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People to Watch 2021: Profiles

Profiles of GGB's 25 People to Watch for 2021

People to Watch 2021: Profiles



Global Gaming Business’ 25 People to Watch for 2021 celebrates the diversity and talent of those individuals who are shaping the future of the casino industry.

At Long Last a Leader

Bill Hornbuckle • President & CEO, MGM Resorts International

When Bill Hornbuckle was named acting CEO of MGM Resorts in March upon the abrupt resignation of his predecessor Jim Murren, he stepped into a role that he had been preparing for his entire career. Hornbuckle had been president of MGM Resorts since 2012 and led a variety of the company’s properties including MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay before that. As chief marketing officer, he directed the design of the structure and benefits of the now omnipresent M life Rewards program.

Hornbuckle joined what is now known as MGM Resorts in 2000, when it purchased Mirage Resorts. Prior to that, he was president and COO of Caesars Palace and helped open The Mirage in 1989 as its vice president of hotel operations.

As a result, Hornbuckle has learned his craft from three of arguably the most important CEOs in gaming over the past 30 years, Murren, Steve Wynn and the late Terry Lanni. Hornbuckle says he learned something from each man.

From Wynn: “Focus, focus, focus. And passion,” says Hornbuckle. “At MGM Resorts, we are becoming more customer-centric as an organization like Mirage always was. We have grown quickly and made lots of financial decisions, but customer centricity, and programming for our customers’ desires, are where we are now. Steve Wynn is the mantle that we’re after from a customer-service perspective. Flat-out, full stop. That’s what we learned, and that’s what we’re focused on.

“From Terry, I learned discipline. Stay disciplined, but again, it’s about focus. He always had a famous line: ‘If it ends up in the cover of the Wall Street Journal, we should be happy with it.’ And so, if you monitor your behavior and the behavior of your company with that mindset, it does keep you focused.

“And Jim, well, Jim’s an entrepreneur. Jim was a ‘yes’ guy, meaning, ‘Let’s do it.’ And so, as we emerge out of this pandemic—and we will—there’s a lot to do set up by Jim’s vision. I think we’ll be in great shape. I think there will be opportunity, both within this industry, and the digital sector, as well.”

Pandemic Problems

As we enter 2021, Hornbuckle is focused on leading the company to a full recovery from the pandemic. His first concern is for the employees.

“They’ve been the hardest hit through all of this,” he says. “Before this, including Macau, we had 83,000 employees. At the bottom, we ended up with 14,000, mostly essential, corporate and security, obviously protecting the assets. Come May, we began to reopen, both regionally first in Mississippi and then ultimately in the rest of the country, including Las Vegas. At this point (early December) we’ve brought back the majority of those employees. But, there is still a large portion that is not back to work, and over the next several months, it’s still going to be touch and go.”

That concern also extends to the customers.

“Safety has continued to be job one,” he says. “We’ve not opened up every flood gate to ensure that we protect not only our employees, but our customers. The impact to the company has been pretty significant. Like all gaming companies, we’re down substantially. Pick your favorite line of business: 60 percent to 80 percent down in top-line revenue, whether it’s hospitality, food and beverage, or gaming. Entertainment’s down to zero. Conventions and meetings are down 99 percent.

“Thankfully for the company, we went on an asset-light strategy, starting back in 2017. We created our REIT in 2016. And so, as we are sitting here consolidated, we have over $7 billion of cash in liquidity, and here at MGM Resorts, over $5 billion. Not only does this give us the confidence that we will survive all of this, but it also gives us the opportunity to think about the future and think about it relatively aggressively. We’re excited to be thinking in those terms.”

While Hornbuckle explains the company has installed a “Seven Point Safety Plan” that includes masks, Plexiglas, temperature checks and the other requisite safety requirements the public has gotten used to, they’ve gone above and beyond that.

“We’ve also pushed out testing,” he says. “We tested 5,000 employees leading into the Thanksgiving holiday. And so, we’re constantly vigilant about all of that.”

Screening and testing are the centerpieces of a partnership between MGM Resorts and CLEAR in a program called “Convene with Confidence,” which was developed using best practices and advice from experts in the public health community, medical device and health care companies and the NBA and NHL bubbles. Participants in trade shows and conferences get tested for Covid-19, using CUE Health’s highly accurate and sensitive molecular test, and receive results within 20 minutes. With a negative result, participants will receive a green health pass in the CLEAR app on their phones, which allows them access to all the conference has to offer.

“It’s created an environment where, at least for those groups who want to come, through a screening and testing regimen, they can enjoy the property and feel safer about it, all things considered,” he says.

The pandemic has also accelerated the company’s digital offerings. Hornbuckle says at least 35 percent of hotel guests now check in on their mobile phones and receive digital “keys” on the phones that can open the doors to their rooms.

“Not only is it convenient; it’s simpler,” he says. “Our ability to communicate with customers, both here and frankly, at home, is a significant upside.”

The digital program also focuses on payments.

“We are pushing heavy on all things digital, including an e-wallet. Once we have you in a digital platform we get into preference marketing, we can offer you the kinds of experiences you want. And if there’s a digital wallet, not only can you do it here in the brick-and-mortar casinos, but we can use that for BetMGM wagers wherever you are.”

Asian Focus

If any jurisdiction was harder hit than Macau during this pandemic, we have yet to discover it. The casinos in Macau shut down for a month in late January and when they reopened in February, most of their market had disappeared. It wasn’t until late summer when revenues began to inch up from the 90 percent month-on-month declines. And like all other companies, MGM Resorts’ two properties were impacted severely.

“Remember, this was a $37 billion market heading into 2020,” Hornbuckle says. “Back in 2014 we thought it would eventually get to $65 billon. Hence our Cotai project, and like all of us in the industry, we continued to try to build, to the extent the government would allow us. But the reality is we all got hit.”

As Macau rebounds, by early this year, it should be back to $25 billion, he explains, which is still four times the size of the Las Vegas market. But Hornbuckle is most enamored with the demographics of the Macau market.

“That’s the key differentiator between Macau and Las Vegas,” he says. “There the younger Chinese clientele love the notion of gaming, and the spirit of it. That’s very compelling.”

He says the economics are starting to come back in Macau.

“We’re not only not bleeding money in terms of just operating, but we’re now covering our expenses,” he explains. “The government has mandated 20,000 visas a day and we’re doing OK. It won’t raise that until there’s a vaccine. And so, by this time next year, I think we’ll see the pent-up demand, and we’ll be back to the new norm, given the Chinese government’s oversight on capital flowing in and out of that market.”

Hornbuckle also reinforced MGM Resorts’ interest in Japan, where the company is the last bidder standing for an Osaka integrated resort. With a partnership with the powerful Japanese company Orix, he says he “can’t imagine the government wouldn’t say ‘yes’ to Osaka.”

“There’s a process and there are some things to tackle, in terms of taxation and how Japan views the opportunity, given post-Covid. All that being said, look… our future is all about Asia.”

Online Outline

As optimistic as Hornbuckle is about Asia, it often dwarfs the way he feels about sports betting and online gaming. A partnership with one of the biggest European online operators, Entain (formerly GVC Holdings), has resulted in the formation of BetMGM. While BetMGM has taken some time to ramp up, he’s confident BetMGM will be a major player in the U.S.

“DraftKings and FanDuel took a lot of the New Jersey share,” he admits. “But I will tell you within the last year, we have a full steam of momentum. There’s a new CEO at Entain. We talk multiple times a week about how the business is progressing, where are we going, and how do we help. The relationship has never been stronger. The business has matured from not being first to market, to being a major force in the last three markets we’ve been first to enter—Tennessee of note. And it’s paying dividends when you’re first in.”

Hornbuckle says it won’t be easy because it’s a very competitive market.

“The trajectory of that business is very promising,” he says. “It’s going to exceed our expectations this year and I’m hoping next year. But it’s not for the faint of heart. We will spend hundreds of millions chasing this down because it is all about acquiring players now. In the end, I believe there will be three or four really key players, and then everybody else because the cost of entry is so high at this point.”

Sports betting is generally considered to be a narrow-margin business, so unless there’s a massive move toward in-game betting, it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. On the other hand, online gaming—casino games—are much more profitable, as the land-based casinos have already proven.

“We don’t go anywhere we’re not wanted,” he says. “It’s just too hard to make that case. But having said that, you know, whether it’s sports betting or iGaming, not every state’s going to want iGaming. But there are some states that already have bricks-and-mortar games, so it makes sense for them to add iGaming to their menu.”

In the end, however, Hornbuckle believes that iGaming is the answer.

“It is the economic engine behind all of this,” he says. “It’s a much more efficient engine than sports betting.”

Strip Poker

For MGM Resorts, it often comes down to the Las Vegas Strip where most of their iconic resorts are located. With the sale of the main competitor, Caesars Entertainment, to Eldorado Resorts, Hornbuckle doesn’t see much changing, despite the promises of Caesars executives that they’ll ramp up their offerings.

“Time will tell,” he says. “They’ve made some substantive promises, in terms of margin enhancement and synergies. I would say this. When you have 58 properties that are pumping players into the seven or eight they have on the Strip, that’s a good engine.

“Their (Caesars Rewards) programming will be even more important. It does reach out into some of the regional properties and changes some of those landscapes, and hopefully it drives enough business to Las Vegas that they don’t do some of the pricing things that we’ve seen them do. I’m not anxious to replicate what I saw in Atlantic City a while back—nobody wins. It’s a net-zero-sum game—a race to the bottom.”

Hornbuckle acknowledges Caesars’ desire to sell at least one Strip property and believes that may not be a bad thing.

“Getting another property and reducing the amount of ownership of Caesars, and expanding it by one or two or three, I think it’s good for the community and good for the town. I expect it would mean more entrepreneurism, hopefully more capital, and a better product in the long run. A decade from now, we’d like to be able to look back and say, ‘How did we leave Las Vegas? Did we leave it better, in terms of product and offering and appeal?’”

With Las Vegas overflowing with recently added meetings and conventions space—MGM Resorts’ existing space across its properties, Caesars’ new Forum convention center on the east side of the Strip, and the expanded Las Vegas Convention Center—Hornbuckle believes that the return of this market to Vegas is essential. He thinks the decentralization of corporate offices could be a benefit for Las Vegas.

“People are closing offices because working from home has been so productive,” he says. “But once a quarter, they’re going to want to get together. You’ve got to see people and understand who your people are. We’re positioning ourselves to have some of that turned on. When we redid Park MGM, we created a ‘meeting lab’ that has technology to bring together people working from home and those in person. Two-thirds of the delegates might want to come, but a third may not. So we can broadcast it, and we can do the kinds of things that make it efficient for someone sitting in their living room, or in their office. And yeah, we’ll be prepared to do that.”

