There is no question that women play and have played important roles in the development of the casino industry. After all, the first person granted a casino license in Nevada was a woman, Mayme Stocker. She had opened the Northern Club on Fremont Street in Las Vegas in 1920 and in 1931, when the state officially legalized gaming, she was the first to receive a coveted license.
In 1950, Sarann Knight Preddy became the first black woman to open a casino, Hawthorne’s Tonga Club, in Las Vegas. Preddy became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in Las Vegas.
Jeanne Hood became president of Hyatt Nevada upon the death of her husband, Dave, in 1977, and operated the Four Queens Hotel in Downtown Las Vegas. She later was president of the Elsinore company, which owned and operated the former Playboy casino in Atlantic City. Hood was a leader in the development of technology in gaming.
And maybe the queen of them all was Claudine Williams, who owned her first gambling establishment before the age of 21. She later built the Holiday Casino on the Strip along with her husband, Shelby. After Shelby’s death, she sold the Holiday to Holiday Inns (which had already bought the casinos founded by Bill Harrah in Northern Nevada) in 1983. She remained the chairwoman of the hotel for many years afterwards, and was well known throughout Las Vegas for her philanthropy and good works.
These trailblazers were just a few of the women who paved the way for the casino executives of today. They proved that a woman could do anything she wanted in the casino industry and would be rewarded for hard work, diligence and creativity.
The profiles we offer here are proof that the women executives of today are taking the lessons learned from the trailblazers and extending them to all women who enter the industry. These women acknowledge the help and vision that showed them the way and reach out on a daily basis to other women to assist them in their career development.
The women profiled in this issue were chosen by the board of directors of Global Gaming Women, an organization founded by the American Gaming Association and now independent, with a mission to support the development and success of women in the international gaming industry through education, mentorship and networking opportunities.
For more information on Global Gaming Women, visit GlobalGamingWomen.org.
Moore For All
Regional President, The Flamingo, The LINQ and The Cromwell, Caesars Entertainment
For Eileen Moore, her entry into the gaming industry was a happy glitch. Growing up in a family of hoteliers, she was already headed to a career in hospitality.
“As a child, I got bitten by the travel bug and got to stay at a lot of different resorts and hotel city properties, and fell in love with the business,” she says. “So I had a passion for hospitality at a young age.”
She followed that passion to hotel school and graduated with a degree in traditional hotel management, starting a career in that field. But then something happened.
“In 1999, I received a call that a gaming company was actually looking to invest money in a hotel revenue management system that would incorporate gaming revenue,” she says. “And the rest is history. I joined Harrah’s at that time, and I’ve stuck with not just the company, but the industry since then, and I love it.”
In the hotel business, she did a variety of jobs.
“I started off in a restaurant as a hostess and a waitress. And then I moved over to the operations side in the hotel, and worked at the front desk, reservations, and did a management trainee program, where I pretty much did every department in the hotel—housekeeping, laundry, bell desk, concierge, you name it.”
She says the training program opened her eyes to all the different departments in a hotel and how they must work together to ensure success for the overall enterprise.
“It was really beneficial, because it afforded me the opportunity to learn about all departments and appreciate their effort,” she says. “Now I lead such an amazing, hardworking group of people, but let them know that I’ve been in their position, and I understand that it’s not an easy business. These jobs are hard, but they’re absolutely and tremendously fulfilling. They play a vital role in taking care of people when they’re away from home.”
Moore says the front desk position is crucial to the success of any hotel.
“That’s the first point of welcome in the guest experience and in their journey, so you really get to set the stage for their entire visit to the property,” she says. “But it’s also the place where you hear if there are things that didn’t go quite right with their stay. So your opportunity to interact with guests, from a welcoming perspective at the height of anticipation and hope, but also when things don’t go perfectly, which happens every day in this business, and how you can turn that around for a guest, is really where the magic happens.”
Strategy to Move Up
Despite her love for operations, Moore started her career in a strategic position.
“I worked for my first seven years in the company on corporate strategy, particularly in the areas of revenue management and slot and gaming revenue management, and then transitioned into property operation,” she says.
One of her mentors, John Payne, gave her the opportunity to make that transition.
“He gave me my first shot on the operations side, as assistant general manager in New Orleans, post-Katrina. Not a lot of folks were raising their hand for the opportunity, but John thought of me, because I had been asking for quite some time to get into operations. We were opening our first-ever hotel in that market, which went to the list of top 10 hotels in the United States in year one of operations from Condé Nast. So that was a huge pride point for us.”
Payne later appointed Moore to her first GM slot at Horseshoe in southern Indiana.
As for women mentors, Moore cites two: first,
Marilyn Spiegel, who was head of human resources for Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) and later president at Paris and Rio and then Wynn and Encore in Las Vegas.
“That really inspired me,” says Moore, “and I followed my path, somewhat, on some of the decisions and experiences that she had.”
The second woman she admires is Janet Beronio, also a regional president, who heads up most of the tribal operations for Caesars.
“She has had a tremendous 20-plus-year career and was a role model for me,” says Moore.
