Faces of Gaming: Ainsworth’s Deron Hunsberger — From finance and sales to president

January 27, 2024 6:50 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
January 27, 2024 6:50 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Deron Hunsberger was raised in Reno, Nevada, by educators. His mother taught kindergarten and his father was a school principal who later became head of primary education for Reno’s Washoe County. A grade school in Reno is named after him.

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Deron chose to forgo the family business to pursue a career in finance. After years of crunching numbers, he moved to sales, where he was a successful sales leader for some of the biggest manufacturers in the gaming industry.

Hunsberger joined Ainsworth Game Technology in 2017 and serves as president for North America. He’s responsible for all commercial activity in the U.S. and Canadian markets.

Since joining Ainsworth in 2017, he has directed the strategy for the company’s historical horse racing system, growing the operation to more than 7,000 units in multiple jurisdictions in the U.S. Deron was also instrumental in the acquisition of MTD Gaming and Ainsworth’s entrance into VLT markets, as well as the launch of the popular A-STAR cabinet series for Class III, Class II, and HHR markets.

He currently serves on the American Gaming Association Board of Directors, a group of industry leaders who convene regularly to guide issues affecting the current and future state of casino gaming.

Into finance

“Sometimes native Nevadans think they’re not going to go into gaming. They’ll do something different instead. My parents were educators. That wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to pursue. I was a lot more business-oriented, especially as I got into college. I earned a finance degree at the University of Nevada,” Hunsberger said.

However, in college, Hunsberger worked a job at the Peppermill in Reno, which changed his attitude about the gaming industry.

“I was the gofer, the runner for Bill Paganetti and Nat Carasali, the two principals at the Peppermill when the company was expanding. I received a lot of exposure, and I found that extremely interesting. They were very focused on developing the entertainment restaurant aspects. I got to see how they operated as businessmen and their focus on detail, especially Bill Paganetti. He didn’t miss anything. It was my first real exposure to working in that environment. It brought a different side of gaming to me than the negative connotation you have with smoky casino floors.”

After working for local banks, Hunsberger landed a job for a small accounting/consulting firm, McGhie Consulting, that launched his career in gaming.

“Don McGhie started his own consulting firm and he was looking for a number cruncher. Don was very patient and took the time to teach me the industry, a lot of it from the financial perspective. It was during the early 1990s in the early stages of casino growth in new jurisdictions.

“Several casino clients used us as an independent source to do pro formas and demographic analysis on different locations and markets that they were potentially pursuing.

“Primarily, we were just running numbers and doing floor analysis. It was a great background that really piqued my interest in trying to understand what makes a casino floor work.

“Back then there weren’t a lot of tools. There was no internet to go on, so it was all manual. We had somebody walking floors at night and counting the number of players on games. At his casino in Laughlin, Don Laughlin had patrons fill out a visitor card at the hotel registration. We tracked the zip codes manually and tried to figure out where we could prospect different zip codes with similar demographics. It was a very interesting process.”

Into sales

“I got a little bored with crunching numbers and somebody introduced me to Ken Swanson, who was running sales in northern Nevada for Bally. They were looking for a sales rep. I think he hired me, because he was looking for somebody to do his budget.

“I probably had the worst accounts in the country for Bally at the time, but it was a great opportunity to learn the slot side of the business.

“I was fortunate. It was when Bally was launching Game Maker, the first real Class Three multigame. That product proliferated across local casinos in northern Nevada and ultimately, Bally asked me to relocate. I moved to Vegas in 1996 and took an account-executive position.”

From Bally, Hunsberger moved to Silicon Gaming in 1998.

“They were out of Palo Alto, so it was a different mindset, very technology oriented. It was the first slot machine with a hard drive and it had a vertical monitor, a large television tube. The technology was way ahead of its time.

“Silicon Gaming was acquired by IGT, primarily for intellectual property. After I left in 2001, I ended up at Konami. I was the fifteenth employee and the first salesperson. Within a few months, I became director of sales, responsible for building a sales team across North America.

“During that time, casinos were exploding across North America and there was a huge replacement market for slot machines. Ticket-in ticket-out was introduced and casinos were going away from coin. It was a great time to work for a slot manufacturer and sell machines.”

From Konami, Hunsberger was senior vice president of sales – gaming at Scientific Games and senior vice president of sales at WMS and Shuffle Master.

A finance mindset for sales

I wondered how someone who began in finance made the transition to leading sales departments for the largest gaming manufacturers.

“In my sales roles, I saw myself as a consultant to my customers. When you’re placing slot product, there’s a lot of monitoring and analyzing the performance of your product. On the finance side, that’s a lot of what I did.

“When I met with customers, I could ask pertinent questions about floor performance and what was and wasn’t working. Then I could provide solutions with our products for where they might be struggling from a casino-performance perspective.

“Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is add value and make sure the product is providing a benefit to the customer. You’re measured every day when you’re selling slot products. I think our job as a manufacturer and a partner to our customers is to offer insight and expertise on how our product provides value and create solutions for our customers,” Hunsberger stated.

Ainsworth and HHR                                                         

Hunsberger joined Ainsworth in 2017 as senior vice president of sales and service and was promoted to chief commercial officer in 2020.

