Three longtime tribal casino operators reflect on their careers, the current state of the industry and the traits needed to succeed in the Indian gaming space
Pam Shaw. Bryan Hayes. Michael Peters. You may not know these names, but I assure you they are among the most talented, effective and insightful Native American casino executives in Indian gaming today.
And they are not alone. From my two decades of consulting work in Indian Country, I can tell you that there are scores of other Native American gaming leaders who started from scratch and learned the casino business to make a lasting imprint for tribal governments and tribal nations (their own and others), as well as the gaming industry as a whole.
Pam Shaw is a member of the Osage Nation, headquartered in Pawhuska, Okla., with approximately 20,000 tribal members. She has worked for the Kaw Nation for the last eight years and is currently the CEO of Kaw Gaming. Bryan Hayes is a member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and has worked for the tribe’s Foxwoods Resort Casino for the past 14 years, currently as the vice president of analytics and slot operations. Michael Peters is a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe of Washington and has played a variety of roles for various tribal governments and casinos, currently as COO of his tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort.
I recently interviewed Pam, Bryan and Michael and here is the wisdom they shared with me:
Tell me a little about your tribe, its history, its location and the type of businesses it is involved with today…
SHAW: The Osage Indians were originally located in Missouri and were known for gardening, hunting and foraging. As with many Native American tribes, they were forced to move—first to Arkansas, then Kansas and finally to Oklahoma, where many Osage Indians live today. The Osage Nation has multiple businesses, including seven successful casino/hotel operations.
HAYES: The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is a federally recognized Indian tribe located at one of America’s oldest Indian reservations, Mashantucket, in southeastern Connecticut. As pioneers of the Indian casino gaming industry, the history of the Mashantucket Pequots reveals one of America’s greatest comeback stories, which is featured at the tribe’s renowned Mashantucket Pequot Museum. Today, the tribe owns and operates one of the largest integrated resort casino destinations in North America, Foxwoods Resort Casino, along with a variety of non-gaming enterprises, including a world-class golf course, a luxury spa and Pequot Plus Health Benefit Services.
PETERS: The Squaxin Island Tribe are descendants of the maritime people who lived and prospered along the shores of the seven southernmost inlets of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, Washington State). We are known as “People of the Water.” Squaxin Island Tribe owns and operates Little Creek Casino Resort, Salish Cliffs Golf Club, Seven Inlets Spa, three convenience store/gas stations, Salish Seafood (clams, oysters and salmon grower and wholesaler), Clam Fresh (shellfish hatchery) and a marijuana growing and retail outlet. The tribe also manufactures and distributes cigarettes and other tobacco products through Skookum Creek Tobacco.
How did you decide to get involved in the gaming business and what roles have you had?
SHAW: Prior to gaming, I spent 17 years in the corporate world for a great company. I always wanted to work for my own tribe, but I could not as I lived in the Tulsa area and it was too far to commute to the Osage headquarters. Once the Osage Nation started building casinos in the Tulsa Metro area, I took the chance and switched careers. I started my gaming career as a marketing specialist and worked my way up to marketing director. Other roles have included casino general manager, COO and now, CEO.
HAYES: In high school, I began to steer toward a career in finance. I originally wanted to work in the investment banking industry, but ultimately decided to pursue a career in gaming with the sole intention of working at Foxwoods in order to support the business that our tribe depends on for financial well-being and stability. 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 at Foxwoods and with our former partners in Las Vegas. The tribe was able and willing to invest in my professional development, and that really supported the trajectory of my career path. Over the course of my career, I have worked in a variety of areas, including income audit, general ledger, financial analysis and slots, and have held positions from audit supervisor to analyst. My current role is vice president.
PETERS: I tell people I have always been involved in gaming/gambling, as I spent over a dozen years where commercial salmon fishing was the primary source of our family income. Our livelihood dealt with government regulations, seasonal harvest fluctuations, marketing, conflicts between fishermen and user groups and other areas of risk. We are often meeting these same challenges in the gaming world. My first decision to make gaming a career was when my good friend, Bruce Johnson, asked if I would be interested in becoming the assistant general manager at Little Creek. I have held the additional positions of acting general manager, general manager, acting marketing manager, general manager of non-gaming operations, COO and CEO. I have been responsible for conducting organizational diagnoses, constructing new hotels, expanding gaming, creating marketing strategy, revamping an F&B division and helping organizations with customer service consistency.
What would you say are the main differences working for your own tribe versus another tribe?
SHAW: I always tell people that working for another native nation would be easier because I wouldn’t care as much, but I have found this not to be true. If you believe in the mission and premise of Indian gaming, you care just as much, so it doesn’t matter that I am not a member of Kaw Nation, I am just as invested as if I were. Now, when you work for a tribe that is not your own, you are an outsider to some and have to build a trusting relationship. When you work for your own tribe, you have to work very hard to convince folks you are qualified for the job, and that you have it not just because of a relationship.
PETERS: I hate to say it, but for me it is first about respect, and, secondly, separating my job from my family life. My wife, Linda, once suggested that I should not work for my tribe because of the added stress and politics that I often brought home. While working for another tribe, they would measure my successes without the bias of my tribe’s family politics or the past.
Are there differences in working on the government side versus the business side of tribes?
HAYES: Definitely. I have only worked on the business side where our job is to focus all of our attention on the gaming enterprise and its success. The dynamic on the government side is much more nuanced and demands attention to so many other aspects of tribal life, including education, healthcare, social services and all of the other areas you need to run a municipality, state or nation.