While learning from these women and others, Moore says they laid the groundwork for her career and eased her way in career advancement.
“I’m very fortunate to be of a generation where the women that came before me really broke through the glass ceiling,” she says. “A lot of people wear a badge of honor that they’re the first female this or the first female that. I can honestly say I haven’t been the first female anything, and I’m happy with that. I remember when I got the position here on the Strip, I actually was the fourth or fifth female Strip president, and that was just fine by me. I’d love to see more women in these top spots. I think we can do a tremendous job, and by tapping in to more women, I think it only benefits the industry.”
Moore has picked up the mantle of her mentors to further that goal, and helped to create “Lean In Circles,” small groups of women who meet regularly to learn and grow together. Supported by Caesars, these circles have been extraordinarily successful. She cites Sheryl Sandberg’s best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, as her model in establishing these groups.
“Since 2013, we have over 11 circles and 70 women who are participating in these circles,” she says. “It is a peer-to-peer mentorship circle, and instead of giving advice from a traditional mentor/mentee, the circle actually shares experiences, which allows for more enriching experience, and people to feel as if they have their own personal board of directors. And we’ve seen a tremendous amount of success.”
As a result of the success of the Caesars program, Global Gaming Women, where she is a founding member, asked her to take on the mentorship program for that groundbreaking organization.
“We just launched the program in January of this year, and we have 81 women participating across the country in circles,” she says. “I did a meeting with the circle moderators in June, and they reported back 100 percent that the women are fully engaged. They’re networking at a higher level than they’ve ever seen, and getting some great insights to really give them the confidence to raise their hand, and look for other opportunities, and to move up. So, it’s been really fantastic to see.”
And the circles have produced concrete results, says Moore.
“Of the women who participated in the circles, 66 percent achieved promotions within the company, or roles with greater responsibilities,” she says. “So, there really is some magic to this circle environment that provides a place for people to talk confidentially, and get great insight to empower them to take the next step in their career.”
For Moore, her job heading up the Flamingo, the Linq and the Cromwell keeps her busy. Her properties escaped the strictures of the Caesars bankruptcy because they were owned by a different Caesars subsidiary, so she’s been able to not only maintain her properties, but also to upgrade when necessary, a process that is ongoing at the Flamingo. With a $7 million renovation of the casino’s convention space completed, Moore is moving on to more room renovations.
“We just started a $90 million renovation of two of our towers—towers 5 and 6—during which we’ll fully renovate 1,200 of our rooms, which is about a third of our inventory at the Flamingo,” she explains.
The strength of the Flamingo, says Moore, is the brand recognition.
“We turned 70 in December of last year, and we had a huge anniversary party,” she says. “We want to return the Flamingo to its iconic and legendary status. We have one of the most authentic brands—one of the most globally recognized, and people from all around the world want to know and interact with the Flamingo. It’s completely authentic, and so that’s what we’re investing in. And last year, at TripAdvisor, we were actually the No. 1 most-reviewed hotel in the world.”
A newer icon under Moore’s leadership is the Linq and the High Roller observation wheel.
“It’s such an attraction,” she says, “and it’s visible from most spots on the Strip and the surrounding city.”
Moore has more control now over the Linq promenade, a retail/dining/entertainment area leading up to the High Roller.
“Recently, we’ve added things like the In-N-Out, where there are just lines constantly,” she says. “And lines aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as they’re moving.”
And even the smaller Irish-themed O’Sheas casino, at the entrance to the Linq promenade, has been drawing crowds.
“I’m always fascinated by all the guests that are visiting there, that are not necessarily just staying with us,” she says. “They’re coming in from competitor properties to see O’Sheas. It’s a must-see destination. For such a little spot, that’s really cool.”
But she reserves her highest praise for the Cromwell, a boutique hotel that replaced Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall in 2014, focusing on high-end luxury and personal service. The property features the venerable and popular Drai’s Beach Club & Nightclub, as well as Giada, the first restaurant opened by celebrity chef and personality Giada De Laurentiis.
“At the Cromwell, we wanted to be a standalone boutique hotel, and really appeal to a refined hospitality customer that wants a world-class experience unlike any other,” she says.
Moore says the recent honor of being named by the USA Today Reader’s Choice as one of the top 10 casinos in the United States is testimony that they accomplished that goal.
“That’s phenomenal, given the size of the property, with only 188 rooms,” she says, pointing out that the other winners were all mega-resorts—Caesars Palace, Mohegan Sun, Pechanga in California, just to name a few.
“It speaks to the teammates and the associates at Cromwell, and the service that they provide. When you’re on that property, it feels different and special,” she points out.
Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Secretary and Compliance Officer, American Casino & Entertainment Properties
It was very fortuitous timing,” Phyllis Gilland says of her entry into the gaming world.
With 30 years of legal, compliance and business experience, Gilland was working as general counsel and chief financial officer for a national construction group. When the company sold, she moved to Las Vegas to help close the sale—and never looked back.
