Winning Culture

AGS continues its rise in the slot market, building a strong “bench” to foster continued growth

In early June, more than 100 loyal customers of gaming supplier AGS traveled to Oklahoma’s WinStar World Casino and Resort for what has become an annual ritual, the GameON Customer Summit. The fourth annual GameON, as usual, offered unique keynotes and presentations that have practical business value, in addition to the normal previews of the product roadmap.

It’s a customer event like nothing else in the industry. But then again, AGS itself has put on a show like nothing else in the industry since David Lopez took over as president and CEO five years ago, growing from a small Class II supplier into a full-service company with complete divisions developing slot machines, table games and equipment, and most recently, interactive gaming technology.

But don’t expect Lopez to take credit. He quickly and consistently points to the team he has assembled as the reason AGS is among few suppliers these days consistently drawing “Buy” ratings from just about every Wall Street gaming analyst.

For AGS team members, though, everything AGS has accomplished can be traced back to Lopez, but more specifically, to the company culture he has created at AGS. It’s a culture that encourages empowerment, debate and a diversity of opinion, and it has created a loyalty—and lack of turnover—rarely seen in this business.

It’s also why Lopez was given a Glassdoor Employees’ Choice Award as a Top CEO for 2019, an honor based on anonymous and voluntary employee reviews. Lopez received a 98 percent approval rating from his employees.

Characteristically, Lopez deflects any praise for this or any other industry recognition, pointing right back to his team.

“If we hire the right executives in the C-suite, and the right executives in the senior suite, it builds a great foundation for the rest of the company’s culture,” Lopez says. “We set standards with core values, and from there, we really turn it over to the employees. The culture belongs to the employees.

“Yes, we have core values. Yes, we hire the senior executive team, which needs to adhere to those core values. But as a team, we all want the same place to work. And we want to work at a place that is moving very fast, that doesn’t have a lot of red tape, and is absent of politics—because we want to get stuff done.”

The culture at AGS is exactly the opposite of the traditional top-down management style of many larger companies. Lopez says a healthy culture is one in which no one is afraid to express an opinion—one of his most often-quoted rules among his senior team is “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

“If we can do that—being very open with one another—we’ll accomplish a whole lot more,” Lopez says.

That healthy culture also values diversity, AGS being one of few companies in the industry with

multiple women in the C-suite—Chief Marketing

Officer and Executive VP of Investor Relations Julia

Boguslawski and Chief of Staff and Senior VP of Finance Kris Morishige—and its board of directors, which includes W.A. Richardson Builders co-owner Yvette E. Landau and Anna Massion, a longtime gaming analyst and non-executive director at Playtech, Plc.

Lopez says diversity and inclusion are simply the results of recruiting the best people, regardless of gender, race or any other consideration beyond their abilities. Landau and Massion are “two of the smartest people we know,” Lopez says. “We’re obviously delighted that we have a mixed-gender board now (Massion was added in June) and executive team, but it is the fact that they are smart and accomplished people that really makes them successful.”

 

Building on Success

The numbers of those smart people are constantly rising, as AGS continues to not only expand its senior executive team, but adds management in sales, marketing and R&D. Avid baseball fan Lopez likes to use a baseball manager’s analogy, saying AGS is constantly looking to create long-term stability by increasing the company’s “bench strength.”

AGS, in fact, is so committed to this strong “bench” that it asked that a few of those contributors be put on the cover of this magazine, instead of the usual C-suite executives. Lopez says the group in that photo—representing nearly every internal department—is “just a small representation of the incredible talent we have here at AGS.

“Recruiting is an ongoing thing; you get no days off in recruiting,” says Lopez. “We’re focused on development, and we’re focused on our future from a product perspective, and our support functions such as finance and accounting.”

Nowhere has recruiting been more vital than in the expansion of research and development in all AGS product areas—beginning with slot development. The company has grown from a single studio in Atlanta, where Chief Technology Officer Sigmund Lee formerly ran R&D for legacy company Cadillac Jack, to five development studios.

