GGB is committed to providing updated news and analysis on our weekly news site,

The Best Is Yet To Come

Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40 for 2021 is an extraordinary class

The Best Is Yet To Come

The newest members of the gaming industry are consistently hard-working, innovative, and globally aware. They understand that to progress the industry, and their own careers, extra thought and time are required. And, with that effort, they are often recognized as elite members of the Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40.

When The Innovation Group, organizers of the Emerging Leaders of Gaming program, and Global Gaming Business Magazine (GGB) announced the winners of the class of 2021 Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40, a program that recognizes young professionals making significant impacts in the casino gaming industry, it was clear that the selections were the cream of the crop.

The winners were part of 150-plus industry members who were nominated by colleagues who recognized their commitment and dedication to the gaming industry.

“During such a difficult time, it’s heartening to see so many excellent candidates nominated for the Emerging Leaders Program,” says The Innovation Group President Michael Soll. “These young professionals are poised to lead the industry now and into the future to maintain excellence in serving our customers and their extended families. The Innovation Group is proud to be able to showcase these remarkable individuals.”

“The quality of this year’s Emerging Leaders class is a cut above the rest,” says Roger Gros, publisher of GGB. “They represent the best and the brightest of the gaming industry, and anyone who has any doubts about the recovery of gaming after the pandemic need only understand the dedication of these professionals to their craft.”

The selection process, says Gros, has become increasingly competitive with nominations growing by 50 percent over last year. “It’s incredible,” he says. “The talent. The diversity. We’re able to highlight a truly impressive group of young people shaping gaming’s future.”

The five “Judges Choice” winners of the Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40 were announced at a webinar for the virtual 2020 G2E in October.

The judges for the Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40 are:

  • Mark Birtha, president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain
  • Christie Eickelman, vice president of global marketing for Gaming Laboratories International (GLI), and chairwoman of Global Gaming Women
  • Mick Ingersoll, director of gaming strategies at Everi Holdings, Inc.
  • Virginia McDowell, former president and CEO of Isle of Capri Casinos, and former chairwoman of Global Gaming Women

“We’d like to thank our judges, who were very helpful in assisting us in choosing this amazing group of individuals,” says Gros. “It shows that dedication true leaders in the gaming industry have for the people who will be running the gaming industry for years to come.”

Class of Emerging Leaders of Gaming 40 Under 40 2020-2021

  • Melissa Aarskaug, Vice President of Business Development, Bulletproof *
  • Marshall Adair, Vice President and Executive Producer –Digital / Online, Everi Holdings Inc.
  • Eduardo Alvarez, Director of Sales –LatAm, AGS
  • Allen Ambrogio, U.S. Director of Operations, Tipico
  • Robert Baldassarre, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP
  • André Barnabei, Vice President of Gaming, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh *
  • JaNessa Bumgarner, Chief Executive Officer, Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel
  • Charlotte Cain, HR Manager, Continent 8 Technologies
  • Jeffrey Caldwell, Director of Hotel Operations, Encore Boston Harbor
  • Cherchi Chen, Managing Director, Finance and Operations, NagaWorld
  • Suzanne Duchene, Slot Operations Service Manager, Seneca Niagra Falls Gaming
  • Rick Eckert, Managing Director, Slot Performance & Analysis, Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, LLC
  • Brad Egnor, Senior Vice President of Marketing, San Manuel Casino
  • Ashley Eurich, Vice President, Lockdogs
  • Jennifer Fales, Vice President, Global Brand Licensing, IGT *
  • Don-Lee Hardy, Safety Specialist, Sycuan Casino Resort
  • Molly Hart, Licensing and Compliance Manager, Gaming Capital Group, LLC
  • Bryan Hayes, Senior Vice President of Gaming Operations, Foxwoods Resort Casino
  • Matthew Heyerdahl, Chief Accounting Officer and Director of Finance, Gaming Arts
  • Connie James, Chief Financial Officer, Gaming, Scientific Games Corporation *
  • Paul Juliano, Vice President of Operations, Twin River Worldwide Holdings, Inc.
  • Mohit Kansal, Partner, Clairvest Group
  • JoyceLynn Lagula, Design Director, Wilson Associates
  • Zachary Levine, Corporate Vice President of Table Games Strategy, MGM Resorts International
  • Martin Lycka, Director of Regulatory Affairs/Trustee, GVC Foundation U.S., GVC Holdings PLC *
  • James Manuel, Director of Fine Dining, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa
  • Olena Nall, Director, Business Development, Wind Creek Hospitality
  • Malou Neguembor, Head of CRM, Megalotto
  • Mike Nguyen, Director of Engineering, JCM Global
  • Mary Parker, Management and Program Analyst, National Indian Gaming Commission
  • Marvin Phillips, Director of Information Technology, Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort
  • David Rittvo, Vice President, Development, Caesars Entertainment Corp.
  • Sam Rook, Director of Marketing, Mystic Lake Casino Hotel
  • Nav Sandhawalia, Chief Compliance and Risk Officer, Niagara Casinos (Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment)
  • Araksi Sargsyan, Head of Business Development, DS Virtual Gaming
  • Meghan Sleik, Director of Marketing, Aristocrat
  • Steven Slotwinski, Chief Technology Officer, Eclipse Gaming Systems
  • Anthony Strangia, Deputy Attorney General, New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement
  • Hui Min Tiffany Bernadette Tay, Associate Director, Strategic Planning, Marina Bay Sands Pte. Ltd.
  • Peter Wolff, Director of Global Technical Compliance, Gaming Laboratories International

