Faces of Gaming: Wes Ehrecke — From gasohol and pork chops to president of the Iowa Gaming Association

June 8, 2024 3:00 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
June 8, 2024 3:00 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

For 25 years, Wes Ehrecke has been at the helm of the Iowa Gaming Association as President and CEO.

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Raised on a dairy farm in Durant, Iowa, Ehrecke began his career in distinctly Iowa ways by selling the concept of Gasohol — a precursor to Iowa corn-based Ethanol – and touring to sell the concept of a thicker cut of pork chops trademarked to be called the Iowa Chop.

Since 2000, Ehrecke has been leading the Iowa Gaming Association (IGA) in a state with a storied history in gaming, which some claim started the third wave of legal gaming in the United States when it passed riverboat gaming legislation in 1991.

Ehrecke has been part of the evolution of Iowa gaming that started with $5 maximum bets and $200 loss limits on fully coast guard-certified riverboats that plowed Iowa rivers for two-hour cruises. Driven by massive losses in farming during the 1980s, there were t-shirts made in Iowa’s hardest hit communities saying, “Will the last person out please turn off the lights?”

Iowa passed riverboat gaming legislation to create jobs and attract tourism on its famed rivers, which was almost immediately duplicated by competing states.

Wes Ehrecke is also a 46-year veteran in the association management profession, including Executive Vice President & CEO, Minnesota Bankers Association 1995-2000, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives 1991-1995; and the Iowa Bankers Association, 1978-1991, including the role of Senior Vice President from 1987–1991.

Ehrecke is a graduate of Iowa State University. He has served on several foundation and professional boards as a director or officer, including Iowa Travel Industry Partners, Iowa State Parks Foundation, Iowa and American Societies of Association Executives, Iowa 4-H Foundation, American Gaming Association, and ISU Greenlee School of Journalism Advisory Council.

Ehrecke received several honors, including the Leadership for Iowa Award, named an ASAE Fellow, the ISAE Distinguished Executive Award, and the Iowa 4-H Foundation’s highest honor, the Meritorious Award.

From dairy farm to PR
Being raised on a dairy farm gave Ehrecke a solid base in life that he carried into his leadership of major associations.

“It teaches you to get up and show up. I mean, a cow has to be milked twice a day. You’ve got to work and it’s hard work.

“Even if things got really tough, we always knew we had fresh milk on the table, and chickens for eggs and raised steers for beef. There are some lessons to that. Even today, I never take anything for granted. Certainly, those roots were very valuable to me,” Ehrecke said.

He decided that he wanted to study journalism with an emphasis in public relations in college and put in 40+ hour days working construction to pay his way. After graduating, Ehrecke’s first job was a nine-month stint with the Iowa Development Commission (IDC) in Des Moines. One of his first assignments was going to a rural community advocating customers try putting the new concept of Gasohol, a corn-based gasoline additive, in their tanks.

“That was a great experience. Plus, at the time, pork chops were thin, and people tended to burn it to a crisp like leather. To change that mindset, the IDC created the inch and a quarter thick Iowa Chop; so, I went out and grilled a lot of pork chops and promoted why this idea was a much better option,” Ehrecke recalled.

God winks
Upon completion of the IDC role, Ehrecke was considering a position with a nursing home company when the interviewer perceived his heart was not in it.

“The interviewer indicated he had a chance encounter conversation minutes earlier in the elevator with Neil Milner of the Iowa Bankers Association (IBA) who told him he was looking for a lobbyist.

“He said, ‘I think you would be great for that. So, I’m going to call up Neil and tell him.’

“Neil calls me, and I interviewed, and he explained he was looking for a lobbyist. I said I wanted to check with my hometown banker, who turned out to be the former chairman of Neil’s association.

“The banker advised me ‘if you turn that job down, it would be the biggest mistake you ever made in your life.’ So, I accepted the offer, and it was certainly a fortuitous God wink to be the beginning of a wonderful 4+ decade career!

“Neil was a great mentor and helped me understand association management. He also taught me the importance of being involved in the legislative process as well as the regulatory process and dealing with several complex issues. It prepared me for future career moves, including gaming,” Ehrecke explained.

God winks again
After years gaining experience at the Minnesota Bankers Association, Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives and the IBA, Ehrecke describes his move back home to Iowa from Minnesota as another God wink.

“A very good friend of mine who I lobbied with in Iowa asked me if I was aware about a search for the executive of a new Iowa Gaming Association. So, I called another lobbying colleague, who turned out was a close friend with the president of the search committee. I asked did he know anything about this opportunity.

“After a long silence, he said, ‘Oh, my God, get your resume sent here immediately – they’re in the middle of the search, and you would be a great fit.’

“Within two days they had me come to interview; and I had created a proposed budget plus talked about what I envisioned and got the job offer,” Ehrecke said.

County by county
When Ehrecke started at the Iowa Gaming Association, it was a brand-new clean slate.

“The IGA formed in 1999 to unify two associations operating with volunteer leadership – one for the smaller riverboats and the other for the horse and greyhound racing facilities plus a couple larger riverboats,” Ehrecke said.

When asked what it was like creating a new gaming association and what were the challenges, Ehrecke replied, “One of the first things when I was hired in 2000 was to put together a ‘truth tour’ campaign and meet with TV and radio stations, plus newspapers in the casino counties and those with a statewide presence. This included presenting facts to counter and dispel the opponent’s myths.