Future Shock

As Hornbuckle looks toward the future, he sees a mix of in-person and interactive activities for MGM Resorts.

“I’d like to see us more diversified, in terms of geography, and in terms of lines of business,” he says. “Maybe not as much brick and mortar. If we could make digital revenues 20 percent to 25 percent of our earnings, that would be a big push. We wouldn’t be relying as much on Las Vegas. Covid is clearly the example. When Covid hit, our stock went to $7. We got hit worse than anybody because of the nature of our location. And so diversification led by Asia, generally, would be a good thing.

“I’m a little more guarded in what we do on a regional perspective. Just by realigning here, relaunching here, getting everything back to work should be a great start. Letting our 2020 plans go into play, and our operational margins, I think we’ve realigned ourselves to really blossom in those properties. The Asia expansion, a Japan property and the renewal of our license in Macau is critical. And then ultimately, taking our digital business to the next step, and making it make a real difference could be the game changer.” —Roger Gros

CLICK HERE to listen to the GGB Podcast with Bill Hornbuckle.

Euro Focus

Cristina Romero de Alba • Partner, Loyra Abogados

In many ways, the European market is a paradise for gaming attorneys. With all kinds of gaming active across the continent—betting shops, land-based casinos, sports betting, iGaming, lotteries and more—the issues are many and varied. And when you add the complications of dealing with the European Union and its layers of regulation on top of the rules in each individual country, a good gaming lawyer could retire before they’re 30.

Cristina Romero de Alba is definitely a good gaming lawyer, but with her passion and expertise, it’s hard to see her considering retirement. She is sought after by many of the companies doing business in her native Spain, but her experience crosses all jurisdictions. She has degrees in law and business management from the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. She serves on the board of the International Association of Gaming Advisors and International Masters of Gaming Law. And she was honored as an Emerging Leader of Gaming/40 Under 40 in GGB Magazine in 2014.

As a partner with Madrid’s Loyra Abogados, de Alba specializes in gaming law and technology, and believes that technology is going to lead the European industry forward. Ironically, she says, the Covid-19 plague that has swept the world is spurring this rapid advance in technology.

“The pandemic already pushed many of our clients that were at the very beginning of technological transformation to get on the digital track,” she says. “I believe it has accelerated change in an unprecedented way and will continue to do so.”

Recovery from the pandemic for European casinos will be complicated, de Alba believes.

“To me, the biggest issue they are currently facing is to gain back trust from consumers and get them back into the premises feeling safe and reassured,” she says. “At the same time, I believe that casinos are doing an amazing job in implementing a full set of measures to make that happen, and reopening metrics are starting to go up in response.”

Spain has had lots of proposals for integrated resorts. Companies like Las Vegas Sands, Caesars, Hard Rock, Cordish, Melco and others have been involved in setting up IRs in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere. But political roadblocks have stymied every attempt. Now, however, Melco is developing an integrated resort in Cyprus and Mohegan Gaming has been approved to build a facility on the land that was once the international airport in Athens. But de Alba says that might be it for a while.

“Like any major investment project, there will inevitably be delays even if only to be able to have more visibility on trends of the tourism industry and generally the economy,” she says.

Relationships with clients are important to de Alba, and she believes that the pandemic will only deepen that connection.

“I believe our role is already very close to our clients,” she explains. “We helped them navigate all sorts of challenging situations during lockdown and the toughest times (even helping them source alternative financing), and now we expect to accompany them in pursuing new opportunities. I think clients rely on us as more than just legal counsel, which has always been one of our differentiating features, and I expect that to become even more of a trend.” —Patrick Roberts

First-World Dreams

Tan Sri Dr. Chen Lip Keong • Founder, Controlling Shareholder and Chief Executive Officer, NagaCorp Ltd.

NagaCorp Ltd. is the first gaming IPO on the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong and perhaps one of the world’s most profitable gaming companies. NagaWorld, its wholly owned subsidiary, operates the only integrated resort complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with a 70-year license (through 2065) and a 51-year monopoly (through 2045) within a 200 km radius from its current location in Phnom Penh.

Since its listing in 2006, NagaCorp has achieved much success in private-public sector cooperation, significantly contributing to local tourism GDP and attracting foreign direct investments, through the guidance of Tan Sri Dr. Chen Lip Keong, its founder, controlling shareholder and chief executive officer.

Chen, an entrepreneur with many years of business administration experience, has been focusing on creating a “first-world company in a developing nation” with transparency and compliance aligned to the industry’s best practices. Within the five-year period of 2015 to 2019, NagaCorp’s gross gaming revenue increased by more than 450 percent to US$1.72 billion and EBITDA nearly quadrupled to US$671 million, driven mainly by VIP and premium patronage especially after Naga2 (Phase 2 of the IR complex) opened in late 2017.

More recently during 3Q20, a truly challenging time for the industry, NagaCorp saw its mass market segment leading the recovery of business volume with VIP market following closely behind. The company achieved a GGR level representing over 90 percent of pre-Covid levels through September 2020, arguably the most prominent large-scale casino resort in the world that has staged such a solid recovery.

But Chen is envisioning something beyond. NagaCorp has declared that it remains fully committed to US$3.5 billion for Naga3, its next phase of the NagaWorld IR complex, to deliver Cambodia’s tallest building, sky-high swimming and landmark VIP venues among others, despite Covid-19 and corresponding impacts.

Naga3 is scheduled to be completed in 2025, bringing in another 3,500 rooms, 700 gaming tables and more than 2,000 electronic gaming machines to the existing amenities, and making the NagaWorld IR complex more appealing to a wider base of patrons across all gaming segments. While some people in the industry may question the scale of the expansion, Chen has increased more than 28 million NagaCorp shares to his holding this year and has pledged to finance half of Naga3 on his own.

Furthermore, in November, NagaCorp was granted a 50-year lease on a plot of land adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage site Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The company plans to develop a non-gaming resort on the plot, the first phase of which has a development budget of US$350 million and is anticipated to open in 2025. Travel strategies and infrastructure improvements also will be implemented to connect Siem Reap and Phnom Penh by air, river and road “to promote the concept of NagaWorld and Angkor Wat as the twin tourism icons of Cambodia.”

On balance, Cambodia remains one of the most appealing destination markets for junkets operators and premium players, in that it provides nearly all the elements that would be wishful thinking in other major gaming markets in the Asia Pacific region, such as the business-friendly gaming tax regime (even with what is specified in the recently passed Law on the Management of Integrated Resorts and Commercial Gambling), skilled workforce at reasonable labor cost, and a lenient regulatory environment.

The major business drivers and competitive advantages will continue to keep the gaming industry growing in a sustainable manner, capitalizing on the booming and increasingly wealthy middle class in the region, and better stimulating tourism and related economic impacts that benefit the country. Additionally, NagaCorp has seamlessly avoided the pitfalls of online gambling and has managed to extend its casino monopoly in Phnom Penh for another 10 years (through 2045), all of which contributes to a bright outlook of the company. — Michael Zhu is senior vice president, international operations planning and analysis for the The Innovation Group.

Sibling Dynasties in Macau

Daisy Ho • Chairwoman, SJM

Anyone who believes that the influence of Stanley Ho would slowly wane when he died at 98 in May 2020 would be sadly underestimating his progeny. Of the four major concessions in Macau, three of them are controlled by his children. Lawrence Ho is chairman of Melco Entertainment, which operates the City of Dreams, Studio City and StarWorld. Pansy Ho is chairwoman of MGM China, which operates MGM Macau in the Peninsula area of the city, and MGM Cotai. And in 2018, when Stanley Ho retired as chairman of his original gaming company, SJM, his daughter—Pansy’s sister, Daisy Ho Chiu Fung—was named to succeed him.

Unlike Pansy and Lawrence, who had actively followed Stanley into the business, Daisy had little gaming experience prior to being appointed chairwoman. Daisy Ho wasn’t just along for the ride, however. Stanley’s fourth wife, Angela Leong, and the son of his longtime business partner, Timothy Fok Tsun Ting, also joined at the same time. Soon afterwards, Daisy and Pansy came together to consolidate family control over STDM, the parent company of SJM, that also has interest in shipping, transportation and real estate. Pansy is chairwoman and Daisy is vice chair. The arrangement seems to have settled any family disagreements between wives, ex-wives and siblings as there was no opposition to the shuffling at the top.

At issue for SJM in 2021 is the ramp-up to the concession renewals that are due to come up a year later. SJM, which owns the Lisboa and Grand Lisboa in the Peninsula, is scheduled to open the Lisboa Palace in the Cotai region in ’21. The government’s insistence on non-gaming attractions will be on display at Lisboa Palace, likely giving SJM the inside track toward a concession renewal.

Ho didn’t waste much time shaking up the management of SJM. Previously described as “dysfunctional,” Ho brought in several seasoned Macau gaming executives to move the company forward, at the same time releasing longtime Stanley Ho colleague Louis Ng. Frank McFadden, a former executive with Las Vegas Sands, was named COO for gaming and hospitality and Bernard Yip became president of business development. And to keep it in the family, she also named Arnaldo Ho, son of Angela Leong, to become president of international business development.

A new Macau government took office in December 2020, led by Ho Iat Seng. Ho says she’s ready to work with the government as 2022 approaches.

“We’re very much looking forward to the new term of government taking office and seeing what new policies and guidelines the new chief executive and his team have for us,” she says, adding, “So we’re waiting; once (the new government) takes office and makes any announcements, we’ll be able to immediately work on it, and the new round of bidding for the concessions is something we pay great attention to.” —Patrick Roberts

High Flyer

Mike Bean • Chief Executive Officer, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe Gaming Enterprises

It’s fitting for Mike Bean to run a gaming entity named Soaring Eagle. His career has been one long ascent.

The Norwich, Connecticut native and gaming veteran has served in senior management positions at the largest and most reputable gaming operations in the country, including Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods Resort Casino, Harrah’s Entertainment, Boyd Gaming and currently as chief executive officer of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe Gaming Enterprises’ Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort, Saganing Eagles Landing Casino & Hotel, and the Slot Palace & Bingo Hall in Michigan.

Bean displays pragmatic optimism, enhancing properties on the strength of core principles. One involves recruiting talent.

“You are really doing your best to find really good people to work with and hiring other people who are better than you are in as many things as you possibly can,” Bean says. “You want smart people, experienced people and those who have good social intelligence so that we all can work together.

“The high tide really does raise all the boats.”

Bean spreads that intelligence across several fronts. They range from walking the casino floor to monitor the heartbeat of employees and customers to publishing his perspective in an internal newsletter, expanding the geographic radius from which to lure customers and being attuned to the thinking of a group.

