Faces of Gaming: Andre Carrier — Paying it forward

April 1, 2023 11:30 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
April 1, 2023 11:30 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Andre Carrier is the quintessential casino family-business guy.

Using a family approach, Carrier has the unique quality of developing successful casino business models that give back.

Talking to Carrier, he uses phrases like “making contributions to quality of life” and “we want to be a beacon that shows that people and profits cannot just coexist, they can thrive.”

Andre Carrier is president and CEO of Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite, Nevada, the only 100% employee-owned casino, which also owns The Brook, “America’s largest charity casino,” in New Hampshire. With both, Carrier is paying it forward in ways that go well beyond community-service models at traditional casinos.

Family Values

Carrier grew up in an entrepreneurial family.

“I grew up in a family business. As long as I can remember, I had accountabilities in the business.

“My grandfather had this great saying that was often said in French, ‘You can’t tell someone to shovel dung until you’ve shoveled it yourself.’ If you want respect in a family business, whatever the worst job is that you can do, that’s what you should do and do well.

“I have only one mindset: In a family business, you’re accountable for everything. My uncles were entrepreneurs. We had entertainment businesses. My dad’s a prosthodontist, a specialist in dentistry. But he was also a renegade entrepreneur and developer and he let me start running restaurants by myself at age fifteen,” Carrier recalled.

From Family Business to Casino Family Businesses

Carrier describes himself as “the least likely casino guy.” He started with a temporary job in Las Vegas and never looked back. “I joined the Sahara and came into the Lowden family-business public company.

“Then my dad’s high school friend, Bob Halloran, was president of sports at Caesars and, ultimately, Mirage. It bothered him that I wasn’t working for the Mirage, so he brought me over to sit with Bobby Baldwin and Mr. Wynn.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wynn probably saw that I was a family-business kid. Mr. Wynn offered to let me operate the Golden Nugget in Laughlin, the smallest of the Mirage properties. He allowed me to report to the legend of legends in the gaming industry, Bobby Baldwin, and put me in charge of a brand like the Golden Nugget at twenty-eight.

“A couple of years later, two great entrepreneurs, Tim Poster and Tom Breitling, bought the Golden Nugget and that was probably the toughest choice. In the end, I stayed with Tim and Tom and we went on a terrific journey, brief, but terrific,” Carrier said. “We sold the company to Tilman Fertitta, the ultimate family-business guy. He saw in me the family-business guy; I saw in him the patriarch of a family business. And we connected.”

In 2007, Carrier joined a longtime friend, Greg Lee, to assist in the operation and future development of Eureka Casinos and pursue their joint vision of operating a core-values-centric organization that serves the guest, the employee, and the communities in which the business operates.

A 100-Year-Old Company

“The origins of the Lee’s family business go back more than 100 years. Mrs. Lee is the quintessential matriarch of a dynasty company, which has its origins in the national dollar store,” Carrier said.

The Lee family entered the casino business due to a land deal that included a casino license. They launched the Eureka Casino Resort in Las Vegas in 1997.

Low Participation

“Eureka Casino Resort was once a young company; now we’re very well established. The great news is that people have joined and stayed. The other thing is they joined us in their 40s and they’re closer to their 60s now.

“But we have only 12% to 16% participation in the 401K. We’re making great strides in advancing the business, but our people may not be getting any closer to financial independence. In a family business, that starts to get at you and we think and talk about it a lot.

ESOP

“We were lucky enough to have a friend who was researching ESOPs. The IRS created a divine construct in the 1970s. And the more we got into it, we couldn’t understand why more businesses weren’t run this way.

“Effectively, in exchange for a commitment of care for the men and women who work there, a company no longer pays federal income tax. Instead, those dollars go to fund a long-term retirement benefit for the employees who made that enterprise what it is,” Carrier explained.

According to Wikipedia, “An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in the United States is a defined contribution plan, a form of retirement plan as defined by 4975(e)(7)of IRS codes, which became a qualified retirement plan in 1974. It is one of the methods of employee participation in corporate ownership.”

In the span of a few years, the Lee family and Eureka Casino Resort adopted an ESOP program for its employees in 2016. As of now, approximately 700 employees participate in the ESOP.

In an ESOP, employees are given shares in the company each year, at no cost to them. The shares grow in value until an employee leaves or retires, at which time the shares are sold back to the company.

The Only ESOP In the Casino Industry

ESOPs are used in many industries, but Carrier states that Eureka Resorts is the only casino or hospitality company to adopt an ESOP program. “You see them a lot in professional-service, engineering, and architectural firms. The biggest example is Publix grocery store, which is owned 100% by the employees,” Carrier said.