PETERS: There shouldn’t be. Both are enterprises and therefore should strive to provide the most effective and efficient goods and services, with customer service a cornerstone for both. But that is easier said than done. For instance, it snowed here today. The government opened two hours late; I came to work two hours early to the casino to make sure workers had rides if they needed them, or to help in short staffed departments or if someone needed the day off because of the schools running late.
How would you describe your management style?
SHAW: I don’t believe an effective leader can have one management style. I’m probably more situational than anything. Leaders must be flexible and able to adjust our own behaviors if we expect others to do the same.
HAYES: My goal is to be as collaborative as possible. I stress to my team that we will be most successful if we relate to the operators as an extension of our team.
PETERS: My management style is one that allows individuals to succeed, not unlike the general manager of a major league baseball team. I do not need to throw a 90 MPH fastball or play first base, but I do need to know when you are having a bad day and find resources to help you overcome a challenge. I need to make the tough decisions when it’s best for the success of the team, whether that’s to sit you for an inning, a game or maybe permanently. And I believe that being a player makes me a better coach.
How do you stay piped in to what your guests and team members are saying?
SHAW: It’s not always easy! I am so focused on Kaw Gaming’s future that there are times I do feel like I am out of touch. I pay attention to everything; even when I’m extremely busy, I pay attention to everything. I watch social media, talk to employees and guests when I can, read comment cards and, most importantly, find time to visit with employees and guests.
HAYES: Communication is key and I work to leverage all forms of it, whether that be team meetings, surveys, focus groups, social media and/or spending time on the floor. Asking questions, and really having my ears open when people respond is essential when it comes to staying in tune with the business, our guests and our team.
PETERS: I enjoy people, so I find ways to make it safe for team members to have candid conversations with me… they have to see you routinely in order to start trusting you. Walking through the kitchen at 6:30 a.m. asking how everyone is doing today eventually resulted in some opening up about both personal and business situations impacting their life. The same goes for our guests… simply ask and most will be happy to share.
What are the key issues you see facing the Indian gaming industry today?
SHAW: Saturation, compacts, competition from other casinos as well as from other forms of entertainment.
HAYES: One of the key issues is the expanding competitive landscape which can be looked at in two ways: one is that is a challenge because gaming for the most part is a convenience-based commodity and any time a new property opens there is some level of cannibalization that takes place; the second is that when new properties open, the market grows and exposes new guests to our industry. The challenge then is being able to capitalize, and “pull in” these potential new guests. One of my favorite quotes which I think speaks to how to approach this challenge is, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be your only sustainable advantage.”
PETERS: Well, the textbook answer to this might be all the competition and regulatory hurdles around the expansion of gaming. However, I think a bigger issue is the continued widening of the gap between “have” and “have not” tribes. Small rural tribes will continue to be at a disadvantage and in some cases are taken advantage of by tribes in larger markets.
Where do you see tribal gaming in 10 years?
SHAW: I marvel at the industry that we are in, how we began and the impact we have made. Tribal gaming will continue to have a positive financial impact. We have proven that we can and do operate at a level required to compete in all areas of gaming now and in the future. We will continue to grow and change with the markets we are in and provide for our members.
HAYES: Well, I think the proliferation of gaming will slow as there are only a few remaining jurisdictions without some form of gaming. But the competition that has emerged, and will continue to emerge, is real, and has a significant impact on tribal gaming, more so in certain areas than other. I think that tribes will need to continue to diversify into other forms of gaming and non-gaming business and add amenities that will help transform properties into destinations for purposes other than gaming.
PETERS: I believe there will continue to be slow expansion. The challenge will be how well tribes in the less-progressive states educate legislators on the benefits of using tribal sovereignty to the economic benefit of the region.
You have seen numerous non-native individuals and companies try to do business in Indian gaming. What are the key traits and tactics of those that have been successful?
SHAW: There must be respect and understanding… respect our culture and understand that it is a privilege to work in our industry. Remember, we are now experienced, we are educated and we are dedicated to our own success. There will always be a place for our non-native friends to work with us, but please respect and understand.
HAYES: I think they are the same traits that make everyone successful when trying to do business: honesty, follow-through, proper due diligence and taking the time to build relationships.
PETERS: Care about the community. Yes, you are coming for a specific task or job and you can be successful by doing a superior job. However, the greatest thing you can do is be as vested in the community as you can.
Of what achievement in your career are you most proud?
SHAW: I would say that I am most proud of the fact that I am an indigenous female that has had the honor of serving in some roles where there weren’t always a lot of females—a working mother who finished raising three busy boys, somehow got them all through college, and has enjoyed every crazy minute.
HAYES: One thing that I’m proud of is my ability to pass along what I have learned in my short career to younger members of our tribe who are interested in finance, and specifically those looking to get into our business.
PETERS: The thing I am most proud of is that of all the different properties I have worked I feel I have made a positive improvement at each. Some have been financial, some governance, but all have resulted with relationships that continue today. I am proud that several tribes have thought enough about what I do and how that they have asked me to return and help with a new challenge.
Looking back, what advice would your current-day self give to your 18-year-old self?
SHAW: My current-day self would advise me to find my voice much earlier than I did, and don’t be afraid to find your true passion in life. It is important for me that young women in this industry know their worth and value and understand that all of us have the potential to be whatever we want to be.
HAYES: Take time to reflect. Life moves quickly and although it seems like there is never time, be sure to make time.
PETERS: I think it would be to advise to create a more solid relationship with my own tribe. About 40 years ago, after a tribal meeting, an elder came up to me and said, “Michael, everything you said is correct, but there are times it is okay to be politically correct so that the audience will start listening.” I recognized the power of this message many years later.