The woman behind the slots at Seneca Gaming

Jun 6, 2019

Holly Gagnon is one of the few female CEOs in the gaming industry, but the third at Seneca Gaming Corporation. June marks her second anniversary leading four entertainment facilities in Western New York, which boast some 15 million guests per year served by more than 3,600 employees. June also is expected to reveal the completion of a $40 million renovation project that Gagnon said will "change the entire gateway" to Niagara Falls. WBFO's Marian Hetherly sat down with her to talk games of chance.

Holly Gagnon celebrates her second anniversary as President & CEO of Seneca Gaming in June.
Credit Seneca Gaming

Established in 2002 by the Seneca Nation of Indians to operate tribal entertainment facilities in Western New York, Seneca Gaming operates Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in downtown Buffalo, Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca and Seneca Hickory Stick Golf in Lewiston.

How did you get started in gaming?

I'm very, very happy to be back in the Northeast and part of this organization. It feels like home. I think most of the time, people who meet me don't expect that I was an Accounting major. I've been in gaming now 27 years.

I actually participated in the re-opening of the Beau Rivage (in Biloxi, MS) post-Katrina. Katrina was horrible. I was working at the time for Harrah's in their corporate offices in Memphis and that was a really devastating event for us.

A sign out front of the Beau Rivage counts down the days until the casino's reopening, one year to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Credit Evie Stone / National Public Radio

We had three casinos active. We had people trapped in our New Orleans property. We had to do a lot of triage at the time, fly down in corporate jets and look at the devastation.

Some of the stories that people told - the survival stories, people whose houses were just slabs at the end of the waves - it's something you'll never forget. When I see hurricanes now and people talk about devastation, I can actually visualize the personal impact.

But I have to tell you, it's pretty amazing to go back to the Billoxi area and to see the resiliency of those communities and even New Orleans. I was just there in January speaking at a conference and you would never know anything happened. I think that's just a testament to us as America. You know, we hit these things, but we bounce back.

What kind of leader are you?

To be a leader, to inspire and to have passion and win the hearts of people is much different than just managing. I've talked to my HR and Marketing teams about the passion to make work the best eight hours of everyone's day. That means there's a responsibility for our leaders to make sure they're listening to their team, that they're providing the right motivation, that they're giving them the tools and that they have a relationship with their team members that becomes the glue to the organization - no different than we have with our guests.

Was there any pushback when you first arrived in the position, perhaps as a woman, as someone from outside the region, who isn't Native American?

It's not new to have a woman CEO here at Seneca. I'm the third and I don't think it would dissuade me from taking over a position that was traditionally men. I don't look at things that way, maybe because of all the years I've spent in this industry. If I thought that way, I probably wouldn't have gotten where I got.

It's not new to have a woman CEO here at Seneca. I'm the third and I don't think it would dissuade me from taking over a position that was traditionally men.

Certainly having a history shows the support of the Board and the Nation that they are okay with gender diversity, which is a great thing. I have to tell you that the team was amazingly accepting. I did not feel any pushback. People have bought in and have readily supported some of the vision initiatives.

When new leaders come in, a 100-day plan of action can be crucial. What was yours?

I got some really great advice years ago, which was listen. Observe and listen. It's not one-size-fits-all for organizations, but you learn a lot more in a conversation if you're not the one talking. And not just the people who report directly to you, but find opportunities to talk to the entire organization, to really understand its culture, understand what's really important to your boss.

I think a great philosophy of leadership is, what interests my boss should fascinate me. I think that's a great way to formulate an approach and understand how to prioritize initiatives. There is a certain talent that comes from understanding the root cause of certain situations, versus putting band-aids and being tactical. I really do believe in trying to be as strategic as possible.

Credit American Gaming Association

Where do you think you've made your greatest impact so far?

Well, there's our renovation project, which will be complete in June. We have engaged new architects. They're out of Las Vegas. They've created a really impactful arrival experience and the actual rollout is even better than the renderings. If I can measure success, it's to overdeliver on a commitment.

We've just created a department called Continuous Improvement, which I'm very excited about. We're creating a continuous improvement culture here, where we're doing Six Sigma and Kaizan and the inclusion of frontline team members giving input on how their jobs are designed and what they do and certain functions. I think it'll be a hallmark change to how we look at our business and include people in decision making.