Since 2008, Gilland has been senior vice president, general counsel, secretary and compliance officer at American Casino & Entertainment Properties, where she oversees all corporate legal matters, compliance and regulatory issues, human resources and surveillance, and is responsible for the retail, risk management and security investigations departments.
Because of her strong business background, Gilland’s transition into gaming was virtually seamless.
“At a certain high level, there’s a lot that’s less industry-specific and more requirement-specific, regulatory-specific,” she notes. “The regulations change, but the internal controls, the regulatory aspects are very similar. As general counsel, the ‘general’ is an important part. My job is to be knowledgeable about quite a few things so I can make sure all the regulatory and business situations are handled correctly.”
Gilland has enjoyed witnessing the evolution of gaming, including new casino amenities and innovations in online, mobile and social gaming.
“There’s always something under another rock, so just when you think you’ve heard everything, you find something new,” she says. “I get to do something different all the time. I love the fact that we have not just casino gaming but retail, restaurants and entertainment. I like the breadth and depth of what we do.”
Gilland’s passion is education. She’s involved with organizations like the Girl Scouts and Goodwill Industries, and urges women in the industry not only to volunteer but to serve as mentors, sponsors and supporters to help others succeed. “I like to see people enabled to make their way in the world, to see an opportunity and be prepared for it,” she says.
Gilland also encourages financial literacy. She thinks everyone should know how to read a balance sheet or income statement and understand return on investment. Knowing what company leaders are looking for, recognizing opportunities when they arise, and talking less and listening more are other valuable traits.
“I sort of believe if you do a good, job you’ll get noticed,” she says. “Most of the senior people I’ve met just want people who do good work.”
In June, Golden Entertainment announced it is acquiring ACEP’s four properties. Gilland says her team is working on the transition, which will likely be complete by the end of 2017. She looks forward to being a part of the industry’s continued growth.
The Sky’s the Limit
Director of Marketing, TCSJohnHuxley and Director of Europe, Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers
When Tracy Cohen graduated with a degree in interior design, she never planned on a career in the casino industry. But two decades in, she can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Her first gaming job was in design, but Cohen soon transitioned to marketing. She now serves as director of marketing at TCSJohnHuxley, handling trade shows, product launches and many other activities.
“I love the variety,” she says. “Every day it’s different. Because we’re a global company, there are always things to do in different markets. I keep abreast of market trends in the business. I get to do everything I love, almost on a daily basis.”
The industry’s speed of change and openness to technology also keep things exciting, says London-based Cohen.
“We’re always moving, constantly developing new products. I work on the product development team, and I love the fact that we’re applying new technology to traditional elements of gaming. The way things have changed and evolved means we’re always looking for the next thing.”
In 2011, Cohen was also named director of Europe for the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, a part-time supportive role for European-based AGEM members. She says she felt the job description was written just for her, because the role allows her to combine her marketing expertise and wide-ranging industry network.
Though there were fewer women in the gaming industry when she started, Cohen says technology and online gaming are paving the way for more.
“It’s not just roles like mine, like marketing, which are traditionally female-focused,” she says. “There are a lot of women developers and engineers and women in jobs of all types. Gaming is a great industry with lots of opportunities, especially now with the different sectors.”
Cohen appreciates each opportunity she’s been given and is committed to supporting younger people in the industry—men and women. And she’s a firm believer in two-way mentoring.
“People who are younger have knowledge and experience in new technologies and different things than I might have,” she says. “Sometimes you can get very stuck in your ways and have a certain viewpoint that you want to keep to, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Being open to new ideas is beneficial both ways. It’s really important for me to mentor young women, but also I like the idea of them ‘mentoring up’”—allowing the student to become the teacher, for the benefit of both.
Still passionate about the casino industry, Cohen says that passion is the key to her success, and to success for anyone who enters the field.
“I think if you love what you do, generally, the sky should be the limit.”—Erica Sweeney
Heart and Soul
Senior Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer MGM Resorts International
To some in the modern workplace, Human Resources is the ultimate bureaucracy, a place where rules rule and people are secondary.
Michelle DiTondo disagrees. The senior vice president of HR at MGM Resorts International—who leads a team in charge of 77,000 employees worldwide—calls her department “the heart, the soul and the center” of the global gaming firm.
“Human Resources is responsible for creating and driving the company culture—and that puts us in the center of everything that happens at MGM. We touch every single employee, from (Chairman and CEO) Jim Murren to our front-line employees. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
DiTondo is clearly passionate about her job—though she never aspired to or even actively pursued the profession. “No kid dreams of being a Human Resources professional,” she says with a laugh. “People just happen into it.”
She studied to be a teacher, but the recession of the early 1990s made jobs scarce. So she landed in HR, working for the U.S. military and American Express before joining MGM in 2006. “What I found is that Human Resources is just as rewarding as being an educator,” she says. “You get to see people grow and develop.”
