IGA Tradeshow: Tribal gaming executives discuss their journeys

April 11, 2024 3:07 PM
Photo: CDC Gaming Reports
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
April 11, 2024 3:07 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

Four Native Americans shared their inspiring journeys of ascending into leadership roles in the casino industry at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Convention on Wednesday as part of the discussion “From Vision to Victory: The Journeys of Native American Leadership.”

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Panelists included Kevin Nephew, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corp. in New York; Kara Fox-LaRose, president and general manager of the Ilani Casino Resort in Washington state; Kathy George, CEO of the Two Kings Casino in North Carolina; and Dominic Ortiz, CEO of the Potawatomi Casinos & Hotels in Wisconsin.

Fox-LaRose said she started in the casino industry with the Mohegan tribe, of which she’s a member on her father’s side of the family. After 28 years, she’s the senior employee of the Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort.

“Setbacks can be opportunities,” Fox-LaRose said. “If you fail, fail quickly. We have that motto in our company for sure. When you think about facing setbacks, all of us have lived through times that we didn’t get what we wanted or the desired outcome. Mindset is important for how you approach your day to day and making sure you always remember there’s another way. It’s important to be curious and creative and stay open to feedback.”

Ortiz said he was born into tribal gaming in the mid-1990s; his dad was a longtime tribal chairman. But he didn’t know he would go down that path. Ortiz is an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas and has served as chief financial officer of Soaring Eagle Gaming Properties and Corporate Services in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

“From the beginning as we were growing up in the tribe, nobody had any background in the industry,” Ortiz said. “We’re the generation that benefited. All the money for my education came from my tribe in the casino. Twenty years later, individuals around my tribe and others that I’ve mentored now know somebody who is an executive in Indian gaming and has 20 years of experience and they’re doing great.”

Ortiz’s involvement in tribal gaming was “rich.” He started as an intern paying jackpots and making $12 an hour and rose through the ranks as a beverage manager, then director of food and beverage, then financial controller, director of finance, and after 12 years CFO. He helped the tribe break away from Harrah’s running the casino to be tribally owned and operated.

“I always envisioned that I’d go out and help other tribes,” Ortiz said of working with other tribes in his career. “I didn’t know it would come to fruition, but it gave me an opportunity to grow, challenge myself, and get more experience. If you have your feet under you and know what you’re doing, you have the background to go out and help other tribes and bring those experiences to them.”

George grew up in New York and worked in a bingo hall, starting as a fry cook and getting promoted to cashier. Her mother was a Mohawk from Canada and her dad was a Seneca from New York.

“I had two neighborhoods that supported us, but no one had casinos,” George said. “We had a bingo hall and that was great. I was fortunate to go to Cornell and have internships. The whole time I was thinking that my dad said I had to give back, but I recognized in speaking to mentors that I had to get experience to do that.”

George joined Wyndham Hotels out of college and stayed 14 years before returning to the Senecas to become general manager of the gaming corporation.

“It was cool to go back. I knew that what my parents said 30 years earlier did come to fruition, and that was really neat,” George said.

George ultimately became CEO of the Firekeepers Casino Hotel in Michigan for five years and oversaw expansion and growth.

“I’ve moved 16 times around the country working at different places, but only for three companies,” George said. “I was at Firekeepers for 10 years. I got everything built, I prepared the team, and they were ready for the next leader. It’s great to give back to Native gaming. For all the mentors I had in my career, I hope I can be a mentor like they’ve been for me.”

Nephew said he’s fortunate to work for his own people after being named CEO three years ago for the Seneca Gaming Corp.

“We all started from humble beginnings just outside of Buffalo, but we were always part of the community,” Nephew said. “I hadn’t planned on going to college and stumbled into an opportunity to play sports. I realized in my junior year that I couldn’t figure out what to do. When I called my mom, she told me to find someone I could talk to.”

Nephew said he had a knack for organizing, which led to learning about management, data-driven decisions, and how to prioritize. He earned his MBA at Columbia, then worked for the Senecas on the governmental side before working for New York state for 22 years.

“A couple of folks said, ‘Why don’t you come back and work for the gaming corporation?” Nephew said. “I remember coming back and it was challenging. I started wondering if it was the right choice. There’s a point you say, I don’t know if I can do this and more important, I don’t know if I want to do this. I remember walking home at four in the morning. I told myself I’m going to learn this better than anybody else and get to know every person who works in the casino. That was a point of pride. I wanted to give back. I remember what my mother said, ‘Find something that you like.’ If you find something you like, do it, because once you find that, it won’t seem like work. It will be this drive that you never stop doing. It’s been a great ride. We’ve done great things and changed the organization dramatically over the last three years. It was great and we made it better.”