“We always ask ourselves if we’re getting the best use of existing brick and mortar with what we have right here,” he says. “Do we have the right mix of gaming and non-gaming amenities, do we use the best brands? I believe brands are powerful. We want to drive visitation by providing so much that we avoid the veto vote in the group. If you just have slots and table games, that may not be enough for the entire group. But if you can satisfy everyone, with restaurants, entertainment, etc., you compel a visit from the entire group.”

Bean, who guides the direction of nearly 3,000 employees, grew steadily into this role.

Starting in 1992, Bean was part of the team that grew Foxwoods from its modest beginnings with 1,200 team members to more than 12,000 team members, including accelerated construction of the resort complex to meet the demands of the then-underserved gaming market in the Northeastern region of the United States.

At Harrah’s Entertainment, he worked in Shreveport, Louisiana as part of the team that integrated the acquired Louisiana Downs racetrack into the Harrah’s Shreveport gaming operation, adding a new slots casino to the Harrah’s Shreveport portfolio. Thereafter, as part of the acquisition of Caesars Entertainment by Harrah’s, Mike was part of the team that integrated the two companies as one.

For more than a decade, Bean played an integral leadership role in the successful opening, operation and development of Mohegan Sun Pocono, Pennsylvania’s first casino and Mohegan Sun’s first commercial casino.

As president of Mohegan Sun Pocono, Bean developed and executed an intricate company strategy, establishing a guest experience-centric organization while maintaining focus on financial performance, leadership and positive mentoring of team members. Originally an aged racetrack, Mohegan Sun Pocono became a dynamic casino and hotel operation including over 2,300 slot machines, 91 table games, 21 bars and restaurants, shopping, entertainment and conventions with more than 2,000 team members.

Bean grew up in the shadow of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, recalling that as a youth “I didn’t even know what a casino was.”

Ironically, Bean has spent much of his adult life running one. —Dave Bontempo

Back Stronger

Adam Whitehurst • Senior Vice President, Slot Sales, AGS

Adam Whitehurst is no novice when it comes to slot machine sales. Whitehurst, senior vice president of sales for slot supplier AGS, spent nearly a dozen years in sales for Scientific Games and its legacy company Bally Technologies, half of that time as vice president of sales before joining AGS as vice president of strategic accounts in April 2019—after which he was quickly elevated to senior VP.

Of course, the challenges of 2020 have made drawing on pre-Covid experience tough for everyone. However, the fact that AGS didn’t miss a beat in game development while operators were idle last spring means he has a top-flight pipeline of new games and cabinets to offer customers as the industry recovers.

Whitehurst made sure his own sales team did not miss a beat last year either, which is one reason AGS beat all revenue expectations in the third quarter. “The results in Q3 reflect the things that we worked on as a group, in terms of the way we focused on our customers’ business and how their business has changed,” he says. “Number two, we’re flexible. So we’re trying to figure out, as the market dynamics change, where to make adjustments, and how to position our team in the right place with our customers.”

That flexibility allowed Whitehurst and his team to respond to customer needs that varied widely during the crisis. “Different states and different tribal gaming operators had specific rules or regulations that were unique to them,” he says, “and that’s where we exercised flexibility in understanding what their dynamic was and how we could be a good partner.”

As the industry looks ahead to 2021, Whitehurst agrees with AGS CEO David Lopez, who recently told investors that AGS will come out of the Covid-19 crisis stronger than ever. “What David was saying is that AGS really focuses on the company culture, and that really means empowering and developing our team,” Whitehurst says. “During the pandemic, while our customers at times were closed, we spent our energy, attention and time on our employees, and developing their skills. And I think we’re stronger for that.”

Moves like enrolling the entire sales team in online Coursera training from Yale was one of the skill-building activities, sharpening business analytics abilities in various areas. Whitehurst’s sales leadership team, along with AGS top executives, participated in “Compete to Create” online coaching developed by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and Dr. Michael Cervais, designed to develop the team skills and mindset to succeed and innovate.

Those skills will be utilized in 2021 to serve customers who are ready to renew their capital budgets. “It’s a fluid situation,” says Whitehurst. “We’re staying close to our customers so we can understand how they’re approaching the business and working with our team and adjusting our model to reflect the changing industry.”

Whitehurst is confident that the strength of the AGS product pipeline will carry the company forward as the industry moves toward normalcy. “AGS invested heavily in R&D over the past couple years, and the timing of that takes a little while to come to fruition,” he says. “So, by having studios in Reno and Austin, then multiple studios in Atlanta and two studios growing in Australia—the fruits of that labor are coming forward now.

“So, as we look at 2021, the buildup of those game themes and slot platforms will hit the market full stride, and we’re really excited about that. We will have the most diverse and deep library that we’ve ever had.” —Frank Legato

Busy Days

Joe Carlon • Director of Engineering, Digital, Gaming Laboratories International

When Joe Carlon joined Gaming Laboratories International in 2006 as an entry-level test engineer, the gaming landscape was much different than it is today. With a fresh bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in electrical engineering, he went to work at GLI’s Colorado office, learning the craft of gaming testing.

However, Carlon’s future at GLI would be solidified when he moved to the company’s Digital Division in 2013. There, he would hone his craft serving clients in Europe, Canada, Australia and other jurisdictions where GLI had pioneered independent testing services for online gaming. When those services came to the U.S. thanks to the 2012 Justice Department reinterpretation of the federal Wire Act, Carlon was ready, performing testing in nascent markets Delaware and Nevada.

Carlon’s career progression would evolve further with the 2018 repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and as mobile sports betting would come to dominate that new business.

These days, of course, Carlon, now GLI’s director of engineering, digital, is busier than ever in both areas.

“While my team had sports as a minor role, focused on Nevada and some international jurisdictions, it’s now a leading factor,” Carlon says.

“Sports betting has proliferated across the U.S., and it’s driving companies to enter the marketplace that weren’t there before: Startups. Companies that were daily fantasy previously. And as that expansion happened, offering a new type of gaming product to the marketplace, we’ve seen interactive come behind that, with Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and Michigan soon to launch. And we expect more upcoming.”

The rapid growth of GLI Digital that resulted from the emergence of the new U.S. markets went into overdrive as a result of the 2020 pandemic shutdowns, as U.S. jurisdictions looked to iGaming and sports betting to fill revenue holes left by idle casinos.

“There has been huge growth,” Carlon says. “We’ve seen that growth occurring over the last several years, and our division has continued to expand, and then this year, it’s been exponential.”

Carlon says his team has added 20 direct positions and counting, with more expected by January. “And, we expect to continue to grow into next year,” he says, “and that’s just directly; we have indirect adds from our compliance teams, our math teams, and our cybersecurity teams are growing.”

He adds that there is not likely to be any contraction when the pandemic is over. “We’re looking for an end to the pandemic. But even with that factor, and the ability to go back and spend your entertainment dollar at casinos, we don’t see that (causing) a significant drop-off on the digital side.”

Carlon says the biggest priority for the coming year is to continue to make digital operations smooth for clients. “One of our biggest challenges today is being able to support the industry to allow them to offer a product that’s no different than any other e-commerce platforms, like Amazon,” he says. “We need to be on top of those concepts, see how they’re evolving and changing, and be out in front of that.”

That also means ensuring digital operations are secure. Carlon says he works closely with Bulletproof, GLI’s cybersecurity division. “I’m speaking with that division, coordinating efforts and needs, and making sure our clients are covered,” he says.

Meanwhile, GLI Digital is following legislation in several U.S. states to stay ahead of what surely will be an influx of new clients for the company’s services.

“Our vice president of government affairs, Kevin Mullally, is out talking with legislative groups as they’re writing bills, planning for this,” says Carlon. “I’ve been a part of those discussions, as well as our director of compliance, Peter Wolff, and many other team members.

“And we’re out there helping them prepare, so that as the developments occur on the legislative side, they’re not racing to catch up; they’re already there, and can push their markets forward.” —Frank Legato

Draft Queen

Sarah Koch • Senior Director for Legal and Government Affairs, DraftKings

Sarah Koch grew up New England. Though she lives in Virginia these days, she still has pride in her Yankee roots. So it’s no wonder, she had a soft spot for her Boston-based employer, DraftKings. As senior director for legal and government affairs, Koch represents the company in its legislative and legal side of the business.

Koch chose a career in law before she chose a career in gaming. “A law degree could be used in pretty much every field imaginable,” she says.

Armed with a degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Koch took a position adjudicating passport applications for the State Department. “I loved getting complex citizenship cases and determining whether the applicant satisfied the legal requirements for citizenship and provided sufficient documentation to support their claim.”

In 2010, Koch joined the influential Washington firm Ifrah Law, which specializes in iGaming.

“I got to work on something new and different every day, and it was exactly the kind of challenge I was looking for when I went to law school,” she says.

Ifrah has a significant division devoted to gaming, and she gravitated towards the online gaming practice.

“I experienced the entire cycle of the gaming industry through our clients—the great success of these innovative businesses, the abrupt and seismic challenges brought on by headline-making legal scrutiny, and ultimately passage of laws and regulations providing legal certainty for the industry,” Koch says.

As an associate, Koch’s work for online gaming clients focused on litigation. She also became involved in some of the early legislative and regulatory aspects, including working with clients on their applications in New Jersey’s new iGaming space.

In addition, daily fantasy sports made inroads in the gambling marketplace.

“I liked the idea of jumping in while the market was really getting off the ground and getting to help build and shape the legal structure from inside the business,” she explains.

That led Koch to DraftKings in 2015 at the peak of a major DFS national advertising campaign. At the time, the New York attorney general had issued cease-and-desist letters to both DraftKings and his competitor FanDuel.

“I admired them then—and still do—the never-give-up nature of the company and its employees.

They don’t back down from obstacles.”

Koch sees her role as guiding states through the regulatory and legal challenges of iGaming to optimize the potential. “This means passing legislation that provides abundant consumer choice as well as ample protections, within a framework that makes it possible for operators to provide innovative products with competitive pricing,” she says.

In addition to DFS, Koch focuses on opening new markets for sports betting and iGaming, both enjoying demand from the marketplace while offering a new source of revenue for the states themselves.

“Every state has a unique political landscape and different ideas for an appropriate legislative framework. It’s a lot of fun to work through the individualized issues of each state to help craft the right tailored solution,” Koch says.

DraftKings is live in 10 states, more than any other operator. Those states represent 20 percent of the U.S. population.

“I believe that the best product and technology combined with innovation focused on the U.S. sports fan will be a winning combination for DraftKings.”

While the emphasis is on sports betting and iGaming, DFS remains a growth industry, operated in more than 40 states and eight countries.