Born in Arizona, DiTondo lived briefly in Okinawa before moving to Las Vegas, where she grew up. Her friends’ parents were casino change attendants and maids, her mother a seamstress who never had two days off in a row in 25 years. Her background gives her a special appreciation of hourly workers and their challenges. “Our role is being the champion and advocate for employees. We have to have empathy and put ourselves in someone’s shoes in a work situation.” When an employee leaves MGM, “That person needs to go home to explain to their family what happened at work. We need to treat them in a way that still respects them as a human being.”
Though DiTondo says she was never held back “because of who I was or what I looked like,” she acknowledges she may be an aspirational figure for other young women and minorities.
“I think our employees appreciate seeing someone who looks like them in our executive offices, people like Phyllis James (executive vice president and chief diversity and corporate responsibility officer); Lilian Tomovich (chief experience officer) and Elisa Gois (chief analytics officer). I think all of us play a role, representing both women and diverse employees.
“Being multicultural brings perspective to the table,” she adds, “but I also think everybody brings value. If our workplace was made up of Asian American woman, we’d have a diversity problem.”
Currently, she’s excited about a new marketing and guest experience initiative that will be rolled out by MGM this fall. Called Welcome to the SHOW, it centers on four guest service standards: Smile and greet; Hear their story; Own the experience; and Wow the guest.
What characteristics does she look for in a job candidate? “Optimism. I like people who can creatively think and are curious about where problems will occur. I like problem solving and brainstorming. I like people who think things are going to be better in the future and know they can have a role in that.”
A self-described hockey mom and wife of an elementary school principal, DiTondo lives by the motto, “Live Well, Love Much and Laugh Often.” For her, it’s all in a day’s work.
Chief Operating Officer, Desert Diamond Casinos and Entertainment
Stuck in a layover in Houston recently, Libby Francisco never stopped doing business.
She conducted a conference call at the airport, and another in a taxi. She worked on a tribal compact for the Tohono O’odham Nation, took progress reports on the nation’s planned $400 million expansion in Arizona’s West Valley, and finalized a compliance matter. The next day, in Memphis, she viewed and approved design plans for the resort.
There’s no such thing as a typical day for the chief operating officer of Desert Diamond Casinos and Entertainment, the nation’s gaming arm, which operates resorts in Sahuarita, Tucson, Glendale and Why, Arizona.
Her impressive success notwithstanding, Francisco never set out to work in the gaming industry. In the 1990s, she was a business manager at the University of Arizona, and expected to retire from there. But political infighting made her consider a change. A chance meeting with Ned Norris, then Desert Diamond casino manager, now chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, was “a godsend.”
“I said, ‘Hey Ned, do you happen to have any jobs over there?’ Three months later, I began working at the gaming enterprise.”
Despite strong administrative skills, Francisco had to “crash-course” to learn the business of gaming. She started as shift manager, then was tapped to run the poker room. She almost declined.
“I knew I was going to get pushback. All the shift managers were male. All had applied for position. They weren’t happy I got it. And they knew I was going to be strict.” As she later discovered, some staffers actually laid bets that their new boss wouldn’t succeed. But she finally won their respect, cooperation and loyalty.
More than 20 years later, she resides in the C-suite (in 2006, she even filled in for a time as interim CEO). Not bad for one of seven children of a housekeeper and day laborer, who grew up in a one-bedroom house in Tucson. In a 2014 article for this magazine, Francisco recounted a time at Stanford, which she attended on scholarships from the university and the nation, when she had a single dollar to her name. It was her “as-God-is-my-witness moment.”
“I said, ‘This may be my life today, but it doesn’t have to be my life tomorrow.’”
With the expansion at Glendale on the horizon—in June, after a protracted battle with the state, the Nation won the right to add Class III games—the COO is busier than ever. Desert Diamond West Valley will expand from 35,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet and bring in poker, blackjack and bingo games. Some 1,000 bingo-style slots will be converted to regular slots.
That means more jobs, and Francisco is spreading the word. “Some people have no idea what the enterprise can offer in terms of job opportunities, job growth and development, particularly tribal members. We operate a multimillion- dollar business on a 24/7 schedule. That’s a huge responsibility.”
In her rare off-hours, Francisco enjoys spending time with her partner of 27 years, Nyla, two godchildren, and her nephew’s two grandchildren. “We do something as simple as going to the park and wearing ourselves out. And we have a blast.”
Asked what traits lead to success in gaming, she says, “I hear people compliment my integrity. I have to do the right thing for the enterprise, for the nation and for my family. That guides me.”
She adds, “If you want to move up within gaming management, be willing to give up a little of your personal time. The 24/7 part is no lie.”
As for the current climate for women, she says, “I can remember when I was the only female at the boardroom table, but things have changed. Our new General Manager Danielle Chilton is a tribal member and worked hard to sit at the table. Karen Listo was recently promoted to slot director with the enterprise. Argelia Medina was recently promoted to director of human resources. It’s very exciting.
“The glass ceiling isn’t as high as it used to be.”
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Affinity Gaming
Stana Subaric can attest that bigger isn’t always better. A veteran of two global gaming giants—Caesars Entertainment and the Las Vegas Sands Corp.—she once presided over 8,000 employees at the sprawling Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas, which together make up the largest luxury resort in the world.