The company now has a studio in Austin, with access to a steady stream of engineering talent coming out of the University of Texas main campus there. AGS recently opened a second game design studio in Australia and one in Reno. And of course, the main Atlanta studio is in a constant state of expansion.

The main goal? “More hit games,” says Lopez. “From an R&D perspective, it’s very methodical. We’re trying to expand our teams. We’re trying to get bigger and more robust—more throughput, but still high-quality winners.”

The expanding studio system naturally multiplies those hit games, and as such, Andrew Burke, senior vice president of slot products, has expanded his own team. In March, he brought in Mark DeDeaux as senior director of slot products.

DeDeaux, a veteran slot developer formerly with Scientific Games and Bally Technologies, as well as a former slot operations executive with Caesars and Trump casinos, says the expansion of development studios means more innovation and, as Lopez says, more hit games.

“Each new studio brings more diversity of talent, creativity and experience,” DeDeaux says, “giving us fresh creative input into our game-design approach and practices, including art, play mechanics, animation, audio, and of course, math. This enables us to increase the depth of our content library, bring new games to market faster, and accelerate our investment in innovation.”

He adds that more studios mean a leg up in the never-ending competition for top talent among the slot suppliers. “Our studios, and their highly attractive locations, provide us with fertile recruiting ground to continue building our AGS talent pool,” DeDeaux says. “There are terrific universities near each of our studios which provide an opportunity to choose from the best and brightest, and each studio is in an area where people want to work and live.

“Our Australia and Reno locations give us access to experienced game developers, while our Austin and Atlanta locations attract incredible tech talent from across the globe.”

While many manufacturers encourage a healthy competition among multiple game studios, AGS’ philosophy is to share talents between the studios. “At AGS, we focus on a culture of collaboration,” DeDeaux says. “We use our respective studio skills and talents to help build on each other, to spur more creative input to share ideas and best practices, and to work together to create high-performing games for our customers and entertaining experiences for players.”

Among the latest result of that collaboration is the Orion Upright, the newest generation of AGS’ hit marquee-style cabinet series that features vertical flat-screen monitors surrounded by game-controlled LED lights.

Officially launched at June’s GameON Customer Summit, the Orion Upright features the distinctive starwall design and game-synchronized lighting of the original Orion Portrait and the Orion Slant core cabinet, launched last year. “With its dual 27-inch HD displays, ergonomic LCD button deck, dual high-bright spin button and integrated charging port, it is an attractive and highly recognizable cabinet that offers a comfortable and engaging play experience,” says DeDeaux.

All this means a bigger-than-ever display at October’s Global Gaming Expo. “We’re excited to showcase our new game platform, the Atlas 3D,” says Lee (who as CTO is responsible for game, hardware, platform and system development and strategy), “which is primarily for our Orion cabinets, but is backward-compatible for (core cabinet) ICON too. It’s a more powerful game engine that takes advantage of the latest video processors and offers a best-in-class development environment for game designers.”

“G2E is going to be another great showcase for AGS,” adds DeDeaux. “We’ll be debuting more new games than ever, more themed families of games, and several larger form factors designed to attract and delight players.”

 

Setting the Tables

Just as with slots, the AGS Table Products division continues to grow because the company hires the right people—not the least of which was the first hire, Senior Vice President of Table Products John Hemberger, who has created a vibrant table division from scratch in barely five years.

Hemberger, who formerly ran the proprietary games division of SHFL entertainment, used a combination of R&D talent and acquisition—popular games like Buster Blackjack, War Blackjack, Criss Cross Poker, Bonus Spin and more—to build a division that has achieved more than 3,285 product installations around the world (as of March 31, 2019).

“When building the foundation of our table games division, we had a very concentrated focus on people and products,” Hemberger says. “We wanted people who were positive, competitive, and passionate about the table games business. And we wanted products that could be the ‘gold’ standard in their segment of table games. And I think we’ve successfully accomplished both.”

High-performing games like Buster Blackjack and Criss Cross Poker are complemented by progressive side-bet products like the STAX and Bonus Spin progressives, which present affordable and potentially lucrative side-bet opportunities for players—which, of course, also raise the house hold in the pit. The company has a vibrant pit display business as well, with easy-to-understand display units setting out pay tables and displaying progressive meters without encroaching on the atmosphere of the traditional table games. Some of the displays use unique graphics, themes and animated characters.