“There’s always going to be an appetite and audience for that product,” she says. —Bill Sokolic

Tribal Diversification

Arthur Mothershed • Vice President of Business Development, Wind Creek Hospitality

Arthur Mothershed exemplifies the professional qualities, skills and leadership associated with top gaming industry executives we have been following and expect to see so much more from in the future.

As his path includes quintessential milestones, having cut his teeth outside of gaming then entering the industry at the behest of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, where he is a member.

And while Mothershed has emerged from very modest upbringings, he would contest being identified as “self-made,” owing his success to the people around him, his team.

Mothershed’s career is now inextricably linked to the enormously successful progress of the Poarch Creek’s Wind Creek Hospitality and its growing portfolio of leisure properties in the U.S. and Caribbean.

As vice president of business development with Wind Creek, Mothershed is responsible for identifying strategic development and acquisition targets and seeing through the process of analyzing and determining which projects will be sought, and subsequent transactions. In this role Mothershed has led Wind Creek through the expansion of its asset base in Alabama, the $264 million acquisition of Renaissance Resorts in Aruba and Curacao, the development of the Wa She Shu Casino in Nevada, and the $1.2 billion purchase of the Wind Creek Bethlehem casino and resort in Pennsylvania purchased from Las Vegas Sands Corp. in 2019.

How did Mothershed get involved in Poarch Creek operations and management? While climbing the ladder in the grocery industry—with management stints at Bruno’s and Winn Dixie— Mothershed was asked to return by his uncle, who served on the tribe’s gaming board. This led to a series of positions beginning with service as the CFO of PCIGA, the tribe’s gaming arm, in 2003.

In 2006 Mothershed moved on to the role of CFO for the Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CIEDA), which oversees a non-gaming enterprises and investments held by the tribe. From there, in 2009 Mothershed began focusing on Wind Creek Hospitality, as general manager of the tribe’s Atmore property until he assumed his current role in 2014.

As Mothershed has transitioned from management to finance and now business development, his professional path included a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Alabama.

While Mothershed clearly embraces the commercial business culture of the Poarch Creek, he also acknowledges that tribal business is like family business.

He has taken on multiple tribal leadership responsibilities including treasurer of the tribal council, where he was credited with streamlining financial reporting. He has also served on various boards and committees both internal and external to the tribe, and as an at-large tribal council member and chair of the budget and finance committee.

As an “ambassador,” Mothershed also represents the tribe and its gaming interests to the public, working with political and community leaders and members of the media. Mothershed ’s desire to improve the lives of tribal members resonates through his interest in cultural awareness, assisted living for tribal elders, and universal health care for members.

Between Mothershed ’s early years growing up within the tribal community, where he recalls biking through the cotton fields where Wind Creek Atmore is located, and achieving professional success, Mothershed credits those who have helped show him the way. In particular, he values his relationships with the executive team of PCI Gaming, as well as the PCI Gaming board and his fellow tribal council members, Mothershed also recalls the mentorship he received from his boss at Winn Dixie, Mike Aaron, who encouraged Mothershed to return to school to continue his education.

What stands out most to Mothershed in Poarch Creek history was gaining federal recognition in 1984. Initial steps into gaming in the 1990s were small, including bingo and Class II operations. Since then the tribe’s expansion into gaming has been monumental, with its current portfolio of assets and side investments to assist other tribes transformative.

What does the future of gaming hold for Poarch Creek? Mothershed believes gaming is a strong industry, but as demonstrated through adapting to Covid-19, “it can’t be your only game.” While Mothershed believes the pandemic will pass, it shapes his thinking about the future. Online gaming is attractive and a good basis for social and for money relationships with players. And he expects the global pipeline of potential acquisitions to only expand. —Michael Soll is president of The Innovation Group.

Australasian Recovery

Mitsuhiro Miyazaki • Managing Director, Konami Australia Pty. Ltd.

Mitsuhiro Miyazaki has filled many roles in his 12 years with Konami Holdings Corporation. Most of that time has been with Konami Gaming, Inc., in diverse roles ranging from market development to international games research and development. Miyazaki was senior director of international sales and operations for Konami Gaming when he was tapped to head the Japan-based company’s Australasian operations in 2017.

As managing director of Konami Australia Pty. Ltd., Miyazaki has used that diversity of expertise to build a strong base of operations for Konami Australia in Sydney, where he can work closely with the R&D game studios while serving markets from Australia’s casinos to the New South Wales club market to other markets throughout the region like New Zealand, Macau and Southeast Asia.

Miyazaki recharged sales for Konami in Australasian markets, which were soaring early last year when the industry came to a standstill with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Konami’s slot and system sales had been on the upswing in the Australasia region until we faced the unprecedented event,” Miyazaki says. “Konami’s focus on product development with persistence and enthusiasm has continuously generated great results, particularly with our successful game series All Aboard, in the Australasian region. In addition, Konami’s award-winning casino management system, Synkros, contributed to our business with the proven and advanced solution for the market.”

Once Covid-19 shutdowns began, Konami Australia proceeded like much of the industry, temporarily closing offices, instituting cost measures including furloughs, and expanding remote work. Also, like much of the supply sector, Konami kept research and development going through the industry shutdowns.

Consequently, Konami Australia was ready with the complete slate of new product when regional markets began to reopen. Australasian markets reopened last summer with restrictions, and the last Australian state, Victoria, reopened in November. “The positive news is that the gaming turnover in the markets quickly recovered after reopening,” Miyazaki says, “and confidence in the entire Australasian market seems to be coming back now.

“As Konami products continue to show strong performance and contribute to the customers’ business during the recovery phase, our national sales have resumed since June and are steadily recovering.”

Asia and Africa markets, however, were more damaged by the pandemic and travel restrictions, and will take longer to recover. “We strategically put more effort into fast recovery and promising markets within Australasia to compensate for the shortfall of slow-recovery markets during this challenging time,” says Miyazaki.

Konami’s recovery plan to emerge from the 2020 crisis is centered on the strength of the company’s product pipeline.

“Our biggest priorities for the coming year will be to implement our recovery plan,” Miyazaki says. “We provide evolved products from continual improvement for the markets and support our customers. Also, as one of Konami’s main R&D studios, we expand our proven game content further to the global markets and iGaming space by collaborating with our sister company Konami Gaming, Inc.”

Driving success in 2021 will be All Aboard, the monster hit progressive slot on the company’s new Dimension 49J cabinet. “The number of installations is growing, with initial strong performance,” says Miyazaki, “Furthermore, the All Aboard series has already been introduced in several social online casinos. We will continue to put our effort into quality products and drive Konami’s gaming and systems business. Due to the Covid-19 crisis, we have updated our slot product roadmap to address the impact of reduced machines in the markets and re-prioritized our products for a recovery plan.”

Meanwhile, with the Covid situation in Asia and Africa far from over, he says complete recovery may take a while. “However,” says Miyazaki, “supposing that Covid-19 infections are contained and all our markets recover smoothly, I foresee that Konami Australia will be on a rapid recovery trend in 2021.” —Frank Legato

Demand Diversification

Bryan Newland • Chairman, Bay Mills Indian Community Executive Council

Since becoming chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community Executive Council in 2017, Bryan Newland has worked to streamline the tribe’s casino operations and diversify its revenue sources. Recently, he spearheaded the tribe’s entry into internet gaming and the cannabis business.

But what Newland loves most is public service, which he says runs deep in his family. His parents worked as public servants, and his grandparents were school administrators and tribal council members.

“It has been really fun to help build a team in our tribal government and our tribal enterprises of talented people and getting out of their way and seeing what they can accomplish,” he says.

Newland grew up in Bay Mills, located in Michigan’s upper peninsula. He attended Michigan State University and earned a law degree in 2007. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where from 2009 to 2012, he worked in the Obama administration as senior policy adviser to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior-Indian Affairs.

He always hoped to find his way back home, so in 2013, Newland moved to Lansing, Michigan, to start a law firm, and was elected tribal court judge for Bay Mills, and later, chairman. He’s retained ownership in his law firm, but devotes most of his time to tribal affairs.

Bay Mills operates two casinos: Kings Club Casino and the flagship property Bay Mills Resort & Casino. Newland was instrumental in forming a tribal gaming authority with a board and its own management structure to insulate the casinos from the council’s political management.

In 2018, Bay Mills began a deep dive into its casino operations to understand its challenges and why it didn’t rebound as quickly as others in Michigan after the 2008 recession.

“We’re laying the groundwork to reinvent ourselves,” Newland says, but once they began to address the issues, the pandemic hit. Despite the coronavirus, Bay Mills launched two new business endeavors in 2020 and completed construction on a new health center.

Working with other tribes, Bay Mills helped enact Michigan state legislation authorizing internet gaming and partnered with DraftKings to offer mobile sports betting. Newland says the tribe is one of the first in the U.S. to run a statewide online gambling operation.

Bay Mills also launched the first tribally owned cannabis business in November 2020, called Northern Light Cannabis.

Newland emphasizes that the casino and cannabis businesses, both highly regulated industries, are separate entities. “While they’re very different products, the process for establishing them and regulating them was very similar, and our experience with the gaming industry made it easier,” he says.

The biggest lesson learned from all the unprecedented events of 2020: being able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, Newland says, “And, making decisions very quickly in an environment where you don’t have all the information you need. It’s just been a very valuable lesson as to how to operate in a high-stakes environment.”

The goal for 2021 is coming out of the pandemic with the community safe and healthy, he says. Bay Mills also is working on economic development by re-investing its new revenue sources into programs that will benefit the tribe long-term.

Newland enjoys spending his down time with his wife and two high school-age children. He’s also a nature lover, especially nature photography, hiking, kayaking and enjoying the woods and near Lake Superior.

He encourages anyone new to the gaming industry to set goals and speak them into existence. “Set your goals, be humble, trust yourself and just do it,” Newland says. —Erica Sweeney

No Gain Without Pain

Michael Olujic • General Manager, Tachi Palace Casino Resort

Michael Olujic’s vision has been rewarded at Tachi Palace Casino Resort.

Olujic embraced the realities of the pandemic last spring and gambled on investing to accommodate them at the California property. The result was a spacious, comfortable environment, prompting business exceeding pre-pandemic levels, he says.

How is that possible?

“We used the bingo area and entertainment areas as gaming spaces,” says Olujic, the property’s general manager. “We spaced out the slot and table game experience, brought in the best PPE and infrared cameras. We had hand-washing stations, excessive amounts of hand sanitizer, the Plexiglas, and others, and we made the tough decisions right away, going non-smoking and stopping the booze.”

Olujic spearheaded casino renovations during the down time, including adding more slot space for social distancing, outlining a fluid plan to responsibly open in phases, and implementing safe return-to-work procedures for associates. These changes allowed the property to safely reopen in late May, less than three months after the pandemic shut down most of the gambling industry.