But in August 2016, Subaric happily jumped ship, joining Affinity Gaming as senior VP of human resources when the locals company was acquired by Z Capital Partners LLC.
Affinity has 11 properties in four states: Nevada, Colorado, Missouri and Iowa. “With fewer than 3,000 employees, it’s more of a close-knit family,” she says. “Here, you really can know everybody’s name.”
Subaric was first recruited to HR in 2003, hired by Chris Cappas, former head of employment and training at Harrah’s.
“I had no HR experience or casino experience, but she took a chance on me, and saw more in me in than I saw in myself. I kicked off my career as an HR coordinator at Harrah’s Las Vegas, and that really built my foundation.”
A first-generation American—her mother is from Peru, her father from Bosnia—Subaric represents cultural diversity in an industry where guests and workforce alike hail from all four corners, with different cultural norms and expectations. “In my family, we grew up speaking three languages (English, Spanish and Serbian),” she says. “I understand that different cultures adapt differently.”
But some things are the same across the board—like the importance of energy, an upbeat attitude, and great customer service to success in the hospitality field. Affinity is now rolling out a new employee program based on “five simple behaviors,” says Subaric. “Give a friendly greeting to your guest. Present a positive attitude. Offer some assistance. And follow up to ensure guest satisfaction.” The last may be the most important: “Invite the guest to return.”
Subaric says she didn’t encounter major roadblocks in her career because of her gender. “But I had to learn to be more confident and ensure that my voice projected. And I’m proud to say I continue to see women joining the executive ranks at Affinity, like Paige Lion, who joined as our new vice president of information technology and chief information officer in July.”
These are good times for Affinity. In January, President and CEO James Zenni of Z Capital Partners, the company that recently acquired Affinity Gaming, reported that for 2016 the company delivered “the fastest-growing adjusted EBITDA in the United States gaming sector, and consistently executed on its strategic initiatives, including rebuilding its executive team.”
As one who was encouraged by a mentor, Subaric encourages others to achieve their personal and professional best. “It’s so important to surround yourself with individuals who make you better and stronger, who challenge you. When I look at HR leaders at our properties, I want to mentor them, influence them and have them go after their dream.”
Her motto is a simple one, which applies to work as well as family: “Build the house you want to live in.”
For her, the house is Affinity. “I will forever be grateful for my career experience at Harrah’s, Caesars and Sands,” Subaric says, “but Affinity is where I’m meant to be.”
A Seat at the Table
Staci Columbo Alonso
Executive Vice President/Chief Marketing Officer, Station Casinos
In the late 1980s, Staci Columbo Alonso kick-started her 30-year gaming career as an hourly employee in an Atlantic City players’ club.
“I simply fell in love with the business, couldn’t get enough of it,” she says. “New Jersey was offering some great opportunities in the ’80s, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.”
Back then, one of the greatest compliments Alonso received was being called “a sponge,” because she wanted to be exposed to all facets of the gaming business. Her particular interest was marketing, and she learned it well. Since 2013, Alonso has been executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Nevada-based Station Casinos, where she leads the IT, marketing, communications, human resources and gaming development divisions.
“My role still includes marketing, and I could never turn that off—I love every bit about marketing,” she says. “But I love being continuously pushed out of my comfort zone and my own knowledge base. Being able to apply that in my role has been great.”
Alonso, who grew up just outside Philadelphia, made her way in the industry by grabbing lateral positions as well as promotions. With each move, she determined to learn all she could about that role, and racked up valuable experience along the way. “Over the years, almost every position that reported to me, I once held. And that’s allowed me to be the voice of the operation,” explains Alonso, recipient of the 2012 Casino Marketing Lifetime Achievement Award.
Helping the next person in line is important to Alonso, who encourages women in the industry to take risks, be kind to themselves, love the job, and most of all, to assert themselves in professional settings.
“Early on, I had such a hard time taking a seat at the table,” she explains. “The best part now is that I can sit back and watch people on my team take their spot. I can lead from behind. It’s been full circle for me.”
Though she recognizes the value of her own hard work, Alonso says she feels fortunate to have had so many opportunities to advance in the industry. And she doesn’t hesitate to give back. She’s passionate about supporting the Shade Tree, a Las Vegas shelter for homeless and abused women and children. In 2007, she founded a pet boarding facility at the shelter called Noah’s Animal House (a Reno location is now in the works). Having access to their pets can help abuse victims heal, and reduces the likelihood that they will return to their abusers, Alonso says.
“My tagline is that I work to support my nonprofit habit,” she jokes. “I don’t stop very often. Life’s too short. I just feel like productive is the better way to move.”
The Hub of the Wheel
Vice President of Finance, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa
When Maureen Keenan describes her career ascent—from accounts payable clerk in the early days of Atlantic City gaming to vice president of finance at the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa—she attributes much of her success to luck.
Which just goes to prove the axiom, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Keenan grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Atlantic City, when gaming at the shore resort was just a twinkle in Governor Brendan Byrne’s eye. In 1983, armed with degrees in accounting and organizational management (she describes the latter as “basically IT, finance and HR”), she hitched her star to the new industry, starting at the Tropicana, then an Aztar Corp. property on the AC Boardwalk.
