Sweden’s Casino Cosmopol, as chairman.
“The ECA was formed mainly as an attempt by the industry to get itself organized,” says Goudsmit. “There was a need to have one body representing European casinos, triggered by the E.U. money laundering directives that came into force in 2004. At the time we had the European Casino Forum, but that was an informal group with few members and not properly organized. With the ECF we were missing relevant information, and we had no way to convey information to the E.U. because we had no proper representation.”
So Goudsmit and a couple of others set up the organization and registered the ECA in Brussels. Today the group’s members represent 23 nations and some 1,000 casinos, and ECA is regarded and accepted as the voice of the European casino industry.
These days a great deal of focus of the ECA is on the online gaming industry, the question being how to regulate it.
“That is a big issue for our members, and it varies from country to country. Some are already involved with online gaming and some are on the brink of getting involved. Somehow you have to try and work with Brussels to try and help find a solution, because the problem is just as big for them as it is for us.”
The Council of the EU has an official working group studying the general subject of gambling, with online gaming just one of the major points. The working group is precisely the kind of body that the ECA needs to be able to assist with expert information, says Goudsmit.
One of the ECA methods for gathering information is to survey its members on a particular question. The group’s website has a secure section where information can be accessed by the membership.
“You have at your fingertips information about how things are done in other countries around Europe,” says Goudsmit. “It is a close organization, very open and friendly toward each other. There is a very open communication and exchange of information, something that has grown over the last couple of years and is very much appreciated by the members.”
Goudsmit expects the European casino industry to move increasingly toward mixed entertainment, with less emphasis on gambling and more on amenities that make the casino an attractive place for an evening out on the town.
As for Europe-wide legislation from Brussels, he believes that might be a lot farther down the road, if at all.
“The Schaldermose report made it very clear that when it comes to Europe, there is a free market, but not for gambling,” says Goudsmit. “The responsibility for gambling lies with the local governments, and I don’t think that will change in the near future.”
President, the Innovation Group of Compangies
As someone versed in urban planning and traffic engineering, Steve Rittvo has expanded his field of influence quite a bit since he was introduced to the gaming industry in the early 1990s. As head of Urban Systems, Rittvo was engaged by Chris Hemmeter, a hotel developer and one of the first bidders for the New Orleans casino, to study traffic patterns near the proposed gaming site. He later became the master-planner and principal analyst for that casino project.
“That was our introduction to gaming, and it was pure luck,” says Rittvo. “Later, after Louisiana instituted riverboat gambling, I was able to option a piece of land in Lake Charles, right on the Texas border. We took that to 21 casino companies until we partnered with Players International. And we ended up with license No. 2 in Louisiana.”
With the combination of consulting and being involved in his own project, Rittvo got up to speed quickly on gaming. But the real breakthrough was his ability to develop and refine forecasting models for casino revenue when gaming companies were considering jurisdictions and specific sites. The next big move for Rittvo was to partner with Jason Ader, who was at the time the leading investment bank gaming analyst with Bear Stearns. They developed the “Global Gaming Almanac,” which reported revenues and forecasts for every gaming destination around the world.
“That allowed both of us to grow and become recognized as the leaders in our segments of the industry,” says Rittvo. “We met most of the major players in the gaming industry during that time and developed a credibility that few companies had achieved up to that point.”
The Innovation Group quickly became one of the leading consulting companies in the gaming industry. Rittvo partnered with Steve Szapor, the former president of the Sahara in Las Vegas, and the company began a rapid growth spurt. In the last few years, the company has added a financial division, headed by Matt Sodl, that funds projects up to $100 million; a marketing arm that does market research and develops marketing plans for smaller casinos; a food-and-beverage division that does research on customer preference and trends, while providing advice on business planning; and a management segment that can take over operations at a distressed property for the owners/investors if necessary. Another successful division has been the construction sector, headed by the former Harrah’s/Caesars VP of construction, Bob Kelly, that assists tribes and small casino owners as the project manager for any new construction or renovation project.
On the international scene, Rittvo has been penetrating markets in Asia, South America and Europe. His knowledge of operations has been valuable to clients whose knowledge of the business came only in passing.
“We believe that the international market will be the most dynamic in the next few years,” he says. “That’s why we’re concentrating on new jurisdictions with the possibility for healthy expansion and a reasonable regulatory system.”
With the economic crisis, Rittvo is seeing a lot of activity in the company, particularly in the construction and management side of the business.
“We’re offering a chance to reduce costs and effectively manage through this difficult time,” he explains.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to be able to leverage our experience to help those companies that may not know where to go at this point.
“We’ve moved from number-crunching to helping people set up programs that will really work for them.”
President, UNITE HERE
Working for a living is something that John Wilhelm knows intimately. Since graduating with high honors from Yale, Wilhelm has helped organize workers at the lower rungs of the employment ladder. As an organizer in New Haven, his persuasiveness allowed hotel workers to join the former HERE (the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union).
When he was appointed to lead organizing efforts in Las Vegas in 1987, a seminal moment for the gaming resort, his diplomacy and advocacy for the front-line and back-of-the-house workers paid dividends for both the city and the employees.