Olujic says the gaming public has been enamored with the comfort of playing in safe conditions. He has already extended this concept to the post-pandemic scenario, saying the new conditions will remain intact. That means the casino won’t suddenly become uncomfortably crowded.

“We bit the bullet, especially with the non-smoking idea,” he says. “But we have successfully redesigned the gaming model and the experience. Customers like having all this space and being socially distanced. Despite decreased occupation, we have increased our revenues.”

The 41-year-old, who has more than 15 years of expertise in the casino gaming and hospitality industry, jokingly calls himself “the youngest old dog in the business.”

He is a strategic planner with a history of delivering significant, sustainable revenue growth even in challenging markets.

In less than two years, Olujic has marketed and rebranded the property from Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino to Tachi Palace Casino Resort. He has brought more competitive promotions and improved the overall guest loyalty and play.

In table games, he added bet enhancements that have driven increased carded play. He has effectively reconfigured the slot floor and changed the product mix to make the overall gaming floor produce at an all-time high.

Olujic has remodeled the gaming floor and bingo hall, added quick-service restaurants, and created third-floor gaming space to include a new bar. In the food and beverage department, his reconfiguration of the quick-service restaurants improved food product and efficiencies.

Prior to joining Tachi Palace, his tenure in the gaming industry included serving as CEO of Kewadin Casinos, general manager of Gila River Gaming Enterprises, general manager and CEO of North Star Mohican Casino Resort and CFO of Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin. He also has been an executive at IBM.

Olujic earned an MBA from Marquette University and bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University.

Olujic is an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and grew up on a cattle farm in Iowa. That taught him to work hard and appreciate everything one has in life, he says.

Those assets, in his case, included vision. Olujic’s policy helped Tachi Palace turn short-term pain into long-term gain. —Dave Bontempo

Gaming Law 101

Karen Wells • Executive Director, Massachusetts Gaming Commission

Karen Wells knew as a high school student that her future would be in the law. She envisioned herself as an assistant district attorney after obtaining a law degree from Boston University.

“I could do something to help other people and also have a really interesting and exciting job,” she says.

Wells got her wish in 1994 when she began a career in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office.

Gaming was not even a blip on her radar screen when she moved to the Criminal Bureau of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, assigned to the Special Investigations and Narcotics Division. In 2007, she returned to Middlesex as deputy chief of the public protection, anti-terrorism, corruption and technology unit, prosecuting high-level crimes.

Gaming finally edged into the picture during her tenure as undersecretary for law enforcement at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. Of the many items on her plate, Wells oversaw gaming-related issues.

In 2013, she joined the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as director of the investigations and enforcement bureau. In that role, Wells led the regulatory enforcement of the Expanded Gaming Act, which included the State Police, the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and other local, state and federal law enforcement partners.

“It was a unique opportunity to join a newly formed state agency and be in on the ground floor, building a team and developing policies and procedures. My original position at the commission had elements of law enforcement as well as business analysis, which I thought would be an interesting mix,” she says.

Wells’ experience in law enforcement taught her to conduct complex investigations and also to interact with different types of people. With the commission, she handled three major issues: investigations into applicants for the three casino licenses; the investigation into what Wynn Resorts knew about Steve Wynn’s alleged sexual conduct; and the pandemic response.

None of these issues came as a surprise to someone trained in dealing with crises and investigations. What amazed Wells was the level of media scrutiny and interest in the industry in general and the commission in particular.

The commission tapped her twice to be interim executive director, most recently overseeing the closing and reopening of the casinos due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The commissioners voted to appoint her as executive director in September.

“The pandemic has proved challenging with everyone physically separated, but the team has been very cooperative and supportive of our efforts,” she says.

Wells and the commission have a deep interest in responsible gaming issues. Indeed, the statute which created legalized gaming mandated research into responsible gambling and on-site programs.

“We take that mitigation responsibility very seriously, and are proactive and innovative in ways to address the very real harm that problem gambling inflicts on individuals and families,” she says.

One of the hallmarks of the Massachusetts approach involves a budgeting tool known as PlayMyWay by GameSense. Launched at Plainridge Park Casino in 2016, PlayMyWay is an opt-in software system that allows electronic gaming machine users to self-select daily, weekly, and/or monthly gambling spending budgets. The system will send budget notifications as the players approach, reach or exceed those budgets. PlayMyWay enrollment has led to less gambling activity in several parameters.

“I expect that the most important issues over the next five years will include the economic recovery of the casino industry after the pandemic, developing and using technology for more sophisticated regulatory efforts, and maintaining a balance of appropriately rigorous regulatory requirements while maximizing economic benefits for the people of Massachusetts.” —Bill Sokolic

Expanding Americas

Hector Fernandez • President, Americas, Aristocrat Technologies

Most of the career of Hector Fernandez, president for the Americas at slot supplier Aristocrat Technologies, has been in the field of finance, including eight months as Aristocrat CFO before being tapped to head the Americas division in June 2019.

But it is the sheer diversity of the companies for which he has served as a financial executive that really prepared him to take on the role of the Americas division president. Prior to Aristocrat, he held financial roles at Western Digital, Cydcor and Amgen. His first job out of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business was as finance manager for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble.

“Obviously, strong finance background and training allows you to really look at numbers, dig in and understand trends,” Fernandez says. “But more importantly than my finance background was some of the broad-based experience that I’ve had across different industries.”

Fernandez dealt with his share of economic crises in those diverse industries as well, experience he says has helped him deal with the Covid-19 crisis that hit less than eight months into his time as president. “All of those experiences really allowed us and the team to focus,” he says. “And so when we looked at the pandemic and the impacts of the pandemic, we said we needed to keep things very simple.

“We needed to keep things simple and we needed to focus. Every decision we would make would be around three principles—around our people, our customers, and our business. And we pick those not only on purpose, but we pick those in the exact order. So every decision we made, we first thought about the impact that it would have for people, and then secondary are the impact it would have to our customers, and to be quite frank, we worried about our business last, which is not typical for a finance person. In broader terms, if we can get our people and our customers right, the business will be there.”

Fernandez says it was an easy decision to keep product R&D going during the shutdown. “It was not even a debate early on,” he says. “We knew that slowing down any content development would just hurt the company in the long run, because innovation is almost like a train. It’s on a track, and when you slow it down, you have to restart it back up, and you lose all of that momentum.”

Being in charge of the Americas, of course, involves a lot more than just the U.S. Fernandez is in charge of overseeing Aristocrat’s operations in Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean as well. With respect to the pandemic, he says, it adds that many more individual situations into the mix. “Even in the U.S., each state and almost down to the jurisdiction has had a different impact and different reaction (to the pandemic),” he says, noting that each region in the rest of the Americas also is in a different state of recovery.

“The nice thing about Aristocrat is that, because we’re truly a global company, it allowed us to actually leverage some of our co-workers and fellow employees across the world.” Fernandez says his team used early experiences in the Asia Pacific market as a guide in the Americas. “We learned a lot from our Asia Pacific colleagues,” he says. “The other thing that’s happened since the pandemic is the European business has also come under my purview, which is fantastic because there are a lot of similarities we can leverage from Latin America across Europe.”

The continuation of R&D through the crisis has meant the company’s game library—now available to operators via a six-room “Virtual Trade Show” hosted by an account executive—is stronger than ever as casinos resume capital spending.

“Through the pandemic, we focused on having the best content across the globe, and then depending on the jurisdiction, customizing it for that specific jurisdiction, whether it’s a route market, a destination casino or a casino in Argentina,” Fernandez says. “We’ve never lost that focus around content, and we’ve leveraged our Australian roots to ensure that we have the best content in the industry.”

That content is spread over several markets, including video lottery terminals, Class II and interactive businesses. “The VLT market is a great business, and there’s really a number of VLT markets starting,” says Fernandez. “It is absolutely a growing market.”

Class II is another business sector Aristocrat pursues aggressively. “The Class II market has rebounded very nicely,” Fernandez says. “In fact, compared to some of the Class III markets, it’s actually recovering even faster.”

Target areas for 2021 will be getting Aristocrat content online and into the growing sports betting business. With sports betting, Aristocrat is approaching the new market cautiously. “We don’t want to just follow the shiny new toy,” Fernandez says. “At the end of the day, does it complement our businesses? And does it drive value for our customers and shareholders?”

All developments circle back to the incredible range of Aristocrat’s content. “We didn’t slow the investment at all, so we will actually launch more games this year than we did the prior year,” Fernandez says. “Because of innovation taking 12 to 18 months, you’ll continue to see what, in my personal opinion, is the strongest pipeline of content out of any manufacturer.” —Frank Legato

Premium Pipeline

Dean Ehrlich • Executive Vice President and Games Business Leader, Everi Holdings Inc.

Everi Holdings’ slot business has been over the same rough terrain as that of every other gaming supplier this past year. What will set slot-makers apart as the industry slowly reopens is how the time of industry shutdowns last spring was used in preparing for the time the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately, inevitably, passes.

Everi is one of those manufacturers. While their customers were idle, Dean Ehrlich, executive vice president and games business leader, kept the overall product vision moving forward while helping customers through the mini-crises that have sprouted during the pandemic. “The big words are adaptable and partnering,” Ehrlich says.

One thing Everi is ready with is product. Much of what was poised for great success early in the year before the shutdowns is hitting the market in force now, often with multiple versions of a new game series, thanks to the continuation of R&D during the shutdown.

The industry may not be back to normal yet, but customers are again buying, says Ehrlich.

“If you look at the number of games that were bought, just even in Q3, it was a greater surprise than what the industry ever expected,” he says. “There was still in excess of 10,000 games that were purchased in North America. From our standpoint, we had several tent-pole product approvals before the shutdown, including a brand-new standard portrait cabinet. When the industry opened back up, we had new product that only a few customers had installed.”

One of those products is the new Empire Flex cabinet, a premium package featuring a 49-inch curved monitor, curved LED light bars and a high-quality sound system. “We had two different sets of (game) families to deliver with Empire Flex upon cabinet approval. Today, we’re at double digits, all because the game theme queue was still in its pre-pandemic development cadence,” Ehrlich says.

Other highlights in Everi’s pipeline include the company’s three-reel steppers, which regularly score high among the top 25 earners in industry surveys; and new games for The Vault series on the Empire Arena platform.

“We have a robust roadmap with current product approvals to get us through spring of 2021,” Ehrlich says.

Yielding that pipeline in an optimal way, he says, will take aggressive planning and nimble reactions to industry bumps along the way. “As we come out of the pandemic and determine our strategic goals, we need to attain the plan very aggressively,” says Ehrlich. “The acceptable outcome for us is to be able to execute at the highest level and significantly increase our ship share better than we’ve done before as a company, especially given the amount of current performance success we’re seeing in most product categories.”

