Faces of Gaming: Laura Penney — Putting in the Work as CEO of Coeur d’Alene Casino

April 29, 2023 11:00 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
April 29, 2023 11:00 AM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

One of a few female CEOs of a casino, Laura Penney is the embodiment of resilience.

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Five months into her role as CEO of Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Idaho, she faced down the challenges of a raging pandemic. While every casino shut down around March 2020, Laura Penney gained her 15 minutes of fame as the leader of the first casino in the country to reopen.

Thirty years earlier, Penney was part of the very beginnings of the Coeur d’Alene property. She has since demonstrated her irrepressible nature in her rise to leadership as a female Native American CEO.

Since 1993, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has operated the Coeur d’Alene Casino, located where sky greets Mt. Tch’mutpkwe. Coeur d’Alene has grown from a bingo operation to a premier casino-resort destination, with amenities that include the Circling Raven Golf Club, two hotel wings, several eateries, live entertainment and events, retail shops, and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

Running Ahead

I asked Laura if there was anything in growing up that pointed to her leadership trait.

“I had a very regulated and stringent upbringing by my mother and father. My father was in the military. I was brought up with strict discipline. That made me who I am in regard to discipline, being patient, and putting in the work. I think that kind of set the tone,” Penny said.

“I also did a lot of running. At school in PE, we ran, I think it was two miles. I finished in front with the guys. I thought that was cool. I got a little high off of that.

“To run competitively, I trained between five and twelve miles every day. I ran road races and strove to win. A big road race called Bloomsday is held every year in May in Spokane, Washington. When I was twelve years old, I won that race in my age group.”

The Good and the Bad

Along with her Marine father and teachers, Penney was influenced by her grandmother.

“My grandmother was very nurturing. She instilled values in me and really supported me. She taught me that it’s rough out there and I just need to ride through it. She always said, ‘Don’t take the bad too bad or the good too good.’ I didn’t know what the heck she was talking about.

“But now I do. I taught my two daughters: That’s life. There will always be good and it’s not going to be bad forever. You just have to ride through it,” Penney said.

“My grandmother was not only nurturing, but she was also a strong link to my culture. She spoke our Coeur d’Alene language fluently. She taught me Native hymns in our language, shared traditional stories with me, and always told me to be proud of who I am.”

Economic Development

At the urging of her father, Penney earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University in recreation management and leisure services.

“My father instilled in me to go away, get my education, come back, and help the tribe. Before I finished my degree, my father told me that our planning department was doing progressive projects.

“Once I graduated, an economic-development-planner position was open. I got the position, then later became the planning director.”

At the time, the tribe started exploring gaming in the form of bingo.

“Gaming was very foreign to us,” Penny admitted. “We didn’t know anything about it. Like, bingo? How can you make money from bingo? So we put together a committee to decide whether or not this would be good for us. I was fortunate to be working in the planning department and became part of that effort.”

While the committee visited bingo halls in the local area, it eventually heard about Oneida, Wisconsin.

“We flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I’ll never forget that we got off the plane and just a mile down the road from the airport was this beautiful resort-casino. They had what we have today—thirty-three or so years ago. We were just in awe. Then they took us around the reservation. They showed us their senior housing, the wellness center, the outlet mall, and a beautiful hotel and casino. We came back home and said, ‘Let’s do this!’”

The Coeur d’Alene bingo facility opened in 1993 and the gaming enterprise is now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Five Percent

A profound offer was put on the table when formulating the original compact with the state. The tribe volunteered to give 5% of the net profits from all operations of the resort to an education fund controlled by the tribe.

“Our tribal leaders were talking about the compact and one stated, ‘We want to put this in our gaming compact. We want to put five percent of our net profits toward education.’ And everyone was just in awe.

“People think the stipulation was put upon us, but it was a tribal leader who volunteered it. He stated that this is our value system. This is what we do. We always give back. It’s a commitment. I’m proud to say that we continue to follow through and to date, we’ve given over $34 million toward education,” Penney stated.

CEO of Perseverance

“I started thinking I wanted to be CEO. I had my bachelor’s degree and at least fifteen years or so of experience. I thought that qualified me.

“I didn’t get the position. The second time I applied, I was turned down again. The third time before applying, I asked, ‘What do I need to improve? What are you looking for? And they said, ‘Everyone who’s gotten the position has had their masters.’