* One of the five “Judges Choice” selections

Think Positive
Melissa Aarskaug • Vice President of Business Development, Bulletproof

After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno with a civil/environmental engineering degree, Melissa Aarskaug began her career in banking and civil engineering. As one of only three women in her engineering classes, Aarskaug relied on her open-mindedness and positive attitude to succeed. As finishing school, Aarskaug began mentoring young women and men, recruiting some into the College of Engineering.

Aarskaug subscribes to the notion that when and if the student is ready, a teacher will appear. The first of many mentors in her life, her father taught her about managing money, how to build a business, how to lead, and how to achieve her goals. Aarskaug now spends time with younger girls, mentoring self-confidence, goal-setting, and understanding finances. Actively involved in multiple volunteer organizations, Aarskaug has served on various boards, and is engaged with Global Gaming Women and Lean-In groups.

Aarskaug was working—and achieving success—in the civil engineering field when an opportunity presented itself to join the gaming industry with Gaming Laboratories International (GLI). After excelling at GLI, she transitioned to an executive role as vice president on the Bulletproof team. The gaming business presented unfamiliar challenges with intricacies and unique client needs.

With time and dedication, she was able to expand her knowledge and develop trusting relationships with colleagues, partners and clients. Applying her leadership skills and forward-thinking vision, Aarskaug assisted in successfully growing and leading Bulletproof services across the globe in the gaming industry. Additionally, she grew business lines in state governments, utilities, voting, construction, finance, and other verticals.

“All of us are effectively led by experience and habit, the people we surround ourselves with, what we have learned from our mistakes and successes, books we’ve read, and companies we’ve worked for,” she says. “We can always alter our direction. Do not let an adverse past affect your future.”

Aarskaug is a firm believer in always looking at change with a willingness to adapt whether to positive or negative experiences. She is eager to meet and overcome new challenges, and she has the foresight to recognize the next. A lifelong student, she hopes to continue to grow within her company and to lead by example. She constantly seeks to strengthen her relationships with her customers, and she excels at reaching out to new customers to help them identify and solve their business challenges.

Her advice to future emerging leaders is to flow with the seasons of life, follow your instincts, and do not be afraid to ask for guidance. Similarly, she advises to not be afraid to speak up with a new idea or if you disagree with the approach, methodology, application or implementation, because there is always room for improvement. She recommends communicating in real time with all parties concerned, pertinent to the challenge at hand, the result of which will only accelerate a positive outcome.

“Own your success and be proud of your accomplishments,” Aarskaug advocates. “Do not wait for someone to tell you ‘good work.’ Tell yourself ‘good job.’ Be humble and proud!”
—Allison McCoy is vice president of business development for The Innovation Group.

Getting IT
Marvin Phillips • Director, Information Technology, Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort

In sports, teams often enjoy a home field advantage. For Marvin Phillips, home field advantage meant growing up and then working in the same community.

Phillips has worked for the Akwesasne tribe’s Mohawk Casino Resort his entire career, leading to his current position as director of information technology.

“When we refer to tribes, we’re talking about our families,” says Phillips, a tribal member.

Working for the Mohawk property was not a hard sell. “Watching the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort being built in my back yard more than 20 years ago, it was an easy decision for me at an exciting time throughout Indian Country.”