He describes the current dust-up about the “card check” provision of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act as a misdirection, and explains how card check worked for Las Vegas during that period.
“Remember, this was the period when all the major casino resorts were built in Las Vegas,” he says. “We were able to organize all of them-except the Venetian-through card check. Now, granted, management agreed to allow us to do it this way, but I contend that the growth of Las Vegas during this time would never have been accomplished without card check. You had labor peace in Las Vegas during this entire period where both the casino companies and the employees prospered. It was good for everyone. Because I believe that any town that develops a reputation for labor turmoil has its marketing message undermined quite dramatically.”
Wilhelm is always looking for the solution that works for everyone, and the one element that works for everyone in the gaming industry is customer service.
“If we don’t have customers, we don’t have jobs,” he says. “Steve Wynn has said many times: ‘They come once for the building, but they return because they’ve been treated right.’
“That’s one of the wonderful things about our industry. It’s really a people industry, and it’s not a cliché. We have to be attentive to people, whether they are employees or customers.”
Indian gaming has been a target for UNITE HERE for several years. Wilhelm believes that workers in that industry need representation as much as in the commercial gaming industry, with one exception.
“There are some tribes in the gaming industry that have substantial employment in their casino that consists mostly of tribal members,” he explains. “In that circumstance, I believe the tribes should have a degree of control much greater than a typical employer. In that case, where the tribe has opened a casino primarily to employ its own members, that’s a unique business.
“But that’s not the case with most tribes, which hire largely non-tribal workers for their casinos. In that case, tribes have to deal with the fact that their employees should be permitted to organize and improve their lives. I think they are undermining tribal sovereignty by refusing to recognize on a voluntary basis the rights of their employees.”
UNITE HERE has never organized on the casino floor. Wilhelm denies that there is any “gentlemen’s agreement” to ignore the dealers and other employees, but he does have sympathy for their plight.
“There’s no question that some casinos have failed to respond to the concerns of the dealers, and they need someone to listen to them,” he says.
But the UAW in Atlantic City and the Transport Workers in Las Vegas aren’t the organizations that can effectively represent casino workers, Wilhelm says.
“I would never assume that I know how to effectively represent workers in those industries, nor would I know how to make those industries flourish,” he explains. “The success of our union over the past 20 years, constantly growing, while other industries are contracting, may have given them the impression that it’s easy to do. Our members know it’s not, and that it takes years of work and effort.”
While Wilhelm says he’s not actively recruiting casino workers, he doesn’t close the door to anything.
“Someone needs to represent them and bring their issues to the forefront,” he says. “But we’ve got our hands full right now.”
President, AC Coin & Slot Service Company
They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. For Mac Seelig, his friends and colleagues are his family.
It started more than 30 years ago when casino gaming came to his home town of Atlantic City. As a small hotelier and vending machine operator, Seelig had to figure out how he could use gaming to better his family. While the answer was not as black-and-white as it might seem today, Seelig reached a deal with a small slot company called International Game Technology to distribute its machines in Atlantic City and the Caribbean. Because of a regulation in New Jersey that barred casinos from buying more than 50 percent of their machines from one company, IGT was able to overcome the substantial lead held by the then-slot giant Bally Manufacturing.
Over the years, AC Coin & Slot has itself become a game developer and slot manufacturer, joining a handful of companies that now chase IGT in that segment of the supplier market. But Seelig’s stature has never been greater in the industry because of what he’s been through as a businessman, and his deep involvement in charity work and community participation. And the addition of his wife and sons as directors of the company has truly made it a family affair.
Seelig served as an introduction to the community for IGT, which allowed the company to be recognized as a leader, first in Atlantic City, and later in the world. He says that the new leaders heading up gaming companies today give him hope for the future.
“The new guys coming are pretty amazing when you consider their level of intelligence,” he says. “They’re Cornell, Harvard, Drexel, Wharton… these are really impressive guys.
“In the old days, we just shot from the hip. This new generation is much more calculating. The industry is changing. There are new customers who we must appeal to and diversify ourselves beyond gaming. We’re the hospitality entertainment industry today, not the old-time gambling business.”
Seelig and his family have raised thousands of dollars for causes in Atlantic City and beyond over the past 30 years. He says his company isn’t alone in those efforts, but bemoans the fact that it isn’t recognized as much as it should be.
“The worst job we’ve done as an industry is to not highlight enough how much we do for the communities,” he says. “In my 30 years of being involved in this business, the industry has done an unbelievable job of getting involved in our communities, but we get very little recognition. Pound for pound, no industry comes close to what we do. And it’s across the board.”
For his company, Seelig says he’s lucky that he didn’t go public when he had the chance a few years ago. It has allowed him to maintain control of the company and spread the family influence.
“The good news is we’ve had no management changes in the last 30 years,” he laughs. “And the bad news is that we’ve had no management changes in the last 30 years. We believe in strong core values that our family holds. Some people buy into it, others don’t. It’s great to have a group of young men like my sons who believe in what we’re doing.”
Because of this close contact with the industry, Seelig says his company is positioned well for the future.
“We think we’re closer to the market than the other companies. We live on the streets with the players and the operators, so we have an advantage that most of the others don’t have.”