Faces of Gaming: Cache Creek’s Kari Stout-Smith — Dancing backwards in high heels

November 18, 2023 11:25 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
November 18, 2023 11:25 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Asked to describe what it was like to be a female executive at some of the largest casinos in California, Kari Stout-Smith recounts, “Early on, I took this approach that no one was ever going to work harder or longer than me. I was inspired by a quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, ‘Sure, he (Fred) was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels.’ To me, it was a metaphor for gracefully navigating both the challenges and opportunities of being a women in a male-dominated field. I was always the Ginger Rogers to everyone else’s Fred Astaire. I was going to work just as hard as everyone else, but backwards and in high heels until I found my way.”

Story continues below

Kari Stout-Smith is the general manager and chief operating officer for Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks, California. Her career spans 26 years in marketing and casino operations in various leadership roles. Her influence as a woman leader has been recognized by Newsweek and Plant-A Insights Group, which named Cache Creek one of the “Top 100 America’s Greatest Workplaces for Women” in 2023.

She began her career in gaming at Barona Resort & Casino in San Diego and spent 13 years working her way through the ranks in various guest-services, advertising, special-events, and casino-marketing roles. Showing her versatility, Stout-Smith was recruited to train as a casino manager involved in all facets of the resort’s operations and credits this opportunity as a turning point in her professional development.

Her career path has included some of California’s premier properties, including Thunder Valley Casino Resort, Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, and Agua Caliente Casino Resorts, culminating at Cache Creek.

Grit and resilience

When interviewing subjects for Faces of Gaming, I like to ask if there was an early influence that led to success in the gaming industry. In this case, few people have a story of parental inspiration that is more powerful than Stout-Smith’s memories of her father.

“Oh, I love talking about my dad. One of the things I loved most about him was that he never met a stranger. There wasn’t anyone that he couldn’t form some type of a bond or connection with. My dad was a nurse by trade. Unfortunately, he was injured in an accident and became a quadriplegic when I was five years old. At that point, he could no longer work in the same profession.

“That really sparked a drive for me early on. Having a disabled parent was certainly a challenge. We had to overcome a limited income for the family. He was the primary wage earner. My mom became his caregiver, so it was a unique upbringing. It taught me a lot about having grit and resilience. My dad also had a great sense of humor. A lot of what my sister and I learned as kids was how to deal with adversity through humor and make light of the hard things that happen, how to make friends and how to laugh at myself.

“I love sharing my dad’s story, though it’s in many ways tragic. He was a very special person. He did later go back to work with a company that built prosthetics and other tools for individuals who were disabled or had special needs. He inspired my work ethic in many ways.

“Unfortunately, we lost him when I was twenty-one.”

Knocked over by a feather

When Stout-Smith began her gaming career at Barona in 1998, one of the aspects she most appreciated was that working there was like being part of a big family.

“It’s a close-knit community within the casino. The tribe was active and involved and knew our names and actually took time to single us out and appreciate us.

“I’ll never forget the day my grandparents came to our buffet and to visit me at work. The chairman at the time, Clifford LaChappa, happened to be on property and introduced himself to my grandparents. He said how much he appreciated me working for the tribe and that the tribe was happy I was there.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather. At that point, I was just a frontline employee. I think I’d been there only a year or two. It really made an impression on my grandparents — and me.”

From marketing to operations

“I’ve spent most of my career in marketing. At Barona, management identified something in me. They thought I had potential and wanted to teach me the casino- operations side of the business.

“The opportunity to go through a casino boot camp was invaluable to how I view this business. It really shifted what I thought I knew from a marketing perspective and grounded it in the reality of what actually happens in the casino — especially when the administrative staff goes home and it’s only the players and the frontline staff and a new mailer has dropped with rules of a promotion or and offer that are confusing. That experience really helped me understand how critical communication, collaboration, and effective planning are to producing a positive result for the guests and the employees.”

“My career is unique in that it has all been in California. And I love California. I was recruited by Thunder Valley in 2010 as vice president of marketing. It was an opportunity for me to spread my wings and learn another market, another property, another tribe. Then I went to the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in southern California as executive director of marketing.

“From there, I was recruited by the same GM I’d worked with at Thunder Valley, who had moved to Agua Caliente in the greater Palm Springs area as the general manager and chief operating officer. I viewed that as the next step in my career with multiple property experience. While I was at Agua Caliente, I was promoted to assistant general manager and eventually general manager.

“It was an amazing experience every step of the way, every property. It taught me a lot about how unique each tribe is and how they approach the business.”