That success over the past year, particularly during shutdowns, has applied to Everi’s Digital Division, as the company has expanded the number of its land-based hits to the iGaming world. “The beauty of it is there’s so much content for us to port, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of our better themes,” comments Ehrlich.

For the coming year, Everi will continue to exploit the top products coming out of the R&D pipeline.

“Moving ahead, we will be laser-focused on the basics,” says Ehrlich. “For the Games Division, we will continue to remain committed to making great games, increasing customers’ access to our products, and delivering with excellence. We will create the same amount of original content as we’ve done in the past, and have an extensive theme portfolio. If we do all of the above, we believe this will position us for continued growth.” —Frank Legato

Whole New Game

Erika Nardini • Chief Executive Officer, Barstool Sports

Barstool Sports bears little resemblance today to the digital media company Erika Nardini joined as CEO in 2016.

Back then, Barstool was known for its online sports and pop-culture content dominated by its founder, Bostonian David Portnoy, a colorful character whose blogs, podcasts and video feeds are edgy and iconoclastic, challenging the establishment (notably, the NFL and the New England Patriots) in normally hilarious and sometimes controversial fashion.

Portnoy is a bona fide celebrity blogger, with millions of fans following through Barstool Sports.

Nardini became CEO shortly after Portnoy sold a majority stake in Barstool Sports to media investors, the Chernin Group, moving the company’s headquarters from Boston to New York. At the beginning of 2020, Penn National Gaming signed an agreement to acquire 36 percent of Barstool’s stock from Chernin Group for $163 million. The agreement gives Penn the option to assume control of Barstool with a 51 percent stake after three years, and to eventually buy the entire company.

Penn has already launched the Barstool Sportsbook app in Pennsylvania and Colorado, and is planning Barstool retail sportsbooks in Penn National casinos across the country.

The popularity of Barstool has evolved right along with Nardini’s tenure as CEO.

“In 2016 when I joined Barstool, it was a blog,” recalls Nardini. “There were 12 people. There were three podcasts that probably had two episodes each under their belts… Flash forward to 2020. We are one of the biggest media publishers in the country. We have a top-five podcast network. We have 116 million followers across 1,500 social accounts. We have about 40 brands that we own and operate across the company.”

And now, Barstool is in the thick of the exploding sports betting market.

“I remember when Dave Portnoy and I sat down the day PASPA was repealed,” Nardini recalls. “Dave walked into my office and we said, this is it. This is what our path looks like… Sports betting has been a very big part of this company’s DNA from the earliest of moments, and what we’ve done is to actually take what we do every day around sports news entertainment and the internet culture, and put that muscle behind sports betting.”

This is the main reason combining with Penn National made such sense, she says. “We knew this was our future. We knew that the way we connected with our audience was radically different than anyone else. And we’ve proven our ability to transact and convert audience in a way that nobody else can.

“We met (Penn National CEO) Jay Snowden and his team last year, and it was pretty obvious from the get-go that this was a great fit. Penn had all the things we didn’t have. They had betting licenses, they had a regional casino network. They had a well-respected B2B brand in the betting space. They had a footprint that we could really make our own, and they were looking for exactly what we had, which was a brand, a media partnership and a way to connect with a young consumer.”

The Barstool Sportsbook app is a top-three player in Pennsylvania.

“We did it without any marketing investment,” Nardini notes. “We did it organically through Barstool Sports.”

In Colorado, the company has established a Barstool Sportsbook at Penn’s Ameristar in Black Hawk, and next up is Michigan.

“You will see a Barstool Sportsbook at the Greektown casino in Michigan,” says Nardini. “Then, not only will we bring the brand to Penn’s other regional casino locations; we’re also bringing our talent and personality. So as we do live events, we’ll do them at Penn casinos.”

Penn’s own casinos are just the start. “We’re looking closely with Penn to roll out to every other market,” Nardini says. “By the end of 2021, New Jersey is obviously a very big focus. Illinois is a very big focus. Indiana is a big focus. West Virginia is a home-run market for us. We’re excited to bring our brand to these markets, to bring our personalities, to create things that are unique and different, and to get people jazzed up about sports betting.”

Asked how the periodic controversy that Barstool’s blogs generate will play with regulators in new states, Nardini says when it comes to regulations, Barstool and Penn National are all business.

“Most accounts of our controversy are, sadly, grossly overstated,” she says. “We understand and take gaming regulations very seriously.”

She adds that the very edgy vibe that has created controversy will be what will allow the Penn/Barstool combination to flourish. “We’re irreverent and highly creative, and we are not traditional—and sometimes, that means controversial. But what I really think it means is that we’re interesting, and we’re connecting with young people, and we’re connecting with people in a way that feels relatable and resonates.

“In a way that’s fun.” —Frank Legato

Chief Bottle Washer

Jose Flores • Vice President and General Manager, Gun Lake Casino

Jose Flores can be equally proud of his journey, along with his destination.

The vice president and general manager at Gun Lake Casino in Michigan achieved a lofty perch with small, methodical steps.

“I started my career as a prep cook,” he recalls. “I was peeling potatoes for other cooks entrusted to make food. Here I was, a kid with a high school diploma. I went from making $4.25 an hour at McDonald’s to getting $6.25 an hour at a new casino in the Midwest, and I thought it was the greatest thing to get that raise.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I think I would be entrusted to run the place.”

His carefully orchestrated progression is inspiring. Flores parlayed casino reimbursement programs with a full-time work schedule, creating a huge professional payoff. He obtained a bachelor’s and an MBA at Robert Morris University and has enrolled in law school. Step by step, the nuggets ensuring his prosperous future accumulated.

Flores began his career in 1994 at Empress Casino in Joliet, Illinois. During his tenure in Illinois, he held several positions of increasing responsibility in food and beverage and operations, leading up to his position as vice president of facility operations. He later assumed the role of assistant general manager for Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia. Most recently, Flores served as the vice president and general manager of Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway located in Bangor, Maine.

Flores attributes his rise to a couple of significant factors.

“One is that somebody has to take a chance on you,” he says. “Somebody has to look at and believe you are going to be effective. When I first looked at a food and beverage job, I said I didn’t know the difference between a Scotch and a rye,” he laughs. “But the people in that department said, ‘We can teach you the technical stuff. What we can’t teach is how to treat people well,’ which they believed I did.”

Flores cites “being naturally inquisitive” as another benefit.

“One thing you see is that the person right ahead of you is willing to let you do his/her work for them,” Flores says. “They will show you how to do their job. They are getting help and you are learning skills.”

Flores arrived at Gun Lake in time to assist in the property’s $100 million expansion, set for 2021 completion. It will contain three new restaurants, and a substantial hike in slots and table games.

“When we finish, we’ll have 2,700 slots and almost 60 table games,” he says. “We feel very good about the market and where we are in it.”

Gun Lake Casino is located halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The casino features over 2,000 slot machines, 42 table games, a high-limit room, a food court, a 225-seat café, and a 300-seat buffet, along with bars, lounges and live entertainment.

The property is owned by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi Indians and is operated by the tribe’s management partner, MPM Enterprises, LLC, owned by an affiliate of Red Rock Casinos, Inc. and private investors from Michigan.

This is Flores’ first foray into tribal gaming.

“It is very rewarding to see how that process has gone,” he indicates. “You can go across the street, look at the clinics and you can see firsthand the beneficiaries of what we do on the gaming side.

“In non-tribal gaming, the beneficiaries are institutional investors for the most part. Here, in this environment, we see actual people who benefit from the diabetes program, heart and health programs, etc. It is gratifying.” —Dave Bontempo

Tough Love

Melonie Johnson • President & COO, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa

When Melonie Johnson was named president and chief operating officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in May 2020, she made history. She’s the first black woman to lead an Atlantic City casino, and she took the helm during an unprecedented time, when the casino was closed because of Covid-19.

But, she counts the pandemic as one of the biggest challenges and achievements of her gaming career, as her first major task was safely reopening the casino. Borgata, owned by MGM Resorts International, officially reopened in late July after implementing MGM’s Seven-Point Safety Plan, a set of procedures designed with medical and scientific experts.

“For me, the pandemic has provided the opportunity to be more visible and involved than ever,” Johnson says. “Whether walking the casino floor or dining with employees, I stay closely informed about what is working and what is not.”

Before joining Borgata, Johnson was president and COO of MGM National Harbor in Maryland and Gold Strike Casino Resort in Mississippi. She’s also worked in gaming jurisdictions such as Illinois, West Virginia and Louisiana.

Though she’s spent most of her career in gaming, Johnson says it wasn’t her first calling. A Louisiana native, she graduated from the University of New Orleans with an accounting degree and started in the banking sector as a commercial loan teller. She then moved to the oil and gas industry as an accountant, but when the company she worked for filed for bankruptcy, she knew she needed to look for new opportunities.

At the time, she says land-based gaming had just been introduced in Louisiana, and she applied for a role as manager of financial accounting and reporting at a gaming company and was hired in 1993. The rest is history.

“I’ve had some amazing mentors and leaders, and I’ve absolutely had to work extremely hard to get where I am today,” Johnson says, adding that she’s most grateful for the love and support of her parents.

“Tough love” and leading by example is her own mentoring philosophy.

“It is of the utmost importance to be an individual worthy of being exemplified on a daily basis,” she says. “I like to be thorough and ask lots of questions, as well as not being afraid to have tough but courageous conversations. Forcing your opinion down someone’s throat is not effective; it’s best to have thoughtful discussions and then come to a resolution.”

Hard work and tenacity make anything possible, Johnson says, and those qualities are essential for a successful gaming career. She urges anyone just starting out in the industry to find what they’re passionate about.

“That’s what will make you content in the end, and also, more money does not always equate to more happiness,” she says.

In her leadership role at Borgata, Johnson will provide strategic direction and oversee the property’s daily operations. She says the continued presence of Covid-19 will drive Borgata’s 2021 strategy.

“Priority one is constantly evolving our protocols to ensure employee and guest safety, while maintaining our market share,” Johnson says. “How we message and listen to our guests is also critical. Adhering to the current 25 percent occupancy requirements will be an ongoing process balanced around managing visitor volume, our promotional calendar and other considerations.”

Johnson enjoys spending time with her husband, children and five grandchildren in her down time. And, she focuses on living by the best piece of advice she’s ever received: “Don’t forget where you came from, and family is for a lifetime.” —Erica Sweeney

Making Sports Betting Work

Kris Saw • Chief Technology Officer, Kambi

Kris Saw enjoys the race of his life.