Still, working in gaming was not something he initially felt was a calling. The State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville, where he received a bachelor’s degree, offered gaming and casino management courses as electives. He researched both commercial and tribal gaming, and because of the aid the casinos provide for their communities, went with the tribal courses.

At the time of his arrival at Mohawk, the IT department was in its infancy, Phillips says. It’s grown along with the resort. So have Phillips’ responsibilities.

“I am responsible for our organization’s IT infrastructure, and my team develops the overall technology strategy, including cybersecurity. Mitigating risk is my 24/7 job,” he says.

The Covid-19 pandemic crashed down on Mohawk like it has on casinos elsewhere in the country. “It’s much more than a casino floor, it’s our tribal general fund, our community organizations and social services, health care, education, public safety funding. This pandemic has forced us to lean out operations and increase our emphasis on cybersecurity and resiliency,” he says.

Almost everyone worked virtually, which required diligence from Phillips’ IT department.“That responsibility includes constant network maintenance, developing solutions to improve the service and keeping our members secure, online,” he says.

The single most difficult obstacle Phillips faced has been ageism. He was a director at 22. “That brought challenges with both my colleagues and the vendors I negotiated with. I learned to modify my approach, adapt, and create my own leadership style,” says Phillips, who relaxes by traveling and exploring, at times with members of his large extended family.

More than 20 years later, Phillips witnessed the maturation of IT, shifting from a reactive business unit to an integrated, long-term, strategic planning unit that adds decision-making to the entire organization.

Phillips cites two mentors that helped him along the way. Dwight Terrance was his first director of IT. “Dwight drilled process, process and the importance of processes into me.”

Patrick Bassney was a former GM/CEO during a major property expansion. “Patrick taught me how paying attention to every little detail makes an enormous impact. These two men influenced my career immeasurably. They helped me understand that mentorship is a two-way street.”

And of course, Phillips credits his parents, Richard and Vicky, who instilled the strong work ethic and sense of contributing to the greater good, he says.

Phillips says continual learning is key for anyone interested in the IT end of the industry. That could mean online courses or conferences. “Keeping your skills fresh is imperative. Cybersecurity threats evolve rapidly, and we have to meet that challenge by protecting our guests and our investments.”

That said, the field is an exciting one for Phillips. “It’s why I’ve stayed for so long, and I’m still under 40. It’s how I hope to spend the rest of my career,” he says. —Bill Sokolic

Climbing to the Tree Top
Suzanne Duchene • Slot Service Manager, SenecaNiagara Falls Gaming

In all aspects of life, Suzanne Duchene exemplifies drive, tenacity, dedication and ambition. She is a proud member of the Seneca Nation Heron clan, a wife, and mother to three amazing boys.

With true passion and excitement for gaming, Duchene has been involved in the industry for nearly 14 years. At the age of 18, she began her career as a part-time slot attendant. While working on the floor of Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, Duchene noticed supervisors within leadership roles that she believed would exemplify her innate leadership traits and abilities. Devoted to progressing her career, Duchene began attending various training offered by Seneca Niagara and working with their career development department to refine and develop leadership skills.

After three years of hard work and perseverance, Duchene took a leap into management at only 21 years old. She went from working side by side with the people in the slot department to leading them.

Seneca cultural tradition helped her make that transition. Applying the “principles behind the Great White Pine tree—how the roots, the branches and the soil work together in order for the tree to thrive,” she committed to the leadership ideal that all team members, “from the entry-level workers to each rising level of management, have to be taken care of in order for us to succeed as a department and ultimately a business,” she says.

By the age of 30, Duchene had distinguished herself among her peers as a high-performing junior leader in the organization, and accepted a promotion to slot service manager. This role has provided her the opportunity to make changes behind the scenes to better enhance and improve the experience and property for guests and team members.

Duchene strives to continue to improve herself to make a positive difference within the workplace, and during these unprecedented times is looking forward to coming up with innovative ideas on how to successfully navigate through these obstacles, arising to reap the rewards. Duchene is ready to take on any task, and to assist wherever it is needed. She lives by the belief that “there is no task beneath you. You have to be willing to assist wherever and whenever it is possible for you to do so.”

By taking on more responsibilities and continuing to grow to gain greater industry knowledge, Duchene aims to assist Seneca Gaming Corporation in attaining their collective goals as a company and team.

When asked what being a part of 40 Under 40 means to her, Duchene states how it is truly a humbling honor. As an honoree, she hopes “to empower other young professionals to set and achieve their goals so that they recognize their importance in their workplace and realize it does not simply have to be a job, but that with hard work and determination, it can become a fulfilling career.”