Learning from a competitor

“When I was at Thunder Valley, one of the things I did was look at the new market as a tourist and try to learn as much as possible. I also sized up the competition and Cache Creek was our competitor at the time. So I wanted to learn as much as I could about this property and the more I learned, the more I liked what I heard. Cache Creek had a fantastic longtime general manager named Randy Takemoto, who was here for over 30 years. There was also a lot of longevity and forward thinking from tribal ownership. A lot of ingredients in the Cache Creek recipe were intriguing to me. I said to my husband, ‘If the VP of marketing there ever retires, maybe I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’

“At Agua Caliente in 2018, I heard that Randy was retiring and I reached out initially to see if there might be an opportunity. Nine or ten months later, a recruiter contacted me. I did an in-person interview with the tribal council. It was one of the best interviews of my career. I felt so comfortable and at home with them and the property. I was chosen and it’s been a little over five years now. I couldn’t be happier.”

Something different

I asked Stout-Smith if she had early influencers in her role as a female leader in the gaming industry.
“I was fortunate that when I was at Barona, the vice president of marketing, Linda Devine, was a strong leader. She’s still at Barona and I still look up to her. Our GM at the time was also a woman, Karol Schoen, so I was uniquely exposed to talented women at the leadership level. That helped to shape my ambitions about what was feasible. Initially, I didn’t see myself at casinos. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be 26 years, which is where I am now.

“I joke with my husband that if I ever write an autobiography, the title will be ‘Something Different. I love trying new things. I love to say, ‘Okay, we did that. It was great. Now how can we improve on it? Does it make sense for us to do it again or to produce something different that people haven’t seen before?’ I learned, developed, and cultivated that at Barona.

“I really love new concepts and ideas, the opportunity to look at things differently, to explore a different way of providing guest service or a good experience for our employees. I’m really enthused by what’s new and different, what’s next.”

America’s top workplaces for women

Stout-Smith’s influence as a leader came to light when Newsweek named Cache Creek one of America’s “Top 100 Greatest Workplaces for Women” in 2023.

“That came as an absolute surprise,” she admitted. “When we were originally notified, I had a healthy sense of skepticism about it. I thought, okay, did they just identify us because I’m a female chief operating officer? But we found out that it was based on phone surveys, feedback from our employees, that positioned us to be on that list. We’re the only tribally owned casino that’s listed.

“We’re doing the right thing, helping all of our employees to thrive and grow. Still, it’s another thing altogether when your employees come back and say, yes, that’s how we feel too. It’s an immensely proud moment for me,” Stout-Smith stated.

I asked Stout-Smith what it was like advancing a career as a woman in gaming.

“We could do a whole interview on what it’s like having been a woman in this business. I think it was harder. I certainly felt like I had to work harder. I felt like I had to get along with the guys, but also not try to be one of the guys.

“When I tell people I work in a casino, the assumption is I’m a dealer. I’m a host. They don’t assume that a woman can run the business, but more women are leading these organizations today than ever before. It took a lot of grit and maybe some naivety along the way. I didn’t realize how hard some things were going to be. I just believed that because others had done it, I could do it too.

“It’s a different industry today than when I first started. Early on, the path to the C-suite was expected to be a man who came from finance, table games, or slots. Today, we’re seeing that’s not the only path.
“We have to do a better job as an industry of making those paths accessible, not only to women, but for people of all different backgrounds. The more diversity we have at the table, the better the decisions that are made.”
Effecting change and the pandemic

“One lesson I’ve learned, especially here at Cache Creek where there was so much longevity and tenure, is that the stability from that length of service in an organization is tremendously valuable. But it also can be tremendously challenging. The longer someone has been doing things the same way, the harder it is to effect change and the more frustrating it can be in some ways.

“No one ever wants to repeat what we went through in 2020. A lot of elegant solutions came out of having to change our business model due to the pandemic. Suddenly, we couldn’t do things the same way anymore. We had to completely look at the business through alien eyes to try to figure out how we conducted this social experiment of gathering in a casino when people weren’t supposed to gather.

“When I first came to Cache Creek, I didn’t expect how difficult it would be to make some positive changes happen. That was one of the unexpected gifts from COVID, forcing change in a short period of time. That was key to making more shifts happen within the business.”

Success secrets and advice

I asked Stout-Smith what advice she would give young Kari and how that advice would transpose to young people she encounters who want to be successful in gaming.

“Well, this is going to sound counterintuitive, but I would go back and tell past Kari to slow down a bit. I would tell her that there’s value in the journey and not just the destination. That it’s not all about work.

“I would give the same advice to others who are eager and enthusiastic. It’s not how quickly you get there. It’s how equipped you are when you get to that next stage of your career. Just knowing that there is a lot of opportunity along the way.”

“I go back to some of the internal grit and resilience that I learned from my dad. He didn’t have the use of his hands or legs. Yet he managed to wake up every day and try to be the most positive and impactful person that he could be in the best possible way. I draw a lot of strength and inspiration from that.

“Because no matter how hard my day is, I’m going to walk out of this building. I have a wonderful supportive husband and family. There is more good than bad in my life. I just draw on that resilience and optimism and the idea that it could always be worse.”

And you can add to that a healthy sprinkling of Ginger Roger’s influence, dancing backwards in high heels.

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