“I just grabbed onto the opportunity,” Keenan says. “It was really exciting to get down on the casino floor and see and hear the bells and whistles.”
She rose to controller at the Trop, then was recruited to Casino Aztar in Indiana, opening the first riverboat casino in Evansville. Over the next 25 years, she became vice president of finance and administration, and took over as VP and general manager of the property when previous GM Jim Brown resigned. Keenan—who’s quick to discount the stereotype of finance as a bunch of bean-counters—says her experience on the money side more than equipped her to run the whole show.
“As the finance person, you’re the hub of the wheel. You work with all the departments, building budgets, doing forecasts, overseeing the cage—it’s been really lucky for me in this role, not only working with everyone but learning from them, to make all of us successful.”
In 2007, she moved to the Seminole Hard Rock. There she oversees a team of 300 to manage accounting and financial analysis, cage operations, credit, compliance, IT, and warehouse and retail operations for the fourth largest casino resort in the U.S.
She’s not the only woman in the executive ranks, but is determined to see more. “Back when I started in 1983, you didn’t see many women in higher-level positions,” Keenan says. “Luckily for me, I had a number of mentors who made me believe I could break through those glass ceilings.” To level the path for other women, in 2015 she and other female executives at the tribal organization launched Women of Seminole Gaming “to support the development of women through education and mentorship.”
As a leader, Keenan makes it a point to be visible and engaged with her staff. “The first thing I do each day is walk the floor and see the people on the graveyard shift; the last thing I do before going home is walk the floor so I can see the swing-shift people. I have an open-door policy, an open-email policy, an open-cellphone policy—anything they need to get hold of me.”
As gaming evolves, she has followed the shift away from gaming to non-gaming attractions, and emerging technologies that will help to bring in younger players. “The millennials are so different from the generations before them—more social, more interactive. That will have a huge impact on how we do business.” At Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, she adds, “We don’t compete with other casinos—we compete with other entertainment.”
Asked if there is a motto she lives by, Keenan says she shares the following with her team: “Work hard, with honesty and integrity in everything you do.” As she’s proven, luck is sure to follow.
Customers and Team First
Senior Vice President of Gaming Systems, Scientific Games
Find what you love doing, and own your career; it’s yours, after all.
That’s valuable professional advice from Cath Burns, who joined Scientific Games in April 2017 as senior vice president of gaming systems. In her first 90 days on board, Burns had already met with more than 40 customers from the United States, Canada, South America, South Africa, New Zealand and Asia.
“For me, finding opportunities that excited me or presented a significant challenge has been where my career journey has taken me,” says Burns. “I’ve always wanted opportunities that involved more responsibility, more accountability, the ability to develop and lead great teams, and most of all, the opportunity to partner with customers and help solve their problems.”
Prior to joining Scientific Games, Burns served as partner and consultant for Partis Solutions with a focus on iGaming, following a nearly three-year term as Group CEO for TCSJohnHuxley.
At Scientific Games, Burns—a 2008 Great Women of Gaming Proven Leader award recipient with more than 21 years of gaming experience—has global responsibilities for leadership of the company’s gaming systems division, with annual revenues of $241 million in 2016.
Her role includes leadership of product management, compliance, development, customer support and service for more than 790 customer sites worldwide. Burns says it’s crucial to look at issues from the viewpoint of the customer. As she meets with clients face-to-face, she asks them the same four questions that she considers key:
What are we doing well?
What are we doing not so well?
What do we need to do more of?
What do we need to stop doing?
“It’s really important for me to know what that customer is thinking, and that we’re aligned to their business needs,” says Burns. “Equally important is to understand what my systems team is thinking and what they need so I can support them. We have the exact same conversation, because for any business, it’s about understanding where you are, what the concerns are, how to drive forward, and what problems need to be solved.”
Burns has experience in all kinds of businesses, from small retail stores to multinational corporations. Midway in her career, she opened a shoe store called Sandals, Sandals, Sandals, where she implemented a cost-saving inventory management system that increased sales by 20 percent.
“The shoe store was a change in direction; I thought it was important to learn how to run a small business, which is very different than a corporate profession because all accountability stops with you,” she says. “It’s also a very entrepreneurial experience, which is a good skill to bring to any business, large or small. I enjoyed running a small business as much as I liked coming into a corporation and driving change.”
Later, Burns spent six years (2006-2012) at Bally Technologies, and completed her tenure there as vice president and managing director of Asia-Pacific.
During her years with Bally, Burns achieved 70 percent market share in the Macau systems business, and established a network of sales and support offices, as well as the first game-development studio in the region. The Macau and Asia market was just ramping up, with 16 openings taking place in less than five years. And it was Burns and her team that won major games and systems deals with key customers.