“We now have more than 1,000 of our award-winning STAX and Bonus Spin progressives in the North America market, and they are truly viewed as the gold standard in the industry,” Hemberger says.

“AGS took table game progressives to the next level with the five independent meters and the must-hit-by jackpot, but for us, the development piece never ends there. That’s where the excitement stems from, on our side and the customer side; we continue to enhance those product lines to keep delivering a better player experience.

“Our overlying goal is always to grow the table game player base, so in our development initiatives, we always take into consideration: Does this make the play experience better and make more people want to play? It is extremely important to us that we join with our casino partners to expose more players to the table-game experience.”

Hemberger has concentrated on expanding the Table Products division into a full-service stop for pit supplies. The latest expansion of the division involves not games, but utility products, which began with last fall’s introduction of the Dex S single-deck shuffler, recently certified by Gaming Laboratories International. At G2E this year, the company will launch its next shuffler product, a single-deck packet shuffler to be called Pax S; and ACOT, a versatile 12-tube chip tray.

“We’re certainly excited about the collaboration and support we’ve received from our customers as we introduce the Dex S in markets like Connecticut, Michigan and Nevada,” says Hemberger. “The Pax S will include card recognition and conveniently fit on existing tables.”

The ACOT chip tray, developed by the AGS engineering team, is available for lease or purchase, and comes with or without a no-peek device. It fits into existing table cutouts. “With all our momentum in the progressive space, it’s a natural new addition to our portfolio,” Hemberger says.

“As we continue to introduce new table hardware like the shufflers and ACOT, our goal is to always give operators options. And it makes our product portfolio much more well-rounded, providing our customers with a one-stop shop for their table games and table products.”

Many of the table division’s newest products are the result of feedback from customers. “Customers are always a huge driver of our innovation initiatives,” Hemberger says. “They have a huge influence on our future product roadmap. AGS is focused on being the easiest table game supplier to do business with—we can develop things quickly; we’re nimble; we are easy and flexible. So when operators have ideas for new products, we are the team they call. Foxwoods is a prime example; they drove the development of our Golden Seat feature (which offers customized rewards) for the STAX Progressive.”

 

Interactive Emergence

Right on the heels of the Table Products division has been the evolution of AGS Interactive, originally created with the 2015 acquisition of leading social gaming supplier RocketPlay. The interactive division now offers a B2B social white-label casino mobile product, called ConnexSys, and B2B real-money gaming through AGS’ AxSys Games Marketplace.

As with the other divisions, finding the right people to lead the interactive division has been a priority, an effort which culminated in June with the hiring of Anthony Abrahamson as senior vice president, interactive.

Abrahamson was most recently senior VP and general manager for payment provider Prepaid Network, Inc., and before that held top positions with Sportech Inc.-Draft Day Gaming, which developed a white-label daily fantasy sports platform for B2B and B2C operations, later acquired by NYX Gaming Group. These jobs involved partnerships with real-money gaming operators in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Europe—experience AGS hopes to tap to move forward in growing interactive markets.

“We are thrilled to have Anthony Abrahamson on board as our new senior vice president for the AGS Interactive division,” says Matt Reback, executive vice president of AGS, “and we’re looking to leverage his strong relationships with operators, regulators and suppliers in the real-money gaming space. He has quite an impressive background and track record of success.

“We were patient and spent quite a bit of time looking for a candidate who could complement our existing interactive team and fit into our culture. We put a premium on candidates who had real-money gaming experience and good reputations with operators, suppliers and regulators. We also sought individuals who shared our passion for the potential represented by a business that was focused on expanding the distribution of AGS games online, whether in social or real-money gaming casinos.”

Reback says the white-label social casino is beginning to take off for AGS. “Demand for our ConnexSys Social White Label Casino is at an all-time high,” he says, “and we expect to announce multiple new deals with casino operators who appreciate the value they can create by offering their patrons a way to interact with their brand online in a social, play-for-fun casino environment.

