February 3, 2021 Casino, Land-Based, Interview

Setting The Example

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Tim Poole speaks with Borgata president & COO Melonie Johnson and Ocean Casino Resort CEO Terry Glebocki, two of Atlantic City’s leaders at the forefront of gaming’s resilient stand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When looking at the senior management teams of Atlantic City casinos, it’s impossible not to observe that of nine properties, three are now led by women. It was previously four, too, until Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel & Casino was sold to Bally’s Corporation, which meant the recent departure of Karie Hall. Still, it’s a significantly encouraging number when you consider gaming boardrooms have traditionally been dominated by men. As Ocean Casino Resort CEO Terry Glebocki told us as part of Gaming America’s US CEO Special in the fall, “things have changed a lot.”

So often in her career, she said, she had been the only woman at the table. And the important distinction she went on to make was that, now, female executives are not in positions just because they’re women – “they just happen to be women,” she says. That means talent is finding its way to the top on merit, pushing the gaming industry to become a fairer and more inclusive place to work at elite levels.                                                                

There is still a long way to go, of course, when it comes to diversity in the boardroom – and not just when it comes to gender. AGS CEO David Lopez was open and forthright in telling Gambling Insider there is still plenty of room for improvement in that same US CEO Special edition. But the senior positions of Jacqueline Grace, SVP and general manager for Tropicana Atlantic City, Glebocki and Melonie Johnson, president & COO at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, prove there is now room for the women of gaming to assume roles at the very peak of the sector.

As part of our Atlantic City focus, both Glebocki and Johnson spoke exclusively to Gaming America, and the former feels the business case for diversity is being illuminated by the success of women in modern boardrooms. “I think more and more boards, including gaming boards, are realizing the benefits of inclusion of females,” Glebocki says. “I think it’s unlikely you'll find many boards, in any industry, that are predominantly female, but given time I think you'll see more females being invited into the boardroom. There are some amazing female gaming professionals out there that would be very beneficial for boards to consider. Diversity around the table is always beneficial.”

Glebocki’s career path to becoming Ocean CEO is inspiring, and when advising young female executives who aspire to become an SVP or CEO, her mantra is “the numbers never lie.” She explains: “Treat the business as if it is your own and utilize your entrepreneurial skills. Learn as much of the business as you can and offer to work on special projects whenever possible. Also, learn from your successes and failures as there is a lesson in each one of them. Understand the numbers and use them as a tool to grow the business. Don’t be afraid of the numbers. In the end, the numbers never lie.” 

For Atlantic City’s top brass, learning from both successes and failures is an important theme. Johnson, for instance, believes some of her best learnings have come from her biggest mistakes. Her journey has been a tough one, she reflects, but she has no regrets looking back on her ascension to the Borgata president’s seat. Her appointment materialized in August, when she became the first ever African American woman to lead an Atlantic City casino.

"I graduated from college at 21 years old and grew up in a very small town, so I didn't have a lot of exposure,” she says. “The one thing that helped me in my career is relationships: establishing relationships in the work environment and outside of the work environment, and having that network of people to shore me up. So to be successful, and to achieve this level of success, you've got to have the correct foundation. That’s the educational background, it's the on-the-job experience and then having your support group that can help you. You can bounce things off of people.”

Again, Johnson emphasizes the message of reacting to setbacks. For the Borgata president, it’s about accepting negative news in a positive manner and learning how to deliver messages where the individual will not take everything personally. Taking feedback personally is something you really can’t do, she says, which is a lesson we can all learn – in any industry. To move forward, Johnson encourages processing a setback and not wallowing in it or allowing it to become all-consuming. Completing her recipe, she focuses on the way she delivers messages herself, because everyone’s perception is their own reality.

These are lessons any executive, male or female, could heed. They are also lessons that have helped Johnson navigate the opening months of her role at Borgata; and there are few challenges more daunting than taking over a land-based property during the COVID-19 pandemic, when sudden closure is always an imminent threat and restrictions mean you’re unable to operate at 100% even when safely open. “By far, the first three or four months has been the most challenging period in my career, I must say,” Johnson admits. “And it’s not necessarily because of the technical aspect of the work or transitioning from one property to another, because that’s been part of my career. I’ve worked in multiple gaming jurisdictions and moving is just part of my natural journey.

“But the challenge with this was leaving a property during COVID-19 when we had all of these restrictions, coming to a property that had been closed and the employees had been here 20 years. They are very seasoned staff but the property’s closed, with a very limited number of individuals working here, and then moving into a role where other senior leaders were no longer here. I'm unknown to the staff; the staff is unknown to me. We're worried about health, we're worried about safety and we’re trying to figure out how we will reopen this property.”

