For generations, members of Wisconsin’s Oneida Nation struggled with poverty. As recently as the mid-20th century, some lived in homes without electricity.
Their fortunes started changing in 1976, thanks to bingo games played in double-wide trailers. Those twice-weekly games were the cornerstone of an empire that now includes three casinos and two smaller gaming halls in Green Bay. Together, they make the Oneidas the third largest employer in the region.
“This is a multimillion-dollar business,” says Louise Cornelius, gaming general manager of the ever-expanding enterprise. “If we were in the outside world, we’d be part of the Fortune 500.”
Gaming is like a family business for Cornelius, who grew up on the reservation and began her career as a bingo supervisor in 1985. “I was lucky to work from the ground up and get hands-on experience” in many aspects of the industry, she says, bolstered by degrees in management and business administration and a strong commitment to her people.
She’s held positions in both management and regulation, and served for seven years as chairwoman and executive director of the tribal gaming commission. In the latter role, she says, “I think I was instrumental in assisting a relationship that’s sometimes adversarial—making it a win-win, so we could all be successful.”
In November 2021, the Oneidas celebrated another milestone, opening the Badger State’s first sportsbook. It was an instant hit in the four-season sports community, which alternately roots for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Green Bay Packers.
“The sportsbook is doing really well in terms of hold percentage; it’s increased foot traffic as well as revenues,” says Cornelius. Though mobile and online sports betting aren’t yet legal in Wisconsin, a geofenced app lets players make virtual wagers on casino grounds.
Cornelius anticipates even greater growth in the new year. By spring, she will propose a multimillion-dollar casino expansion with luxury amenities to appeal to Gold Players Club members. “We’ve got to cater to those high rollers. Hopefully, I’ll get the support to go ahead with that.”
She will also continue the fight against “eight-liners,” unregulated video slot terminals that operate in state gas stations, bars and even laundromats and are defended by the state’s powerful Tavern League.
“Wisconsin calls them amusement devices, but these are illegal machines” that unfairly divert business from tribal gaming halls, according to Cornelius. “We’re as highly regulated as a bank because of our assets, and we also compete for that discretionary income. We’re working on a process to address the matter.”
Most of all, she looks forward to leading her staff, and learning from them, with a management style that combines guidance, communication and mutual respect.
“I try to keep that balance, providing direction while coaching and mentoring my staff,” she says. “Our leadership team has a strategy to improve HR management, which means taking care of all our employees. And I always go with the philosophy that says to be successful in your field, pick people that are smarter than you. Of course, our other strategic priority is to always grow gaming revenue.”
As in public Fortune 500 companies, Oneida Nation gaming benefits the “shareholders”—in this case, the tribal community, sustaining education, housing, health care and other essential services.
“Gaming is our No. 1 support, and the money we generate is the key to our success,” says Cornelius. “It’s always about growth.”