Kambi’s chief technology officer thrives amid the explosive growth of legalized sports betting in the United States. He’s a catalyst for a company that helps operators quickly launch sportsbooks after receiving legal approval.

The timing is everything. American operators turn to experienced outfits like Kambi to become sports-betting enterprises at the earliest possible moment. No time-consuming infrastructure decisions, no delays just before the start of the lucrative NFL season.

Call a company like Kambi, headlined by someone like Saw, and let the pros do it.

Saw helped provide the magic touch for

DraftKings in New Jersey before the 2018 campaign, enabling it to open less than three months after repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

“We are in an exciting time for the industry, and it’s great when we are the first to market,” says the native of Western Australia, now living in Stockholm and a frequent visitor to the U.S. to be close to Kambi’s partners there.

“The summer of 2018 was an intense one in Atlantic City. Resorts (via DraftKings) wanted to launch before the NFL season. And on August 1, we took the first legal online bet,” he says. “What we had to do was ensure the hardware and the software was in place and that compliance was right with the Division of Gaming Enforcement. That all had to be made ready.”

Multiply this scenario by countless others as operators rush to scoop up revenue.

New Jersey exceeded $800 million in sports wagering in October, more than 90 percent from sports apps. Operators are extending the brick-and-mortar betting menu right onto the phone, tablets and computers.

The invitation for similar stories exists throughout the United States. Saw cites anticipated legislation in California and New York as monumental for the industry.

“Those states are going to be enormous,” he says. “Each state could become the equivalent of one European country. A major difference in the market comes from the idea that if you open in Europe, it’s a crowded space. But if you open up online in Michigan, for example, you can go from zero to 100 (mph) overnight.”

Saw is highly skilled in technical architecture, building and scaling software systems for many years. He joined Kambi in 2010 as head of IT operations. His technical expertise and leadership have played a key role in helping to establish Kambi’s scalable sportsbook platform as the leading option for sports betting operators in regulated markets globally. He has held a variety of senior roles in the betting and gaming industry, but few have produced the adrenaline rush of this position.

Kambi, meanwhile, is an early post-PASPA powerhouse. The company takes bets on six continents and has been trading sports for more than two decades, providing a wealth of expertise. Its partners include Penn National Gaming, Rush Street Interactive and Seneca Gaming Corporation.

One of Kambi’s difference-makers is its price differentiation tool, which now enables operators to adjust the odds on one specific outcome (rather than total vig), giving them greater control over their competitiveness in the market, to take into account regional bias if they wish and to better control risk.

Kambi gives operators the option to differentiate on price in-game just as they can pre-match. It is even possible for an operator to offer different odds in different jurisdictions, granting Kambi’s multi-regional partners even greater control over their strategy.

Kambi opened a fast-growing Philadelphia office in 2019, which now houses close to 50 employees with half that number in trading and risk, and keeps its finger on the pulse of a now multibillion-dollar industry.

Saw is a prime player in the picture of regulated sports betting. —Dave Bontempo

Switching Sides

Eileen Moore Johnson • Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Scientific Games

Gaming is gaming, according to many people in the business. It doesn’t matter whether you work for an operator or a supplier, it’s all the same game.

So when Eileen Moore Johnson left Caesars Entertainment in 2020, where she had spent more than 20 years in a variety of positions, to join Scientific Games as executive vice president and chief human resources officer, she brought a wealth of experience to the table. But it wasn’t as if she was unfamiliar with Scientific Games.

“Over the last 20 years I had purchased countless products from Scientific Games, so I have that customer orientation,” says Johnson. “But I really didn’t understand the inner workings of the company or how these great products get put together. So coming to the B2B side from the B2C side has really been eye-opening for me.”

During the last seven years, Johnson was in charge of the Caesars properties on the east side of the Las Vegas Strip—the Flamingo, the Linq and the Cromwell. She says it was tough to leave that position.

“But it was very gratifying to hear from so many of my former colleagues telling me how much I helped and supported them,” she says. “That was very meaningful to me.”

Johnson says she went out on top at Caesars.

“My dream when I joined the company was to eventually run a casino as a single-property GM,” she says, “so with the opportunity to run a billion-dollar division that was also a tourist destination, I really outkicked my coverage on that one!”

While the number of employees she oversees at Scientific Games—about 9,500—is similar to the number she had at the Las Vegas properties, Johnson says there are some major differences.

“First of all, we’re a global corporation with operations all around the world,” she says. “During the pandemic I got to know them very well because we had daily video conferences, so I made some great connections to my colleagues in this and other countries.”

Scientific Games has three divisions—gaming, lottery and interactive. Johnson says that diversification served it well during the pandemic.

“The lottery business has continued to be very strong,” she explains. “And our online businesses—social and casino—have also been doing well, so that diversification has really paid off.”

One of the successes attributed to Johnson at Caesars was her dedication to elevating women and minorities in the company. For the women, she established “Lean In” programs where she and other senior-level female executives would mentor young women coming up in the business. She plans to continue that at Scientific Games.

“Diversity and inclusion are things that are very important to me, and I’m very proud to have them line up,” she says. “Scientific Games had already been on a good trajectory with regards to diversity and inclusion, and I have the support of our board to ramp that up even more. Our board is very diverse, and they are committed to supporting our journey. Our goal is pretty simple. We know that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams.”

As one of the founders and original members of Global Gaming Women, Johnson wants to continue to encourage membership at Scientific Games.

“GGW has done a tremendous job of empowering and educating women in our industry,” she says. “When I look back on my career to date, the initiative we launched with my co-chair Holly Gagnon is one of the things I’m most proud of. We’ve helped hundreds of women through a peer-to-peer mentoring process. The stories that we hear from them of getting through tough times and having that circle to lean on in a confidential manner are very gratifying.”

The first thing Johnson had to deal with when coming on with Scientific Games was the pandemic, but she says she’s used to that kind of crisis management.

“I’ve been through hurricanes, natural disasters, unfortunate security instances,” she says. “I naturally gravitate toward these things because I know that as a team we can handle it in a caring and compassionate manner, we can pull together and put our employees first and get to the other side.”

She also credits her HR employees that were there when she arrived.

“I’m so fortunate that I have a rock-star team that I inherited,” says Johnson. “They are phenomenal, and have done a great job during this difficult time.” —Roger Gros

Game Pedigree

Keith Kruczynski • Vice President, Game Development and Design, Gaming Arts, LLC

When David Colvin, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Gaming Arts, decided to add Class III slot machines to the company’s long-established library of bingo products, he looked to build a team of slot-sector veterans up to the task.

The first of those veterans hired was Keith Kruczynski, the former director of game development for Bally Technologies. During his 12-plus years at Bally, Kruczynski oversaw four different design studios and worked with many of the industry’s legends of game design.

Since joining Gaming Arts three years ago, Kruczynski, vice president of game development and design, has been instrumental in creating an enviable Class III game library from scratch. His team created three distinct game groups by the time of Gaming Arts’ official Class III launch at Global Gaming Expo 2018, raising eyebrows with the fun Pop’n Pays series, the Dice Seeker series of games featuring dice-rolling bonuses, and the Da Fa Ba Series of Asian-themed games.

By the time the pandemic shutdowns hit last year, the first performance numbers of Gaming Arts in Class III had proven the company—headed by veterans like company President Mike Dreitzer and Chief Commercial Officer Jean Venneman—was here to stay. With Pop ‘N Pays and the Asian games already in the market, the first Dice Seeker games were installed a week before the Covid-19 shutdowns began.

Game design barely missed a beat due to the pandemic, which Kruczynski credits to Colvin, Dreitzer and Venneman.

“They really made a commitment to R&D throughout all this, and we really didn’t stop,” Kruczynski says. “We worked from home and had Microsoft Teams meetings every day. I came to find out that my team actually worked more efficiently and better remotely.”

The quality of the work has reflected the team leader, and the experience of years creating Bally games that he was able to put to use at Gaming Arts. Kruczynski says that in addition to honing his own game design skills (he also spent a year as a game producer at IGT before joining Gaming Arts), his years at Bally taught him the art of team-building.

“The most important thing I learned is that I don’t know everything,” he laughs. “I don’t have all the answers, and that’s OK, because I can rely on the experts, and people that I trust. It’s important to surround yourself with people who are really good at their jobs. I’ve always believed that as a manager, I work for my employees, not the other way around.”

For 2021, that game design expertise will be on display as Gaming Arts’ product pipeline continues to roll out. Kruczynski says Gaming Arts is on track to have 25 titles in the field going into 2021, and will launch a new portrait cabinet next year as well.

“The HALOtop has been great for us so far,” he says. “Inferno Wheel has been great performance-wise. We’re really excited about the dual-screen cabinet with the HALOtop (which adds a persistent bonus to any base game), but also about adding a portrait cabinet to our repertoire.”

Kruczynski is confident that his customers will be opening up their collective wallets in 2021 to renew their floors. “I think that certain markets are thriving, especially where there’s more demand than supply.”

In the end, the priority for 2021 is simple, says Kruczynski: “Keep moving forward. Just keep swimming. At the end of the day, the company is made of people—not software titles, or hardware, or anything else. The people are what make the company. The priority is keeping that company culture alive, and keeping team members happy. Because happy people make happy games.” —Frank Legato

The Future of Payment

Joe Pappano • CEO, Sightline Payments

Joe Pappano has been in the business of payments and payment technology for his entire 30-year career, most recently as a senior vice president of Worldpay Gaming.

This year, all that experience comes to roost at a critical moment for the industry, and for Pappano, it comes with a new level of leadership in a field suddenly made much more important because of the Covid-19 crisis. Pappano was named president of the Americas Division of Las Vegas-based fintech and payment technology supplier Sightline Payments only last July, ending his run of 29-plus years at Worldpay and its predecessor companies.

Last month, the company announced a new injection of investment from private equity firm Searchlight Capital Partners. Along with the announcement of the investment was the news that Kirk Sanford, co-founder and CEO of Sightline, was retiring and resigning from the company’s board. Pappano was named the company’s CEO. The company also got a strategic investment from Searchlight Capital Partners that values the business at $525 million.

Pappano takes charge of Sightline as casinos and regulators around the world are fueling new demand for cashless, contactless payment technology. While the industry overall has been exploring cashless systems for years—the casino business is clearly behind most consumer businesses in its reliance on cash—reluctance to handle cash, or even use kiosks to obtain that cash, due to coronavirus fears has pushed that demand into high gear.

“I’ve dedicated my entire career of 29-plus years solely to the payments industry,” Pappano says. “Throughout my career, I’ve held a number of leadership positions, and really focused on building out all of our emerging markets.”