“It was twenty-some years since I’d earned my degree and I knew it was going to be very difficult. But I was determined. I really did want to be CEO. I went back to college and it was difficult to go back into the regimen of studying. I still raising my two daughters as a single parent and that was challenging. But I had a lot of support.

“I finished my MBA at the University of Idaho and when another opportunity for the position of CEO opened up, I applied. I thought, oh, I’m going to get it this time. I did all that was asked. When I didn’t get the position, I was very disappointed. I thought I deserved it.

“I believed in what we were doing with gaming and the resort. So I went back to work and did the best job I could for the casino and the tribe. That helped me regroup and accept that it just wasn’t my time. And then, lo and behold, the position opened again. I applied and I got the position in 2019.”

A Determined, Persistent, Casino Celebrity

Just a few months after becoming CEO of Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel after four attempts, Penney faced the gaming industry’s biggest challenge, COVID-19.

“When COVID hit, there was nothing to guide us or help us with what to do next in very uncertain times,” Penney remembered. But the tribal council decided to shut down two weeks before the state of Idaho closed.

“That was on March 20, 2020. I remembered that we first opened the doors to the bingo operation on March 20, 1993. So that was ironic,” Penney said.

“I’ll never forget the day we closed. I rode down the escalators to the gaming floor and it was just empty. We had an empty casino and an empty parking lot and it was so quiet. I almost started crying. I knew how important these dollars were to our tribe and to community. It was a heavy weight on my shoulders. Immediately, I knew that we had to work on opening our doors.”

The Coeur d’Alene tribal council put together a task force of health officials, educators, doctors, and school administrators. It eventually grew to more than 30 people.

“We looked at the data and we noticed that the pandemic wasn’t as bad as the other communities and cities. We said, ‘Maybe we can open our doors. But we need to be really smart about it. We need to be safe about what we do.

“We also got a hold of a document from Wynn Las Vegas. It consisted of three hundred pages of protocols. After reviewing and modifying those protocols, we figured out a way to open our doors.

“We also made sure to take care of our employees. We paid them for the weeks we were closed and kept their benefits going,” Penney said.

I asked Penney if being the first casino to open in the country was purposeful or just how the timing fell.

“No, it was just urgency. We were paying our employees and that was a lot of money. We needed to get them back to work for their livelihood and for the community.

“The taskforce met every day to look at the data and figure out how we were going to do it in a safe manner,” Penney said.

Reopening

Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel became the first casino in the country to reopen. It held a soft opening on April 27, 2020, and an official reopening four days later on May 1.

“We had Washington customers call us and say, ‘We heard you’re going to open. Will you let us cross the border to come to your establishment?’”

On Friday May 1, Coeur d’Alene opened ahead of schedule at 7:30 a.m. Crowds lined up outside the casino, prompting decisions on crowd control and capacity management. As the first casino to reopen, Coeur d’Alene attracted visitors from across the country.

“I ran into a group of ladies who said, ’You know, we’re so happy you’re open. We heard you were open and we drove all the way from Minneapolis, Minnesota.’ There were stories about a group of Texans who came in, a bunch of people from Vegas. There were people from all over and that was scary too. But we were very strict with masks and those were challenging times,” Penney recalled.

Still, Laura Penney became a gaming-management celebrity. She was prominently featured on Tino Magnatta’s “Casino Update,” which posted live tours of the property from Penney’s mobile phone.

The entire industry was transfixed on Penney’s reports on “Casino Update,” trying to learn everything they could from the casino that dared to reopen after in the midst of the COVID shutdowns.

Female Leadership

I asked Penney if being a female Native American CEO has changed her management style.

“It’s a great responsibility. The position itself is a major obligation, but being a woman, I think, is an even greater responsibility. I’ve always been in the minority as a Native person.

“There’s also pressure, but that’s an opportunity for me to present myself in a way that’s strong, but also calm. My leadership is based on being involved, collaborative, and patient, really embracing and listening to our employees. I don’t know all the answers. So I rely on the team,” Penney said.

I asked Penney for her perspective on the secret to success in the casino industry.

“It’s important to understand who you are, to understand your value system and go for it. You know you can do it, whatever you put your mind to. You have to lay out want you want to do, why you want to do it, then put that goal out there and have that vision and go for it. But you do have to put the work in,” Penney declared.

Laura Penney has been putting in the work for over 30 years. She is living proof that persistence and hard work can pay off in any goal you set for yourself.


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