Operating as an ESOP, Eureka Casino Resort has unique advantages and challenges. I asked if owner employees have decision-making processes when it comes to running the business.

“ESOPs run more like a family business and less like a public company.  Probably more like an entrepreneurial family business,” Carrier said.

Saint Jerome’s Prayer

To capture the employee owner culture, Carrier adopted Saint Jerome’s Prayer.

“Our mantra internally is St. Jerome’s Prayer: ‘Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Till our good is better and our better is best,’’’

“That’s the difference between being an employee and being an employee-owner. Being an employee can be passive; show up on time, leave on time. Being an employee-owner says, ‘When I come to work, I’m being purposeful.’”

“There’s a fairly direct alignment with every employee-owner to keep the performance and value of the company growing. So every employee-owner has a bit of an entrepreneurial edge; they want to see the company flourish,” Carrier said.

According to Carrier, ESOPs don’t appeal to younger job jumpers as much as more mature employees looking to build a nest egg. Things like attrition rates and post-pandemic hiring are affected by the ESOP framework.

“Pre-pandemic, our turnover percentage was, in certain years, less than 15%. That’s unheard of. And now you’re running about 25%.”

Eureka Casino Resort has also been named one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Medium Workplaces and a Great Place to Work” companies.

“More than once, employees have come to me or Greg with their statement in hand, saying. ‘No one in my family or any of my extended family has had this much money in an account with their name on it,’” Carrier related with a smile.

New England-Style

Carrier and Chairman of the Board Greg Lee were looking to expand and saw that the charity-gaming model in New Hampshire matched their culture. In addition, both have local ties: Carrier is from Jackson, New Hampshire, and Lee is a graduate of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.

In 2019, they purchased 75-acre former Seabrook Greyhound Park that opened in 1973 and closed when state lawmakers outlawed the sport in 2009. There, they opened The Brook in Seabrook, a casino and entertainment destination that is the “America’s largest charity casino that is 100% employee owned,” Carrier emphasized.

The Brook features a race and sportsbook with state-of-the-art audio-visuals, plus food and drink, a showroom, 500 slots, table games, and a poker rom. It’s also the lone casino in New Hampshire to offer stadium gaming and the first with historical horse racing machines. The outdoor deck boasts one of the largest outdoor televisions in New England.

“It’s also a sensational location on the I-95 corridor, the first exit as you come out of Massachusetts, 40 miles from Boston. It’s a part of the country that is absolutely booming, because of technology, biotech, and technical manufacturing,” Carrier said.

“Every day we come to work, we’re raising 35 cents on every dollar for Make-a-Wish Foundation, or Big Brothers Big Sisters, or Angel Flight.” In the charity-casino model, 35% of all casino revenue goes to local organizations on a rotating basis. The Brook is the largest of the 14 charity casinos licensed by the state of New Hampshire. By the end of 2022, The Brook had benefited 104 local charities.

“And the money we pay in taxes goes to education. Plus, all the net operating income goes to grow the long-term retirement value for the men and women who work there,” Carrier was obviously proud to say.

“What a powerful platform. We’ve raised more than $10 million since buying this business and are on pace to donate another $6 million to charity in 2023.”

“The state’s tax rate is 25% on historical horse racing and charities receive 35% of that 25%. It’s a weird kind of math. They receive 35% of GGR on games of chance. And then they receive 35% of the 25% that the state takes on historical horse racing. When you start to grow the business, it’s quite a bit of money for charities.

“Once selected, a charity can get ten days a year. Most take them consecutively. Every ten days, we’re raising money on behalf of two charities. In a week in January, we might have Big Brothers and Big Sisters and Angel Flight. The next two weeks, it might be traumatic brain injury and firefighters. They’re each getting $100,000. Writing a check for an organization like Angel Flight for $100,000 makes everybody feel good.”

I asked Carrier how the charities are selected.

“Some charities apply and some we pursue. We’re active in understanding the work being done by the charities. How will these proceeds be used? What difference will these dollars make?”

Dual Rewards

Carrier sums up the feeling of operating a 100% employee-owned casino business that contributes millions to charity.

“Both the business and its people are growing. People are advancing into financial independence and enhancing their financial security in the long term. And we’re funding tens of millions of dollars for essential needs in the community.”

In a world where people and profits coexist and thrive, Andre Carrier is driving an entrepreneurial family business to unique business models where few casinos have gone before.


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