“Savvy land-based operators are recognizing the benefits of extending their relationships with patrons to the online/mobile space when they are not on property.”

For real-money gaming, the company is using the AxSys Games Marketplace content aggregation platform, acquired with Gamiom Technologies in June 2018. “We are now distributing AGS games, along with hundreds of titles from our third-party suppliers such as High-5, Gaming Realms, Ainsworth and Gamomat, to operators in regulated markets around the world,” Reback says. “Our operator partners include GVC, Ladbrokes/Coral, 888, Bet Victor, William Hill and Rush Street Interactive, to name a few.”

He says games including Golden Wins, Jade Wins, Longhorn Jackpots, Fu Nan Fu Nu and Rakin’ Bacon! are performing very well online.

Lopez says the company’s aim is “to position AGS to take advantage of new online markets in the U.S. and around the globe. And as we carry that momentum into 2020, we’ll look, over time, to expand and add a little bit of bandwidth, whether it be an additional platform, or a move into other segments of real-money gaming and online wagering.”

One of those options could be a sports betting platform. “I think that we have to look at sports betting technology,” Lopez says. “We keep our eyes on it, but we’ll probably look for sports betting partners, more than we look at technology.”

 

Just Getting Started

Clearly, the evolution of AGS is an open-ended proposition—even Lopez can’t predict where the company will be five years from now.

“What’s next? You tell me,” he says. “We don’t know what’s next, but from sports to a casino management system, an acquisition, maybe something internationally—it’s all on the table.”

In the near term, of course, the company is soaring toward what should be a memorable G2E show in the fall. “Visitors to our booth will see a whole new lineup of premium games,” says Lopez, “innovative new game packaging complemented with our proven game designs; and new cabinets in both the core and premium categories. G2E will truly be a testament to our investment in R&D and to the talent and creativity of our incredible innovation-focused teams.”

“I’m excited to showcase our new game platform, expanded Orion family of cabinets, and new premium product offerings,” says Lee. “I think our new premium offerings will capture a lot of attention. All these innovations are the result of the great people and organization we’ve created.”

In the longer term, the AGS team is sure to keep growing, and to keep churning out the hits that Lopez seeks. “At AGS, our product management and R&D teams are constantly in the market, visiting casinos, playing games, and talking to customers and players,” says Reback. “We also analyze game placement and performance data and study non-gaming consumer, technology, and social trends to identify attitudes and behaviors that might indicate customer demand.”

“We’ve evolved our platforms to take advantage of the latest hardware technologies and game engines,” adds Lee. “The combination of great hardware and software are foundations for our game technology and equally important.”

“Right now, we are tapping into a trend illustrated by portrait-oriented monitors,” says Reback. “You can see this quite easily on casino floors and specifically in the AGS Orion Portrait cabinet. On the consumer electronics side, this trend may have been created or at least promulgated by the ubiquitous presence of smartphones and tablets, which have made consumers comfortable interfacing with high-resolution, portrait-oriented monitors to interact with their devices.”

Adds Lee, “Technologies in lighting and displays as they are used for cabinet and sign designs are emerging. I think these are areas we look to enhance and apply to our existing and future product designs.”

All the while, the most important challenge as AGS grows will be to maintain the company’s employee-focused culture while adding talent in every department.

“The rise of AGS is not driven by one single reason, but rather the combination of factors that really starts with a foundation created by the truly unique and refreshing culture,” says Reback. “The culture starts and ends with the dedicated people—the employees who work hard and proudly own every part of this organization.

“It became apparent when I started at AGS that this company was special and was poised for a long and sustainable string of successes.”

“Because we’re doing well with recruiting,” says Lopez, “and we’re doing well with evangelizing our message of what we want in our R&D department—that obviously comes from Sigmund Lee—we’re getting exactly what we want from our teams, and they continue to perform from a game perspective, from a cabinetry perspective, and obviously, as employees, as part of our culture.”

And that 98 percent approval rating from his employees that got Lopez the Glassdoor Top CEO award? Lopez likely already has a plan to win over that other 2 percent.

And that’s a good bet as well.

 


GameON!