Despite the obstacles, earning respect was something Johnson focused on early. Having worked at MGM Resorts International, Gold Strike Casino Resort, Tunica Mississippi, MGM National Harbor and National Harbor, Maryland, Johnson needed to now prove herself at Borgata, a property she describes as the flagship of Atlantic City. There were big shoes to fill, in her eyes, and combined with managing health and safety protocols and uncertainty regarding jobs and employees, 2020 became a year “no one could have ever imagined in our lifetime,” she says.

Yet, as part one of our Atlantic City focus established, New Jersey’s revival in recent years left the Garden State’s casinos in the best place possible to deal with this pandemic. And with the help of Atlantic City’s leaders, the outlook remains optimistic in the long term – certainly far more positive than just a few years ago, now that record online gaming and sportsbook numbers are offering a lifeline to land-based revenue decline during COVID-19. The overall picture leaves Glebocki, for one, confident about Ocean’s future.

“It’s difficult to speak for the other properties but we believe our future here at Ocean is bright,” she says. “I'm optimistic. We had tremendous momentum prior to this crisis, as a property and as a market. Businesses are dynamic by nature. They adapt to changing situations to survive. Atlantic City has seen challenging times before and we will continue to adapt to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

For Johnson, adapting to these new, unprecedented obstacles has meant utilizing the personal touch. As a “people person,” she loves to talk, meet the staff and get to know everyone. It’s about far more than just the business level; she is a firm believer in building a family atmosphere to be effective and efficient (although here, ultimately the business level also benefits). Johnson spent as much time as she could walking across Borgata’s floors, being amazed by the scale of it, and we were lucky enough to speak with her on the GI Huddle live from the hotel casino, by far the best Skype background we have seen so far.

Learning the lay of the land, Johnson asserts that she still has a lot to take on. By no means is her job done, an attitude that perhaps embodies the Atlantic City leadership when the going gets tough. Overall, Johnson believes she has embraced her new challenges, falling in love with living in South Jersey. “Our customers and employees are so friendly and it feels like a natural fit right now,” she adds.

Resilience is certainly a word that comes to mind for New Jersey gaming in recent years – especially during the pandemic. The same can be said of the women of New Jersey gaming, who have shown their value to the industry through their determination and aptitude, helping the sector move on from a time when only male executives could run some of the best-known properties in the world. For Glebocki, resilience and the ability to change course quickly and adapt to the current business environment are two factors behind the success of New Jersey casinos.

“Whether going through a recession, decrease in market share, increased competition or a pandemic, the ability of Atlantic City casinos to adapt to change has allowed casinos to survive and then eventually thrive in the changed business environment,” she concludes. “By way of example, the importance of online gaming, and the revenue generated by online gaming, demonstrates the ability of the casinos to adapt to a changing business environment. This ability to adapt has never been more important to the casinos than during this current year with the closures of the bricks-and-mortar operations in Atlantic City due to the pandemic.”

While it is important to recognize the contribution of Glebocki, Johnson and company to gaming, and to strengthening the position of women in business, it’s equally important to note the merit in their achievements. As Glebocki says, this isn’t about being in their roles because they are female. They just happen to be women who are the best candidates for their jobs. Women in gaming shouldn’t be an on-trend topic trivialized to generate a few clicks or page views, and no woman should be featured to lead a publication just because she is a woman (the same applies for men, of course). Française des Jeux CEO Stéphane Pallez, for instance, features on the current cover of Gambling Insider completely on merit. Speaking with Glebocki and Johnson has been a privilege for Gaming America, with their wisdom and honesty a breath of fresh air, balanced with a sense of authority that makes you sit up and take notice.

For anyone looking to emulate the journeys of these Atlantic City leaders, Johnson urges the need for patience above all other qualities. “Right now I'm mentoring quite a few young people,” she says. “They graduate from college and they've got their degree and all the education, but there’s a rush to ‘I should be a property president or vice president in 12 months.’ It doesn't happen that way. You've got to stay the course. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. And you’ve got to learn. Book knowledge is one type of knowledge, but on-the-job experience goes a long way. And the only way you can learn certain aspects of your job is to have hands-on experience. The book knowledge is definitely important, but you’ve got to have on-the-job experience; you've got to stay the course, establish those relationships and be patient. Patience truly is a virtue.”

 

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