The best advice Duchene has to offer young professionals is to “always jump at the opportunity to learn and improve” and to remember that “you were chosen to be in your position for a reason. Others have faith in your abilities, so always keep in mind that you are a reflection of those who believed in you.” —Krista McPherson is an analyst with The Innovation Group.

Trusting the Tribe
Bryan Hayes • Senior Vice President, Gaming Operations, Foxwoods Resort Casino

Bryan Hayes got a promotion to senior vice president of gaming operations at Foxwoods Casino Resort in March. Heck of a time for promotions.

“We almost immediately closed the property, of course, so I have been acclimating to the role since we reopened in June,” Hayes says.

Except for his time at Nichols College in Massachusetts and three years in Las Vegas, Hayes spent his entire career at Foxwoods. The fact that he is a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe which owns the casino added icing to the cake.

“But I didn’t always want to go into the gaming industry,” he admits. “In high school, I began to steer towards a career in the investment banking industry.”

But the idea of working for his community made a lot of sense, so Hayes pursued gaming.

“I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of our tribal member development program after graduating from college, participating in an internship rotation both here and with our former partners in Las Vegas.”

MGM Resorts selected him for the corporation’s Management Associate Program as a finance student, which is how he gave three years to MGM Grand and Luxor.

At Foxwoods, Hayes has worked in income audit, general ledger, financial analysis and slots, holding various positions. In his current job, he is responsible for strategy and direction of the gaming and analytics divisions, a broad brush of activities.

Since his appointment, Covid-19 and its impact have been a focal point. For the first time in its history, Foxwoods shut down for almost three months.

“Working through and reopening in the middle of this pandemic has been extremely challenging and educational at the same time,” says Hayes, who enjoys watching the Yankees, playing sports, and hiking with his wife, Kirsten, and his sons Alexander, 13, and Landon, 6.

“We had to make decisions to only reopen portions of the property. Every day has been a learning experience and we still continue to learn how to operate, compete, protect our team and guests and most importantly, we have had to be flexible,” he says.

To state the obvious, 2020 has thrown the most obstacles in Hayes’ career path. But before Covid-19, Hayes leaned on certain people for guidance.

“Our current chairman, Rodney Butler, was one of my first mentors,” says Hayes, “and he continues to be a great source of leadership. He spent a lot of time with me when I first joined Foxwoods discussing the business and sharing his expertise.”

A former boss—and current peer—Karen Lanigan, senior vice president of finance at Foxwoods, taught Hayes about due diligence and working collaboratively. The late Felix Rappaport became one of the most influential people in his life.

“I worked under him in Las Vegas for two years, and then again when he took the helm of Foxwoods as CEO in 2014,” Hayes says. “He was just a tremendous human being and taught me so much about the importance of being positive, and investing in building lasting relationships.”

Rappaport also imparted this simple lesson: treat everyone the same.

“I work tirelessly to embody that. He always supported my growth and pushed me to embrace new roles. His confidence in me and my ability to lead has had a big impact on my entire career,” Hayes says.

Hayes learned from the industry giants before him. He’d like to help those coming into gaming behind him. “Be as collaborative as possible and build as many relationships as you can. I have been very fortunate in my career to have many great mentors, and they all were extremely skilled at collaborating with others, and creating strong teams. Also, take time to reflect; life moves quickly, and be sure to make time.” —Bill Sokolic

Brand Power
Jennifer Fales • Vice President, Global Brand Licensing, IGT

One of the main reasons slot manufacturer International Game Technology came to dominate the supply sector in the 1990s was its introduction of the licensed brand. Beginning with the introduction of Wheel of Fortune in 1996, IGT made recurring revenue from licensed brands a fixture of the industry.

But that singular idea does not begin to tell the story of the executive now in charge of that vital function at IGT, Jennifer Fales. Fales, who is currently IGT’s vice president of global brand licensing, has succeeded not through a singular idea, but through a diversity of experience covering nearly every aspect of the casino industry—both the operational and supply sides.

A Louisiana native, Fales had no inkling of a career in gaming while studying finance and management at Tulane University in New Orleans. A slow economy in the early 2000s would change that.

“I was dead set on being an investment banker,” she recalls.

But the gaming industry came calling in the form of a recruitment effort at Tulane by Harrah’s New Orleans.