AGS presents its fourth GameON Customer Summit to a record 142 attendees

Gaming supplier AGS has grown into a major force in the past five years, and right along with that growth has been the evolution of the company’s unique customer event, the GameON Customer Summit.

In June, AGS held its fourth annual GameON event at the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma. It was the largest GameON event yet, with 142 attendees including more than 100 customers, plus investors, media and Wall Street analysts.

In his opening speech to attendees, AGS President and CEO David Lopez recalled how Julia Boguslawski, AGS’ chief marketing officer and head of investor relations, originally designed GameON as “a customer event like no other customer event,” to provide real value and entertainment to the company’s customers.

“We recognize that coming to GameON is an investment in time and travel for our customers,” Boguslawski says, “so we strive to offer valuable content that is meaningful and useful, both professionally and personally. Our customers appreciate the opportunity to learn, grow, and bring back new ways to drive revenue and add value at their properties.”

GameON is different from customer events staged by most of the major gaming suppliers. It does feature the nuts-and-bolts proprietary content in the form of presentations and panel discussions designed to share news and plans affecting the AGS product roadmap, to attendees dominated by the supplier’s major customers, the casino operators. But what has distinguished GameON have been keynotes, presentations and discussions beyond one company’s products.

For example, this year’s keynote presentation was staged by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator who has authored a best-selling book relating how techniques he used while with the FBI were designed to trigger certain brain mechanisms to achieve the negotiator’s results—techniques that can be used by anyone in just about any business venture. As with many of the event’s featured speakers, Voss presented a funny and entertaining mix of stories, visuals and Q&A to illustrate his theme.

Another great example was “Managing Today’s Multi-Generation Workforce,” featuring Jenny Holaday, president of the Fuel Leadership consultancy and a veteran of 25 years in casino operations and marketing, who examined the fundamental differences between the baby boom generation, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z, just entering the workforce. In another intriguing and funny presentation (aided by some hilarious videos illustrating generational differences), she offered valuable advice on understanding members of each generation as a way of building teams and retaining talent.

Topics of other presentations included sports betting, esports, the guest experience, and the power of employee culture—a keystone of Lopez’s management philosophy.

Strategically placed among the unique presentations were product demonstrations and updates from AGS officials on what’s happening with the company’s slot, table, and interactive product portfolio, and highlights from the company’s innovation roadmap.

AGS Senior Vice President of Slot Products Andrew Burke covered the “Top 5 Reasons You Want More AGS Slot Product on Your Floor,” focusing on the company’s continued investments in R&D and its hardware product roadmap, including last month’s launch of the new Orion Upright cabinet.

John Hemberger, senior vice president of table products, shared updates about AGS’ table products roadmap and the company’s mission to drive revenue and deliver value for customers.

For AGS’ interactive B2B social business, GameON attendees were invited to participate in free-play tournaments through the GameON social casino app, experiencing the company’s ConnexSys social white label casino solution firsthand.

Along with two full days of conference content, there were numerous networking opportunities during GameON, including a golf tournament and an event at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters and practice facility. Charlotte Jones Anderson, Dallas Cowboys executive vice president and chief brand officer (and daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones), addressed conference attendees, followed by meet-and-greets with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley, a five-time Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowler.

In addition to attendees, the GameON event drew praise from Wall Street gaming analysts, including David Katz of Jeffries Equity Research, who reiterated a “Buy” rating for AGS stock.

“The AGS GameON event in Thackerville, Oklahoma coupled with our recent channel checks support our positive thesis on the name,” Katz wrote. “Our attendance at PlayAGS’ GameON event… provided an opportunity to review the product range, the product development roadmap and to interact with senior management. Perhaps most important, it provided an opportunity to talk with the company’s customers, who provide insight into the performance of currently placed games and enthusiasm for future releases.”

“I think it keeps getting better,” Lopez says of the GameON event.

“I love speakers who bring in a different twist, a different angle to the business and the lives that we lead every day. We’re not trying to give you the same old program.

“Our goal for GameON is to continue to raise the bar each year, and have every single panel, every single speaker, every single minute of GameON be riveting. That’s what we hope for.”

 

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.