What drives me is making a sustainable impact wherever I go and that means an impact on people and an impact on the core organization. I think you can judge my success more fairly five years after I leave. 

What differences have you seen between tribal-run casinos and others?

Commercial operators are stock based, right? And you have a Board of Directors that's appointed through proxy and everything else. This is a family-owned business, for all intensive purposes. It's a Nation. There is a level of satisfaction I get, or the leadership team gets, knowing that when we perform well, that it provides the funding for really important things for this Nation, which include health care, government operations, education. So I think there's a difference working as far as a sense of responsibility. To be successful and meet our goals is more intensified because you see the impact more directly.

This is a family-owned business, for all intensive purposes. It's a Nation. When we perform well, it provides the funding for really important things - health care, government operations, education.

There might be different priorities when you're family-owned or Nation-owned, so I think that there are some nuances. But as far as day to day and what we do as far as strategies, I think we really try to run it competitively, because we compete against operators that are not Native American-owned and from our discipline and what we do, I would compete with the best of them.

How would you characterize the health of the gaming industry here in WNY and overall?

Certainly you see a lot of chatter that these casinos are not doing well. Owners decide what to build. They do market studies and that's on them what they build to their market studies. So it's interesting to see that play out.

If you look at the numbers globally, they continue to grow, right? There's more gaming, entertainment, food and beverage and everything else. Now if you talk about how many slices of pie there are, there are more slices. So individually, as more entrants join the market, some pieces of pie get smaller - and that's just competition. The American Gaming Association does this really great map that shows how many places you can legally game in the United States 20 years ago - and if you compare that to what the map looks like today, it's unbelievable the expansion in gaming.

Online gaming is not readily available in the United States, not legalized. Certainly online will be another evolution if it comes to fruition. Every industry goes through these changes, in delivery systems, in customer bases. The onus is on us, as operators, to make it an engaging and interesting place to be and come.

Online gaming is legal in only four U.S. states and New York is not one of them.
Credit American Gaming Association

Are there plans to expand into online segments of the growing market?

I will be candid. Our biggest opportunity is with our three casinos in front of us and making sure that they are the most engaging experience. You can go to Las Vegas and everywhere else: those things are futuristic. They're at the planning stages and on a timeline that are way further than we would anticipate. You know, there's all sorts of legislation that would have to happen.

So our team's energies are on what's right in front of us. We do roadmaps for the next five years and I don't even see that as something we'll have to consider. We have lots of redevelopment, big investments in slot product, making sure we're relevant in that respect, honing in on customer service - and that is our core business right now.

How would you characterize the relationship between gaming in WNY and the state?

I think the Senecas have really been the catalyst for much of the positive change here. We believe in the gaming industry. We think it's great for the economy.

All of the interaction happens at the Nation level, right? So it would be the Nation with the state. I focus on the operations at this entity.

It's a great amount of money that has been provided to the state and the local economy over the years. That's measurable. In addition, our head of Marketing actually sits on the tourism group for Niagara to collaborate and coordinate.

I think the advent of all these hotels that have sprung up around us are by virtue of the fact that there's been this initial great investment here by the Senecas in Niagara Falls. Also, this arrival experience is going to change the entire gateway to the Falls and the experience they have coming in. And so I think the Senecas have really been the catalyst for much of the positive change here.

We believe in the gaming industry. We think it's great for the economy. We employ a lot of people. We have a robust benefits package. We have an onsite health clinic for you and your spouse. If you're not feeling well, you can come right in and see a nurse practitioner. It's not for everyone, being out there interacting with the public. If it doesn't make you excited to make someone smile or if it doesn't make you excited to dazzle a guest, you have to soul search: Is customer service the business for me?

Credit Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino

FACTS & FIGURES:

  • New York's budget (FY2019) provides $246 million in aid to localities from four Tribal-State Gaming Compacts with more than a dozen Indian casinos across the state.
     
  • The American Gaming Association reports that nearly 30 Indian and commercial casinos across New York State had a $6.5 billion economic impact (2018).
     
  • The National Indian Gaming Commission reports that consumers spend $32.4 billion at some 460 Indian casinos across the United States (2017). That represents about 40 percent of the $89.4 billion spent in all U.S. locations.

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