“I believe half my class interviewed for the job; there was one position,” says Fales. “I got the job offer, and I remember telling my mother, ‘I don’t think I want to work for a casino.’ I’d never even thought of working for a casino. Then, I remember thinking, ‘Try it; you might love it.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

It was fortuitous that the operator was the company then called Harrah’s Entertainment, which put a lot of emphasis on planning and analysis. After nearly two years as a property-level financial analyst, Fales’ career was off and running, and her experience eventually covered every aspect of casino operations, from digital marketing at the corporate level to media performance. She was senior financial analyst for the corporation when Harrah’s acquired Caesars in 2005.

“During those years, I learned the way a property works, inside and out,” Fales says. “I got to learn about the dynamics of various properties in an enterprise that was so large. At Caesars and Harrah’s before it, planning and analysis was a springboard department. You learned the business, and then you could go into any aspect of the business you liked. It opened up a lot of doors.”

One of those doors opened to the supply side of the business, when in 2008, IGT brought Fales on as chief of staff to the chief operating officer. In that role, she honed her expertise in every aspect of IGT’s day-to-day operations.

Fales’ diverse experience led to a rapid rise at IGT. For five years, she progressed through roles in global marketing and product management, ultimately leading to her current role directing one of the company’s most vital areas.

These days, she oversees brand licensing for all segments of the company’s business globally, from casino slots to digital gaming to the company’s venerable lottery division.

“The responsibility spans from the beginning of the process, where we acquire brands,” Fales explains. “We do research, through to contracts, launching the game, and working with product management and the studios, through to working with the marketing team when we launch.” The scrutiny, she says, extends through the entire life cycle of each brand.

While Fales is always on the hunt for new brand partnerships, she says maintaining the current partnerships is among her most important functions. For instance, next year, the company plans to stage a series of events honoring the 25-year anniversary of Wheel of Fortune, the star in the company’s partnership with Sony. Other important partnerships include Fremantle Media (American Idol) and Warner Bros. (The Hangover).

“We’re always searching for new branding opportunities, but a lot of our new opportunities come from our existing partners,” says Fales. “So, (my job is) really about continuing to maintain those good partnerships with our existing partners, because they continually have new properties that they bring to the table.”

Fales’ career path is a testament to building a diverse background, which is her primary advice to young executives entering the industry.

“Expose yourself to as many different segments of the business as possible, whether you’re on the operator side or the manufacturing side of the business,” she says in advice to those entering the industry. “I’ve had a lot of success with a diverse background.”

Clearly, that success will continue for a long time. —Frank Legato

Listening Leads to Big Ideas
JaNessa Bumgarner • Chief Executive Officer, Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel

In July 2020, JaNessa Bumgarner took on a new role and a new challenge: chief executive officer of Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel. In doing so, Bumgarner became the first Chehalis tribal member to serve as CEO in the casino’s 25 years. Her ascent up the corporate ladder started in 1999 when she walked through the doors of Lucky Eagle to start as a busser, not knowing what the future had in store.

Bumgarner acknowledges that there are many people who have helped get her to where she is today.

Sean Vestal, Bumgarner’s former boss and first mentor, was a champion for her during the early years of her career. Vestal would constantly gush about his experience at college, and over time, he inspired Bumgarner to get a college education, which resulted in her landing in the Hospitality Management program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Bumgarner says about her experience, “My decision to return to college and complete my degree at UNLV was definitely the most impactful decision of my career. It fueled a number of career opportunities and provided a foundation to build from.” As a student, she realized it is best to understand where you lack experience and to not hesitate to reach out for help.

After internships with Marriott and Great Wolf Lodge, Bumgarner returned to Lucky Eagle in 2014 as the director of hotel operations, and three years later faced what she cites as the greatest challenge of her career: becoming chief operating officer. Initially unsure if she wanted the position, she ended up applying at the last minute. After all, her passion was in hotel operations and hospitality, not slot and table utilization. Bumgarner was offered the role and subsequently had to adapt to the new challenge. She learned how to succeed, not by pretending she had all the answers, but by relying on and learning from those who worked for and around her.

“Throughout a career, we will be faced with new challenges and issues,” Bumgarner says. “Being honest about our initial limitations is simply an honest approach to dealing with any challenge or situation. I think my team appreciated this, and it gave me some great opportunities to learn and acquire new skills.”

Now as CEO of Lucky Eagle, Bumgarner has taken the initiative to help her team members work collaboratively and share ideas, much as she has throughout her career. A step in that direction has been the creation of the “Big Idea Room.” Tons of thought went into transforming an empty office into an area “for brainstorming, creative thinking, and problem solving—where people can share ideas about making our organization better.