One of Pappano’s missions was the drive to bring cashless payment technology to casinos. “I’ve been very passionate about seeing the convergence of two highly complex, highly regulated industries, and payments and gaming are inevitably going to convert.”

After working with gaming operators on introducing new payment technology for nearly 10 years at Worldpay, Pappano joined Sightline in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, which means he was already well-equipped to handle the surging demand for cashless technology.

“I did sit on the board of Sightline, and when you look at the depth and the expertise and the leadership position that they had, the board and the executive team had asked me to come on board and really focus on what the transformation and the evolution of this industry is going to look like from a cashless perspective.”

Pappano comments that Covid-9 has “reset the market.” Casinos, he says, are moving to “truly understand how they are going to evolve and adapt to their new environment, whether it’s from a health perspective, or just to accommodate the next generation…. The pandemic has sped up the process.”

Sightline will be one of the industry’s leaders in providing the bones for this new payment ecosystem, and Pappano says operators, suppliers and regulators are working together to effect the enactment of digital wallets, mobile funding methods and other technology to make transition to cashless pay seamless for the customer. He notes that Sightline is working with the major slot and system providers to provide the funding mechanism that will fuel the various digital wallets being introduced as part of casino management systems.

“Everyone in the industry has rallied, which has created a tremendous amount of confidence and trust in the ecosystem that’s being rolled out,” Pappano says, “whether it be internet gaming, sports betting, or what’s happening within the integrated casino resorts—that it gives the issuers a comfort level, that they have a great pulse on the industry.

“And when you can create an environment based on what this next generation wants to do, think about how we conduct our activity in commerce on an everyday basis. It’s seamless, it’s instant. We live in a world of instant gratification, but you can do so because payments have finally infiltrated the integrated casino resort operators.”

The efforts of Pappano and Sightline to provide technology will only accelerate in 2021.

“Our goal, along with others in the industry, is creating that framework that ultimately protects the integrity of the operators, the networks, key ancillary service providers, and most importantly, that patron,” he says. “And if you can provide a seamless experience that allows me to move money in and out of a wagering account, and it gives me a seamless way to have access to my funds… It’s going to take time, but the industry in the macro environment is setting itself up very well for the future.

“We collectively have a lot of heavy lifting to continue to do, but this industry has never been in a position to experience more success on how we can all revolutionize and transform what this ecosystem will look like over time. I love where we’re going. We’re very bullish on the industry, and it’s an exciting time.” —Frank Legato

Crown Prince

Jeremy Weinstein • Regional Vice President of Marketing, Las Vegas, Caesars Entertainment

When you ask Jeremy Weinstein about his mentors in the gaming industry, you don’t get what you expect. It’s not some grizzled veteran of the casino business who gave a young kid a chance. It’s people he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with who are today changing gaming for the better with a unique understanding of what gaming can be, not what is has been.

“You don’t see many young guys building new casino companies, but there are lots of young minds out there doing great things for existing companies,” he says.

After starting in the IT industry, Weinstein returned to college to get an MBA at Cornell University, well known for its hospitality college. When he considered what industry to join, the choice was easy, he says.

“I considered a wide swath of industries,” he explains. “But the casino industry is very dynamic and exciting—a 24/7 business. I saw a spirt of innovation and change there, so it was very appealing to me. You can get immediate feedback on your promotions and marketing campaigns by walking down to the casino floor and talking to customers. It was a quick feedback loop.”

His first job was as the slot marketing manager for Bellagio. He says it was an exciting time.

“This was right during the time MGM was building CityCenter, so there was a promising boom on the horizon, before the housing collapse. I had a very analytical background, and was solid on the quantitative side of the business, with a deep understanding of database marketing. I knew how to extract value from a database to drive the behavior we were hoping to drive.”

After several promotions at MGM Resorts, Weinstein’s next stop was with Seminole Gaming as vice president of marketing for Hard Rock Hollywood. And now as regional vice president of marketing for Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas properties, he can see similarities with all three of the major gaming companies.

“Everyone is trying to deliver great guest experiences,” he says. “Everywhere I’ve worked we had to make sure our marketing strategy reflects that. But we would have a different strategy at Seminole than we would at Caesars because the audience is different—more local and more repeat visits. You have to fine-tune your marketing strategy to your operating environment.”

At Caesars, he has a great group of properties with outstanding amenities that attract a wide variety of customers.

“We want to produce campaigns that excite our guests and drive profitable bookings,” says

Weinstein. “I want to develop campaigns that support events, promotions and experiences, all of which need to be aligned with the brand promise.”

But he’s careful not to “over-promise” and not be able to deliver.

“We want to create a unique value proposition that will drive repeat visitation,” he points out. “Most of our casino guests have a variety of choices, locally, regionally and nationally. Our job is to get them to weed through all those choices and choose our offers. If not in Las Vegas, we want them to choose a Caesars Rewards property and stay with us.”

And those mentors Weinstein mentioned?

“One of my bosses at Bellagio was Justin Beltram, who is now the COO of Maverick Gaming. He was always focused on innovation and how to extract more value from your existing assets. He taught me to think differently and drive value.

“Joe Schatz, who was at Caesars and is now the CMO at Seminole Gaming, is one of the most brilliant database marketing minds out there. He has never forgotten a number.

“And Chris Holdren, who was the Caesars CMO before the merger, was a big proponent of bringing back the heart to the marketing. While we still rely on analytics, he wants to bring the art and creativity back into marketing. They’ve all contributed to making me the marketer I am today.” —Roger Gros

Stranger in a Strange Land

Dave McDowell • CEO, FSB

When sports betting was legalized in the U.S., technology companies in the field came from Sweden, Malta, Israel and the U.K., with accompanying accents and approaches. But when FSB arrived in the U.S.—a little later than some of its competitors—its CEO felt right at home. While Dave McDowell has been laboring in England for the past 25 years, he calls Michigan home. His introduction to iGaming started during the holiday season at the turn of the century.

“Christmas 1999, I was working in London as a management consultant,” he explains. “After reading the first Harry Potter book, my father commented to me that Quidditch would make a great video game. I loved the idea and spent a lot of time in 2000 researching the video games industry, and was particularly interested in the millions of people who were playing casual online games. I quit my job and started GameAccount Network, now GAN, in 2001. The original vision was to build a financial services platform to help independent game developers to monetize their content through cash-based tournaments.

“Nine months later, we had built an online backgammon game and performed what we believe was the industry’s first ‘single wallet’ transaction when we integrated our game into the Cantor Sport website. The GAN CTO, Sam Lawrence, and I both left in 2007 and started FSB with the vision to modernize sports betting technology for the in-play betting market.”

Being an American has its advantages when approaching U.S. operators, says McDowell.

“The right accent is nice, but the product and team are so much more important,” he points out. “Sam and I received a fantastic education by building B2B gaming technology while the iGaming industry was still forming, and these lessons helped us to develop what we believe is the most advanced sports betting and iGaming technology in the market today. Modern software underpins our flexible service model. We help each client find the right balance between internal control and outsourced efficiency. Great products, a great team and a flexible business model are what will get us into the U.S. market in 2021.”

While FSB has a powerful sports betting platform, it’s the iGaming segment of online wagering that really attracts McDowell.

“We could see the business model around casino, bingo and poker all had a service supply business where the supplier was proving a turnkey solution,” he says. “But nobody could do that in sports betting because the technology was too complex and you needed 250 traders to run your sportsbook. We felt there was a market for what we know of today as an MTS or managed trading system. We sat down and built an MTS for sports betting, but the vast majority of casino, bingo and poker sites were run with that business model. Our strategy was to take the biggest sector and reinvent the business model using our technology.”

For operators looking for a technology platform, McDowell says FSB is a one-stop shop.

“Today we offer a full turnkey service, which covers both retail and online sports betting, and it also includes our entire iGaming suite—the player account management and casino aggregation tools,” he says. “It also includes the user interface—the customer experience, fully responsive website and the various apps that go with it. We back that up with employee-manager training service, AML and responsible gaming tools, and marketing support.” —Roger Gros

Follow the Money

Mary Beth Higgins • Chief Executive Officer, Affinity Gaming

Mary Beth Higgins spent the first few decades of her career in chief financial officer positions, roles she describes as “being a wingman” and “working behind the scenes.” But in 2019, she took the reins of Affinity Gaming as chief executive officer.

“Taking the helm, I was really ready for it,” she says. “To say, ‘Somebody should do X, or something should Y,’ and getting the ability to lead, that’s really fun.”

Higgins didn’t necessarily plan on a career in the gaming industry, but her love of numbers and finance and slew of CFO roles led her there. “The industry grew at a time where my career was growing, and it just presented a lot of opportunities,” she says, and since there were few women in CFO roles, it helped her stand out.

She majored in international relations and political science at the University of Southern California, but enjoyed her business classes and later earned an MBA from Memphis State University.

Higgins spent her early career in banking and then served as CFO at Global Cash Access Holdings, Herbst Gaming, Camco Inc. and Caesars Entertainment, where she oversaw finances for 38 casinos in 14 states and five countries, and helped establish the company’s REIT spinoff, VICI Properties. She initially joined Affinity Gaming as CFO in 2018.

During her first full year as CEO in 2020, Higgins dealt with a number of unexpected challenges brought by Covid-19. “It’s forced us to do a lot of tactical,” she adds.

Though headquartered in Las Vegas, Affinity Gaming’s portfolio spans eight properties in Nevada, Missouri and Iowa, and the regional casinos have fared well despite the pandemic. “Drive-in business is doing really well,” Higgins says. “People are willing to drive, but they’re not willing to get on a plane.”

Because of the uncertainty of 2020, the company held off on taking on too many new projects. That’s changing in 2021. Renovations are in the works for a few properties, and Higgins is eyeing some new acquisitions, though she’s not ready to provide details.

When she’s not working on “capital and strategy” as a CEO, Higgins enjoys spending time with her husband and four children. The family also enjoys skiing and has a second home in Sun Valley, Idaho. She starts her day with a two-and-a-half-mile walk with her husband, a ritual they adopted during the coronavirus quarantine.

Higgins attributes her success to the strong leadership skills she garnered growing up as one of the oldest of 10 kids. Hard work, tenacity and confidence helped, too.

“I was always a person who if someone asked me to do something, I always just thought I could do it,” she says. “I think that confidence builds confidence in others, and you just sort of wing it. You just go and get it done.”

The ability to see opportunities as they come and jump on them is essential for a successful gaming career, Higgins adds. Also, having the emotional IQ to read people and motivate them, and devoting an extra five minutes to any task to make sure it’s right.

“Be open and don’t try and guess where your career is going because you have no idea,” she says. “Take the opportunity when it shows itself. Get a breadth of exposure as much as you can, and you find a way to do what you’re good at.” —Erica Sweeney

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