While Burns is focused on the here and now at Scientific Games, she also has an eye on the future. She sees an imminent emphasis on Software as a Service (SaaS) and mobile-based products, increasing the successful portfolio of loyalty products, and taking the valuable player data collected by Scientific Games’ player-tracking systems and using it to facilitate a better customer and player experience through powerful business intelligence, marketing and personalized promotions technologies.
“We’re at a juncture in our business where we have a strong systems portfolio and solutions, with rich ancillary products to augment our player tracking and slot- and casino-management systems,” says Burns. “Now we need to find a way forward for our customers and ensure that our business and products are ready for their business changes.
“We’re looking at what the future is, understanding the pressures our customers have and what products they might need to help them navigate through the world as the gaming industry continues to grow and evolve. It’s an exciting challenge.”
The Top of Her Game
Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Gaming, International Game Technology
Looking back, Rachel Barber’s career path seems almost predestined.The girl who once loved playing video games like Pong, Space Invaders and Q-bert is now a leader in gaming technology as senior vice president and chief technology officer for IGT.
“When I was a teenager, I was into Atari and all those first home-based console games that came out in ’80s,” Barber says. “I always wanted to work at a computer gaming company.”
She didn’t have to look far for a role model: her mother was a software engineer at defense contractor Raytheon.
Geography also played a part in Barber’s career. She grew up in Rhode Island, home of GTECH, the world’s largest provider of lottery services. In 1991, she started there as a software programmer, and gradually moved up the ranks, to technology director, senior technology director, and vice president of software engineering. As the company grew—acquiring slots and systems makers Atonic and Spielo—she shifted to the gaming side.
In 2015, when GTECH bought IGT—a $6.4 billion merger that created the world’s largest gaming company—Barber assumed her current role, leading a global team of more than 1,500 to develop and deploy IGT’s land-based casino and VLT products. She also oversees the company’s internal IT functions.
Like many ambitious, high-achieving women, she met with some bias when she joined the then-boys’ club of computer science and technology. For example, she shares a story about her first “real engineering job” which was an internship during her years as a computer science student at the University of Rhode Island. “I was quickly aware that my male student colleagues were doing all the cool things: programming, electrical design and engineering work, while I was asked to file, make PowerPoints and edit documents. I had to get up the nerve to tell people that I wanted to do something more. In a few months’ time I was writing programs like everybody else.”
She describes game development and design as “an art and a science,” with no set formula and no guarantee of success. “It’s easy to say a great gaming product has to keep the player engaged and coming back again—we know what we’re aiming for, but it’s not always easy.”
IGT usually has hundreds of products in the pipeline, and R&D can be arduous: prototypes are developed, showcased for operators, tested in focus groups, then refined and redesigned on the way to market. Everything starts with the company motto: “Customer First.”
“We focus on our customers, players and operators, what they want and need, and combine the latest and greatest in innovative technology to give it to them,” says Barber.
She describes her team as “a family,” and her leadership style as “straightforward and simple.” An engineer herself, she understands the pressure her team members face and the incredible complexities of their job.
“I trust my team, and I feel it’s important that they trust me. I’m very transparent, open, honest and approachable.”
She’s excited about the recent emphasis on STEM education, “which reminds girls as well as boys that they can do it too. I’m lucky I joined GTECH. Right away, I noticed—in contrast to that internship—that there were a lot of women. My boss at the time was a woman. There were a lot of women programmers like me. I have over 25 years here, and I stayed for many reasons. But for sure one of them is that it didn’t matter that I was a woman, as long as I could do the job.”
Looking to the future, what kinds of games will bring in the next generation of players?
“Nobody can claim to know exactly what it will look like. I think it’s a matter of figuring out what makes the experience for the player more convenient, offering what they want, when and where they want it and making it also more social and competitive.”
It’s a time of great change, demanding great innovation, she says. “It’s a great time to be in the gaming industry.”
Vice President of Global Marketing, Gaming Laboratories International
Christie Eickelman markets integrity.
As vice president of global marketing for Gaming Laboratories International, her job is to assure gaming regulators, suppliers and operators that their success depends on the integrity of her company’s offerings. She also sells GLI’s team: the mathematicians, engineers and quality assurance specialists who test and certify the equipment that helps power the industry.
Eickelman began her career in 1991, as a marketing rep for Sodak Gaming. In 1994, she joined startup Wolf Gaming LLC as vice president of marketing and public relations, then in 1999 found a home at GLI as marketing manager, responsible for shaping the company’s brand in North America.
“I was fortunate that someone saw a skill set within me that could fit into the gaming industry, and I was given a chance to be successful,” Eickelman relates. “Working my way up at GLI, I was named director of marketing and development, and from there was promoted to senior director of global marketing. In 2012, I was given the title I now hold. My responsibilities include building the corporate brand and directing marketing functions.”
As a woman in the gaming industry, Eickelman learned early on to set goals and work to achieve them, no matter the circumstances or speed bumps.
“As long as I’m doing my job to the best of my ability and learning from others as I go, I’ll be successful,” she says. “It’s the same for any woman looking to move up in a company.”