“This is a space in which I hope emerging leaders feel safe, allowing them to thrive,” Bumgarner says. Everything from the color of the room to the scent and lighting—which she describes as “perfect”—was done intentionally to promote

productive brainstorming. Although she has only been CEO for a few months,

the implementation of the Big Idea Room is one of Bumgarner’s proudest changes

to date.

Bumgarner’s advice to aspiring young leaders is, “There is far more to be gained from listening than from speaking. Learn to listen. It is a skill and it is something you can do better.” —Alex Goldstein is an analyst for The Innovation Group

Home Sweet Home
André Barnabei • Vice President of Gaming, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh

Turns out Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again, or at least close to home.

André Barnabei was working in Harrah’s Philadelphia casino when a headhunter contacted him about an opening with Rivers Casino Pittsburgh.

“I grew up about 30 miles from Pittsburgh, so I welcomed the opportunity to return close to home and be closer to my family,” he says.

The job involved human resources, his major at Washington and Jefferson College. Barnabei spent more than eight years in human resources at Rivers Casino then moved to the gaming side when another position came along.

“I had discussions with our general manager and let him know I was interested in other opportunities where I could add value,” he says.

The GM asked Barnabei to become vice president of slots, and his career on the gaming side matured into his current role as vice president of gaming. He oversees slots, tables, BetRivers Sportsbook and poker operations.

“I am a leader on the executive team where we look for continuous improvement across all lines of our operation,” Barnabei says.

The team did not expect the coronavirus pandemic. “Covid-19 has challenged all of us to look at the way we run our business through different lenses. Our first mission was to ensure we had proper plans in place to make sure our team members and guests were able to enjoy a clean and safe environment,” he says.

The executives determined how to run the casino in the most efficient and effective ways when reopening, knowing guest levels would not be close to pre-Covid days.

“Personally, it continues to motivate me to find new and innovative ways to advance our business,” Barnabei says.

Rivers Casino is feeling a sense of normalcy with familiar faces returning to the property. Especially important at this stage of recovery is guest support for how clean the place seems and how safe patrons feel, he says.

Covid-19 is not the only obstacle Barnabei has had to overcome. On a flight returning to Pittsburgh from G2E, the GM leaned across the aisle and said the CEO wants to open a retail sportsbook by December, less than 50 days.

“He said I would be responsible for getting it off the ground. He smiled and said ‘I think it is an aggressive timeline, but you will figure it out.’ For the remainder of that flight, I worked to develop an opening timeline that led us to debuting the first retail sportsbook in Pennsylvania.”

Barnabei credits his family with the largest impact on who he is today. “I find myself repeating some one-liners passed on to me from my parents and grandparents such as ‘When you walk in to a room, you’d better greet every person and say goodbye when you leave.’ When you think about it, it is really that simple!”

Relaxing is not in Barnabei’s DNA, he says. In addition to his hours with Rivers Casino, he owns a property rental company. But he finds ways to wind down. Doing projects around the house, for example. And with his wife, Jessica, getting involved with their children.

“I coach T-ball and youth football.”

Barnabei suggests prospective staffers in the industry jump in with both feet. “It doesn’t matter where you start, it just matters that you maintain a positive attitude. The greatest thing about this business is the opportunity to advance your career. Where else could you move from one department to another and stay working for the same company?” —Bill Sokolic

Determination Over Difficulty
Mary Parker • Management and Program Analyst, National Indian Gaming Commission

As a little girl, Mary Parker dreamed of becoming a kindergarten teacher at the local elementary school. Her small Oklahoma town was all that she knew, and the world past its borders seemed like something vague and intangible. Little did she know, however, that as an adult, she would embark upon a career adventure that would carry her to the far reaches of the nation, empowering her to make professional achievements she had never imagined.

Just eight short years ago, Parker found herself raising her children during a pivotal point of her life, a stay-at-home mom who knew she needed a plan of action, and fast. She drafted up a list of “crazy goals,” as she called them. And one by one, she checked items off the list, items like getting a job, buying a house, and obtaining a master’s degree in administrative leadership from the University of Oklahoma. Thinking that desperate times called for desperate measures, she accepted the first job she was offered, as an administrative assistant for Will Rogers Downs Racino. But the position turned out not to be desperate at all.

Within a year, she was promoted to talent development specialist. A year after that, she was promoted yet again to compliance trainer. In the blink of an eye, Parker surveyed her surroundings to realize that not only did she have a career in the making, but she was able to give back to her people while doing something she loved, a benefit she knew that many people are not afforded.  