“In order to be eligible to be considered for a casino license, you had to have the local county pass a referendum. The way the legislature set it up is that every eight years, you had to vote again.

“So, the next vote of these referendums was slated for 2002 and a lot was at stake. Bankers were not lending money when it got closer to the election because if a referendum failed, the casino would have to close within 30 days. Everything was at risk with loss of jobs, significant investment dollars in infrastructure and millions of dollars in revenue,” Ehrecke recalled.

“With the diligent efforts of proactive citizens in each county to educate voters, the referendums significantly passed by an average of 74%.

“In 2010, these referendums passed by an average of 78%, and one was as high as 85%. Counties really could see that the value of what casinos were doing for their communities and for the region was impressive,” Ehrecke said.

USS Cole reaction
In October of 2000, the USS Cole, a navy destroyer, fell victim to suicide bombers in Yemen, who killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 40. Ehrecke recalled that the Cole incident was a catalyst, and the reason legislation was changed allowing for casinos’ permanently moored vessels to replace cruising requirements on Iowa rivers.

“The potential fear of a terrorist attack in the middle of a major river used for barge traffic became the movement toward no longer having to require cruising and the riverboats could go dockside.

“That launched the era of boats in moats and water bladders under the gaming floor as they migrated to land based facilities,” Ehrecke recalled.

Iowa growth
The Iowa Gaming Association grew from 13 gaming properties to 19 facilities representing 11 gaming companies.

“Our IGA primary focus has been to strive for a unified industry consensus to be successful. Initially that was to assure the county referendums all passed – followed by several other emerging legislative priorities in the past 2+ decades. That list included to stop egregious gaming tax increases, remove the need for a referendum vote if a county had successfully and consecutively passed theirs twice, eliminate requirements for riverboats to cruise and allow land-based facilities, continue to allow smoking on the gaming floor, approve cashless wagering and legalizing sports wagering,” Ehrecke stated.

$1 billion annual economic impact
Today, Iowa’s casinos create an annual $1 billion annual economic impact for the state, including employee salaries and benefits, purchasing Iowa-based products and services, charitable contributions, and tax revenues. These dollars fund infrastructure, tourism, environmental conservation, cultural attractions, and other projects throughout the state.

According to the IGA website, Iowa commercial casinos have 6,800 employees who receive $271 million in annual payroll and benefits.

Iowa Gaming Association members pay millions in state taxes annually.

The Iowa General Assembly appropriates these funds for various visionary purposes. The estimated appropriations and outlays from revenue generated by Iowa’s commercial casinos total $368 million for FY 2023.

“I know of no other state that casinos provide charitable grant dollars to communities, whether it’s in a casino county or in a non-casino county, which goes into community foundations, each with a separate board of directors that decide how they want to approve the many grant requests. Casinos have no say in how the funds are dispersed but can advocate that every citizen is positively impacted by the projects,” Ehrecke stated.

Tourism impact
Ehrecke noted that one of the biggest impacts IGA members have is in tourism.

“There has been as high as 21 million patrons in admissions to Iowa gaming facilities collectively making this industry the state’s largest tourism attraction. And the many amenities offered beyond the gaming floor make casinos premier entertainment destinations,” he added.

Sports betting
The IGA began looking at sports betting before the Supreme Court paved the way to legalization in 2018.

“We were successful in passing sports betting in the 2019 legislative session and it was considered one of the model bills in the country for the lower tax rate and how it’s structured. It’s been working great, creating a lot of interest for the many who enjoy watching and wagering on sports in a regulated fun environment. And people also come to place their wagers from neighboring places like Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota,” Ehrecke said.

Gratifying work
I asked Ehrecke what he found most gratifying about his 25 years of leadership at the IGA.

“I think it is getting to know the people in the gaming companies. It’s a 24/7 business and I am just impressed by their knowledge and community leadership. When I first started all you heard about was the bad things; that this is just a horrible industry. So, to dispel those myths, to advocate for this great industry has been gratifying,” Ehrecke said.

Ehrecke was also involved in starting Iowa Women Leaders in Gaming (WLG).

“I initiated a survey to discover stats that exceeded other industries by comparison – 52% of our gaming workforce were female and 44% of them were in supervisor/manager positions and 37% at the executive team level. So, we touted that to schedule an annual WLG summit where an average of 175 women from the casinos gathered for a day to network and to enhance their leadership skills.”

Repetition and retention
Ehrecke stated he is a big believer that repetition is the key to effective retention when advocating the many benefits of the gaming industry.

“The needle was moved over the last 25 years; people now think of casinos as an acceptable form of entertainment either for themselves or others. It’s around 80%.”

‘‘That is significant, as we are a more mature industry; Iowa gaming has evolved to be thought of favorably within the legislature and with the citizens of Iowa. We are well regulated and respected to have a high level of integrity. Every casino wants to maintain that momentum going forward,” Ehrecke said.

Success secrets
I asked Ehrecke what he thought contributed to his success of leading the IGA.

“I may not be the smartest person in the room; but I am going to outwork everyone in sight. I believe in being courteous and kind and trying to make things happen,” Ehrecke stated.

Making things happen
When Wes Ehrecke received the Iowa Leadership Award from the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, he shared his mantra: “Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen and some people wonder what happened.”

As leader of the IGA, Ehrecke has been making things happen for 25 years.

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