Faces of Gaming: Melonie Johnson — From rural Louisiana to resort-casino leadership   

October 29, 2022 4:15 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
October 29, 2022 4:15 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Faces of Gaming is a monthly column from consultant Tom Osiecki about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

From a childhood with no indoor plumbing to top leadership positions in several major resort-casinos, Melonie Johnson has a remarkable story to tell.

Story continues below

In 2015, Johnson joined Gold Strike in Tunica, Mississippi, as general manager and was promoted to president and COO in 2017, becoming the second Black person to lead a property in Mississippi.

In 2017, Johnson was asked to join MGM National Harbor in Maryland, also as president and COO and again becoming the first Black person to lead a casino in Maryland.

In 2020, she became president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, becoming the first Black woman to lead a casino in Atlantic City.

In 2021, Johnson returned to her previous position as president and Chief Operating Officer of MGM National Harbor, a regional market leader with a 24-story hotel, more than 125,000 square feet of gaming, a dozen-plus dining options, a 4,000-seat theater, convention and meeting space, pool, fitness center, and spa.

Yet talking to Melonie Johnson, you understand that her success comes from a personal philosophy that could be the curriculum for a master class in career development.

“Little House on the Prairie”

Johnson grew up in the small town of Lacombe, Louisiana, along Lake Pontchartrain.

“It was a simple way of life, similar to “A Little House on the Prairie,” but it was a great life. We had everything we needed and an abundance of love,” said Johnson.

“We literally had no indoor plumbing when I was growing up. We had an outhouse and a hand pump. That builds character, because if this is your way of life, anything outside of that is gravy once you start growing up and experiencing different things. It keeps you humble. It makes you respect what you have. And it makes you proud of where you are and where you’re going.”

She’s also proud of where she came from. Johnson said that the building blocks for her achievements later in life came from the strong women in her family.

“I grew up in a very matriarchal environment. My grandmother was an extraordinarily strong woman. My aunts were also strong. They picked up this learned behavior from their mom, because growing up in the South and southern Louisiana wasn’t easy during segregation.

“So these ladies took on huge challenges to support their families, their husbands, and their children to create an environment for us to feel like we were capable of doing anything and never let anything hold us back. One of my favorite aunts instilled a sense of ‘you don’t need other people to validate you; you validate yourself and be proud of who you are and your accomplishments,’” Johnson recalled.

Early adversity

“I graduated from the University of New Orleans with a Bachelor of Science in accounting. But in the New Orleans area, it was difficult for an African American, whether male or female, to find employment that was commensurate with the degree you received from a university. I started on a long trail of interviews, but when Melanie Dupree (Johnson’s maiden name) walked into the door of those businesses, you could just see the body language: ‘Oh my gosh, she’s Black. We didn’t know she was Black.’ I didn’t get those jobs. It was tough on me, and deflating to my ego,” Johnson recounted.

“I went to an employment agency that secured an interview for me with a bank as a commercial-loan teller and I was hired. I made a whopping $9,600; I paid the agency $960 for that position. My round-trip commute was two hours and I had to pay tolls. But I did that job. And I did it to the best of my ability. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I wanted to be the best of the best.

“I worked there for 18 months, then found another job. I moved up the ranks and became a credit analyst. That made me not afraid to take on challenges ahead.

“It was tough and it taught me patience. It taught me to be strategic. It taught me to be analytic. And it taught me the importance of formulating relationships at work,” Johnson admitted.

An unexpected start in the casino industry

Johnson worked for an oil and gas company for six years, only leaving after the company went into bankruptcy.

“I was called for an interview at Harrah’s New Orleans. I thought I was being interviewed for the financial analyst. When I started interviewing, I realized it was for the manager of financial accounting and reporting. I just pretended that I was there for that interview and lo and behold, I got the job.

“I never had a playbook saying that I wanted to get into the gaming industry back in the early nineties. I was a little scared when I was hired and I said, ‘Okay, guys, gaming is new to this area. Can you partner me with the best directors of finance?’ I wanted to do a roadshow and visit these guys to establish relationships and have resources readily available to help me in those areas where I was deficient,” Johnson stated.

Back to gaming

Johnson left Harrah’s to pursue a particular ambition: the number-one finance person reporting to a general manager.

“Going to work for Jazzland theme park in New Orleans gave me that opportunity. I knew that would put me on a trajectory to be a CFO back in the gaming industry.”

Johnson worked for five years at Jazzland, which was purchased by Six Flags, then took a job at a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi — just in time for Hurricane Katrina to shut everything down starting in August 2005.

“In July 2006, I was hired as the CFO at Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. That was my reentry to the gaming industry.”

Into operations

“I’ve worked with quite a few companies, including Penn National in 2012, for career opportunities. I went backwards as a CFO. I was told, ‘If you stay, there’s a possibility of being promoted to assistant general manager and then general manager. I worked for the company in Illinois and was promoted and transferred to Charlestown, West Virginia, as assistant general manager. Five and a half months later in 2015, MGM recruited me to be a general manager, then president and COO in 2107 at Gold Strike in Tunica. I’ve done a lot of moving in a fairly short period of time,” she said.

Never a one-size-fits-all in leadership

With her many firsts and challenges, I asked Johnson about her approach to leadership.

“Managing to the audience. I’ve got to understand who I’m talking to and fine tune the communications to that group. I manage my frontline employees in one way. There’s another for supervisors and managers, another for directors, another for vice presidents. I manage with my peers and the senior leaders of this company. So it’s never one size fits all. It’s open transparent conversation and communication and leading with courage,” Johnson said.

Advice for young people and women in the casino industry

I asked Johnson what advice she gives to young people in the casino industry.

“The one thing I stress to young people is to have a good foundation. Learn as much as you can and establish relationships through effective communication. You’ve got to have those relationships to help you, but you also have to be patient, because there’s a hierarchy.

“I look at it as a triangle. At the bottom of the triangle, you have the vast majority of your workforce. The higher up you go, the less positions you have. It gets more challenging. You’ve got to remain competitive, you’ve got to remain relevant, and you’ve got to make sure that you have the correct foundation.”

She added, “This younger generation wants to be heard and needs to understand, so I make sure that I listen. I make sure that we’re communicating effectively and we’re explaining the whys of what we’re doing and the outcome that we’re looking to achieve.”

Johnson recommends that women establish relationships and surround themselves with people who are well respected, positive, and inspirational.

“You’ve got to have someone who open the door and allow you entry. Make sure that you have the current correct credentials and don’t be afraid to make a mistake. We all make mistakes. We’ve got to learn how to have those courageous conversations and be very transparent,” she affirmed.

The calculator that started it all

Asked to relate a career story that Johnson is most proud of, she tells this surprising tale of persistence.

“At my job as a commercial bank teller in Louisiana, every teller knew the ten-key Monroe calculator by touch — except me. I asked my supervisor, ‘Do you mind if I borrow this calculator and take it home over the weekend, so I can practice?’ When I came back that Monday morning, I was so proficient at that Monroe calculator, it was unbelievable. I know it sounds simple, but I had a deficiency that I had to overcome. It was a small success, but it’s one I’m really proud of,” Johnson recalled.

Talking to Melonie Johnson is inspiring. Listening to her, you understand the core values of someone who can go from rural Louisiana to leading thousands of people at top-tier casinos.

And to think it all started with a Monroe calculator.

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