After seven years of serving her tribe of Cherokee Nation, Parker was offered an enticing opportunity with the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). She knew the position would pose its own set of challenges in forcing her to juggle the demands of career and parenthood, but she was not about to let the difficulty level dissuade her from pursuing her dreams.

With her drive to achieve outweighing her fear of failing, she took a leap of faith and accepted the position. As expected, her new arrangement called for a substantial amount of travel, but it was also a scenario she had dreamed of all her life, taking her on regular trips to Washington, D.C. and other locations throughout the U.S.

Parker’s new role offered her the chance to represent not only her own tribe, but all tribes across the nation. Her conflict in wanting to excel at parenting and at the job she deeply loved inspired the creation of a personal motto that she has lived by ever since: you can do anything hard for a little while. Proud to work for the NIGC and the mission it stood for, Parker recognized that this was more than just a job. It was a chance to do what she loved, to act as a role model for small-town girls like she herself had once been, and to make a real difference.

Known for her rock-solid work ethic, Parker’s passion for understanding effective leadership lends itself to forging relationships destined for success. She is now pursuing her doctorate degree in instructional systems design and technology at Sam Houston State University, and she continues to thrive in both her role as a career woman and as a parent, even finding time to undergo community volunteer work.

Advises Parker to future emerging leaders, “Don’t do something just for advancement. Find something that you are passionate about, look for ways to grow while pursuing your dreams, and be sure to share with and teach your peers along the way.” —Marie Casias is manager of marketing and administration for The Innovation Group.

Responsible Approach
Martin Lycka • Director of Regulatory Affairs, Trustee of the GVC Foundation U.S., GVC Holdings PLC

When Martin Lycka cites his parents as one of his influences, there is one aspect he thinks may have disappointed them.

“My parents were both professors of chemistry when my sister and I were growing up, so it was expected that we’d follow them to university,” he explains. “But when I chose a legal career, I don’t think that’s what they were expecting.”

It has worked out for Lycka. After graduating from the Prague Law Faculty, he got an internship at the Dentons, one of the leading law firms in the Czech Republic. Since the country had recently passed a law that legalized gaming, he immediately started studying gaming regulation, and after earning his law degree at the College of Europe in Bruges, he was offered a job at an early incarnation of Betfair, now part of Flutter Entertainment.

Lycka says the expectation early on was that gaming laws would become “harmonized” within the European Union.

“If that had happened I might be out of a job,” he laughs. “Ever since then counselors were important. At Betfair, I would work with officials of the Isle of Man, Denmark, Spain and other countries, progressively moving myself up the ladder.”

Just as sports betting and online gaming started to proliferate in the U.S., GVC offered him a job, much better than the offer he had at Betfair.

He says his experience in the European regulatory environment prepared him for the U.S.

“It’s just another version what happened in Europe,” he says.

Lycka says he actually prefers the state-by-state approach to regulation.

“It’s better for the global operators,” he says, “even though there is a strong tendency to at least partially reinvent the wheel.”

He’s hoping that the U.S. can avoid the backlash from elected officials that many European countries have seen as a result of a lack of focus on consumer protection and responsible gaming. As such, he’s helped GVC craft a proactive approach in the U.S. toward those factors through collaborations with such institutions as Harvard’s Division on Addictions, Seton Hall University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and others.

“First of all,” he says, “it’s the right thing to do. If the U.S. industry is much quicker off the mark, we don’t have to go through the purgatory of what occurred in the U.K., Italy and other countries. This was sadly self-inflicted by the industry, and now we’re paying the price for the sins of the past. How long will it take to reconcile?”

Ironically, Lycka doesn’t see a harmonization of responsible gaming responses by gaming operators as superior to going it alone. He says the general parameters of responsible gaming are agreed upon, but each company has a unique approach, which should not be discouraged.

“Every single operator has introduced triggers into the system to detect possible problem gambling,” he says. “So the implementation should be left to individual operators.”

Lycka says he learned from partners in his early law firms, but cites in particular his first boss at Betfair, Fiona Dormandy.

“She’s now the general counsel for Airbnb in the EMEA, and she taught me an immense amount about regulations,” he says.

He also says his current boss is somewhat underappreciated.

“Robert Hoskin likes to keep a low profile, but I’ve learned a lot from him about strategic issues. He’s a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy.”

Lycka believes it is a great time for young people to get involved in the gaming industry.