Growing up in small-town Newell, South Dakota, Eickelman learned firsthand the value of helping others. “Newell is a close-knit community, and that’s what we did—help each other,” she says. She continues to do so as an industry mentor and board member of the American Heart Association’s Circle of Red.
Eickelman enjoyed the guidance of mentors such as Barbara Newton, former regional director of retailer Motherhood Maternity.
“She taught me you shouldn’t judge people based on their exterior, because you don’t know their story. You should embrace them and get to know them. You’d be surprised how much you learn about others when you take this approach.”
She gives credit for her success to a supportive family including husband Jim, stepson Greyson, “and Gumbo, an extremely active dog.”
The gaming industry is at a turning point with the emergence of skill-based games, sports betting, eSports and more. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the next generation helps gaming continue to be sustainable,” Eickelman says.
To those about to climb the ladder, she recommends setting boundaries and implementing professional goals they can commit to.
“The effort will pay off in the future. Also, make sure to get involved in your community and give back to others,” she says. “It allows you to form a lasting, positive impact on society at large.”
Diana L. Bennett
Co-founder and CEO, Paragon Gaming
If you think the daughter of Las Vegas gaming legend William Bennett got a free pass in this business, you’ve got another think coming.
For Diana Bennett, the famous name was a hindrance at first; reluctant to start out working for her dad, she was passed over for multiple positions and promotions “because no one wanted a William Bennett spy.”
Her first industry job was answering phones at the Flamingo (she only got it, she says, because the preferred candidate “was a hooker who couldn’t get a sheriff’s card”). Even at that level, Bennett kept her eyes and ears peeled, absorbing everything she could about the business. It paid off. By 20, she had risen to become the Flamingo’s catering and convention manager. But her career really took off when she joined Mike Ensign at the Gold Strike and Pioneer casinos in Downtown Las Vegas, in the role of marketing director.
“Mike was wonderful—he let me work any department I wanted,” says Bennett. And work she did, six days a week with extra shifts Tuesday and Saturday—in the cage, at the front desk, even designing casino interiors. “But I fell in love with slots,” says Bennett, who eventually became slot director when the new Gold Strike opened in Jean.
Today, the list of her accomplishments may rival that of her celebrated father, a Phoenix businessman who went belly-up in the furniture game, started over as a casino host, eventually built Circus Circus into a billion-dollar enterprise, and introduced the then-unheard-of concept of family-friendly attractions in Las Vegas.
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In 1991, Diana Bennett and her partner Scott Menke structured the acquisition of the Sahara by the Bennett family’s Gordon Gaming for $193 million. They redeveloped it, and 15 years later sold it for more than $1 billion. They also supervised the expansions of iconic Vegas properties including the Luxor and Excalibur. In 2000, she and Menke co-founded Paragon Gaming, which brought the first tribal casinos to Alberta and British Columbia. In 2007, Bennett was named one of the Top 10 Great Women of Gaming in the U.S. In 2014, inducted into the Nevada Business Hall of Fame, she was hailed as “one of the most effective and respected executives in the gaming industry today.”
And the rest really is history. Last year, when Paragon acquired a majority interest in the Hard Rock Hotel at Lake Tahoe, a Nevada Gaming Control Board member told the partners, “We know the magic you can do; we’ve seen it before.”
Bennett appreciates the compliment, even as she shrugs it off.
“There’s no magic,” she says. “Scott and I have a no-nonsense approach to gaming. It’s not brain surgery, it’s about numbers. It’s about going into a property and finding out where they’re not getting the best revenue—whether it’s going out the back door or because there aren’t the proper controls.” Luckily, she says, “Numbers jump off the page at me. I can spot the one number in the column that’s wrong.”
Bennett’s newest project is the $490 million Parq Vancouver, due to open this month. Bloomberg has already called it “the most fun business hotel in North America,” offering a vigorous anti-Vegas model for successful gaming properties of the future. The elegant Parq includes a 517-room hotel, eight restaurants and bars, 600 slots, 75 gaming tables, and a high-limit gaming floor with 11 VIP salons.
Bloomberg called it “part of the wave of big, new, business traveler-friendly hotels such as the Ned in London, with plenty of top-quality dining options” and canny details like meeting “pods” and a sixth-floor, 30,000-square-foot open-air park.
“We take tremendous pride of ownership in this project,” says Bennett. “It really is just an amazing property.”
Looking back, she acknowledges the sexism she experienced in the early years.
“When I became a slot director, there were no other women slot directors, and at G2E, the men would hold parties at strip clubs.” (Bennett always got her invitation two days late.)
While her male colleagues closed deals over golf or cocktails, “I had to get the kids to soccer and gymnastics and do laundry. It wasn’t easy, and there weren’t a lot of other women to talk to.”
That’s changed now, she says, thanks to “true pioneers” like Claudine Williams, the first woman in Las Vegas to buy her own casino, and Jeannie Hood, who took over as president and CEO of the Four Queens in 1977, when her husband died.
Does Bennett—mother of three, grandmother of five—consider herself a pioneer?
She pauses just a moment, then concedes, “I guess I was. I just didn’t know it at the time.”