Ainsworth’s move to historical horse racing was a game changer for the company.

“We received some interest from Churchill Downs in 2016 about developing historical horse racing.

“Churchill Downs was looking for somebody to develop a product that was competitive with a Class Three environment — specifically, for something in Louisville that could compete with the casinos across the river in Indiana and Ohio. They didn’t think any existing products were competitive.

“Ainsworth created a plan based on our knowledge of Class Three and utilizing the historical horse racing database to come up with outcomes and an entertaining display that emulates what you would see in a Class Three market.

“Then we took it to another level and negotiated agreements with IGT, Light and Wonder, Aristocrat, and Konami, so they could also integrate their products into our HHR system. Now, when you go into an HHR facility in Louisville, you have a similar product offering to what you would see in a Class Three environment.

“We now have over 7,000 machines operating on our system. We’re in all properties now in Kentucky. We’re in New Hampshire, Wyoming, Virginia, Louisiana, and Alabama. It’s been a game changer for Ainsworth,” Hunsberger declared.

From sales to president

Hunsberger was appointed president of Ainsworth in January 2023. I asked about the focus for Ainsworth in 2024.

“It’s continuing to build off of our HHR success. Class Two and HHR are very important and we’ll continue to develop games specifically for those markets. We’ve just launched our new Raptor cabinet in Class Three North America markets and we’ve got a strong roadmap behind that.

“We acquired a company before COVID in February 2020 called MTD, a VLT product that we offer in Montana, South Dakota, and Louisiana. We’ll be looking at taking that product into additional VLT markets.

“In our Class Three product, we’ll continue to develop new content for the Raptor and our existing hardware that’s available in the field, then look at new cabinet or hardware opportunities in the Class Three market as well.

“We’ve invested heavily in our R&D, specifically in building new studios. We now have development studios in Austin, South Carolina, Las Vegas, and Reno. We also leverage our international studios in Australia and Mexico. We’re increasing our competitiveness from technology and hardware perspectives — most importantly, supporting and developing our game-producer talent to ensure we have content that’s competitive in the marketplace.”

I asked Hunsberger what goes into creating cutting-edge games.

“Our Global Chief Product Officer, David Bollesen, calls it ‘Sight, Sound, Action.” Going forward, we want to make sure we’re incorporating technology that gives our developers the ability to provide all three.

“With Sight, you’re providing technology that grabs a player’s attention and is visually appealing. Sound resonates and emphasizes the winning experiences for the player.

“Action is the actual math aspect of it. You want to make sure that you know the return to the player. Over time, more than likely, it’s not a winning proposition, but they should get entertainment out of it. It’s an opportunity for players to win. They may not win every time, but they look at it as an opportunity to win and want to come back and play that game again.”

Evolutionary, not revolutionary

“I always say that our industry is evolutionary, not revolutionary. You have to make sure that you’re developing something simple that customers understand, at the same time, developing something that’s intriguing and grabs somebody’s attention.

“Early in my career at Bally, I was fortunate to get to know some of the best game developers in the world. They taught me why they developed games and the type of player they developed for. They put it to me pretty simply. They developed games for two types of players: those with more time than money and those with more money than time.

“Some play specifically for entertainment value and others are just interested in gambling. You have to develop games for both.

“Ainsworth has been known for the high-denomination big-gambler product. We do very well in that segment of the market. We’ll continue to build off of those brands and develop games that resonate with that high-denomination high-yielding player for our customers.”

Another key focus of Ainsworth is developing omnichannel products.

“One of the things we and the other manufacturers are looking into is omnichannel. It’s an opportunity to grasp the attention of the younger generation and assure that gaming experiences are available across all channels. Whether you’re playing mobile, on your computer at home, or in a casino, the same product is available in all three markets.

“We’ve been a brick-and-mortar player primarily. Our Chief Digital Officer, Jason Lim, has an emphasis on ensuring that as we develop new game content for our online business, we’re simultaneously making it available as a brick-and-mortar opportunity as well.”

I wondered what Hunsberger believes is the secret to his success in the gaming industry.

“I’ve always been very purpose driven. I was raised by two teachers. Education was always very important to me.

“My mom was a was a kindergarten teacher. Everything you ever needed to know you learned in kindergarten, right? She also taught every level. My father was a principal and he retired as senior director of elementary education for Washoe County. He was an incredible man. He hired the first African American teacher in Reno and he’s got a tremendous legacy. He was a great mentor.

“How you treat people was always emphasized within my family and I’ve always focused on it. As I moved into management and leadership roles, I focused on the development of people. When people ask my number-one priority, it’s building my team and giving them opportunities to develop and improve. From a general perspective, success is based on continual improvement and growth — personally, as a team, and as an organization. I base my success on being focused on trying to be better every day and making the people around me better every day.”

Entries in the Faces of Gaming series:

Tom Osiecki is a casino consultant who writes an occasional column for CDC Gaming Reports called Faces of Gaming, about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

Tom Osiecki is a marketing and management consultant for Raving Consulting and can be reached for consulting engagements at 775-329-7864.

If you know of a fascinating personality in the gaming industry you would like to see profiled, please send Tom Osiecki an email at tosiecki@cdcgaming.com