“Internet gaming and sports betting are still novelties,” he says. “There are massive opportunities in these areas. Yes, it will take hard work and there’s a steep learning curve, but if you get in, it can be a very rewarding career because you get exposed to all parts of the industry—lawyers, regulators, suppliers, operators.”

To cut down that learning curve, Lycka also has suggestions.

“Listen to the more senior members of the team. Learn from your mistakes. Think outside of the box. There really are no shortcuts,” he says. —Roger Gros

Invaluable Connections
Connie James • Chief Financial Officer, Gaming, Scientific Games Corporation

In January, Connie James was named chief financial officer of the gaming division at Scientific Games. For James, heading finance at one of SG’s three main divisions represents the completion of a full circle in a career that flourished during nine years working at one of the supplier’s chief rivals, Australia’s Aristocrat Leisure Limited.

James, like many executives in the gaming industry, did not start her professional career with gaming in mind. When the Southern California native was in her senior year of high school, her family moved to Las Vegas. After graduation, she earned an accounting degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

At UNLV, James took an introductory course in gaming conducted by an adjunct professor who was vice president of internal auditing for MGM Resorts. She was invited to intern in MGM’s audit department, which led to her hiring as a senior analyst in the risk services practice at Las Vegas-based Deloitte & Touche LLP in 2004.

“Being centered in Las Vegas, clearly Deloitte had a portfolio centered in the gaming industry,” James says. “So, those companies became my clients.”

After Deloitte moved James to its Sydney, Australia office in 2007, James worked more closely with Aristocrat, one of the firm’s major clients. “(Aristocrat) knocked on my door enough times that I finally joined them,” she says.

Hired as Aristocrat’s head of global risk & audit in 2009, James was to rise through the finance ranks at Aristocrat through nine years—as VP of finance, product and technology in Australia, back to Las Vegas in 2013 as CFO for the Americas and business operations, and finally, as CFO of global land-based gaming before leaving in 2018 for a position in global finance for Cargill in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the hometown of her husband.

“Cargill is just a phenomenal company,” she says. “I had made this deliberate decision to move to Minnesota and be closer to my husband’s family, and I quickly became ingrained with that business, and had this vision that for the next 20 years, I’d be part of the Cargill family.”

However, history would repeat itself to intervene in her life. Jamie Odell, who had become CEO and managing director of Aristocrat shortly after James arrived, became an adviser to Scientific Games CEO Barry Cottle in 2019, shortly after James went to Cargill. This year, Odell took over as executive chairman of Scientific Games, and Toni Korsanis, the former CFO of Aristocrat under Odell, was named vice chair.

Those two executives are part of a management transformation at Scientific Games that has seen several former top Aristocrat executives brought on, including Matt Wilson, now SG’s CEO of gaming. Last year, Odell called on James to complete the new executive team as CFO of the gaming division.

“It’s exciting,” James says of her new role at SG. “I worked directly for Toni Korsanis for nine years in a number of different roles. I think Jamie and Toni are industry legends, and their ability to look at organizations, understand the strategic elements, the operational execution, and most importantly, focus on people and culture, is a winning combination.”

James now works with Wilson in SG’s relatively decentralized organizational structure. She says their focus is defining the strategic direction of the division, and on enabling current processes and operational excellence to assure the execution of that strategy. “The key focus needs to be pairing our investments to the products the players and our customers are most excited about, first and foremost,” she says.

“While we have become a more efficient organization, we’re laser-focused on executing a three- to five-year plan that we’ve just articulated. And now, with this amazing leadership team that has been assembled, we are positioned for a great future.”

In the end, most important is creating what James calls the “secret sauce” of a high-performance culture—“leading through values and driving the excellence in a team spirit, and making sure we’re all playing at our best to deliver on the strategic plan.

“I’m super excited, and super optimistic about the future.” —Frank Legato

    Recent Feature Articles

  • A Good Bet

    As AGS prepares to return to private ownership, stock analysts and industry experts acknowledge that the company’s future is a good bet, private or public.

  • Taxing Problem

    Wagering tax hikes could shrink markets, have unintended consequences.

  • Cashless Crescendo

    The ongoing migration to a cashless casino experience.

  • Hold for Gold, Spin to Win

    Why hold-and-spin games have come to dominate the slot industry.

  • Ronnie Johns: A Life in the Hot Seat

    Following three years as chairman of the Louisiana Gaming Control Board and close to 40 years in public service, Ronnie Johns steps down.