CEO Special: Jamul Casino's President & GM Mary Cheeks - Mary's playbook

September 19, 2023

Stephanie Feeley spoke to Mary Cheeks, President and General Manager of Jamul Casino, about how family guidance and her passion for math led to always putting her team and guests ‘FIRST.'

It may not be surprising to learn that Mary Cheeks, now excelling in the roles of President and General Manager of a casino, grew up in Atlantic City. However, though her life and career both started on the East Coast, she is now loving life out west near San Diego. Since 2018, Cheeks has overseen the team, the technology and the rebrand at Jamul Indian Village’s Jamul Casino.

Throughout her career, her family has played a large role in nurturing her passions and supporting both her development and trajectory, and today, Cheeks makes sure she has “the whole family saying it right,” when it comes to the name of the casino in her capable hands. She told Gaming America, “It’s not ‘Jah-mool,’ it’s ‘Hah-mool.’ Just replace that ‘J’ with an ‘H.’”

Though Jamul Casino is owned by the Jamul Indian Village, under the direction of Tribal Chairwoman Erica M. Pinto, Cheeks oversees casino operations with a great respect for Tribal values. An influential factor that made Cheeks want to become President of Jamul Casino was, “the Tribe’s support and their caring and understanding of the business model.” Cheeks said she “lives and breathes that.”

The family accountant

Prior to beginning her role at Jamul in 2018, Cheeks had already gathered nearly 30 years’ worth of experience in finance and casino management. “I started at age two!” she quipped, when reminded of this fact. Realistically, however, her love for finance and accounting did indeed start early in childhood.

Cheeks said, “I believe it was age nine. I’ve always been good with math, numbers, money. My dad would always let me count his pocket change – any lump sum of money – and he would refer to me as the family accountant.” Though her father passed away when Cheeks was 15 years old, when the time came to choose a college major a few years later, she of course went into accounting.

Executives who find themselves in the casino industry don’t always start out in the field of gaming, or know where the dice will ultimately fall. At this point in her life, Cheeks had her mind set to work on Wall Street. Although, after applying for internships in a competitive pool of candidates during her junior year at the College of New Jersey Trenton, Cheeks was not selected by an investment banking firm.

Instead, she was chosen to complete an internship with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Cheeks recalled how she felt at the time, saying, “I was a little disappointed, but of course it was a résumé to be built and experience to be achieved. I took full-time employment there after graduation, but it just wasn’t my niche.”

For someone who initially yearned to be right in the middle of the fast-paced world of Wall Street, Cheeks admitted working with the IRS was “slow moving.” Her mother’s influence managed to inform Cheeks’ next steps. The seed of working within the casino industry was planted by her mother’s desire to have her daughter close by. “My mom always wanted me to come back to Atlantic City, and I just didn’t know about the casinos and how my degree in accounting would fit into it,” Cheeks said.

Her initial move back to the bright lights of Atlantic City took her to a few less vibrant roles in nonprofit accounting. Yet, for Cheeks, nonprofit accounting was “almost as unenjoyable as the IRS.” It’s clear from one conversation with Cheeks that her energy and drive were meant for other things.

She told her mother she’d try a career within the casino industry and became an Internal Audit Supervisor. Just saying the name of her first industry role seemed to bring back good memories. Cheeks smiled as she recounted, “In Internal Audit, you touch every aspect of the casino – operationally and compliance-wise. I fell in love with it.”

Getting to the top spot

Cheeks no longer had her sights on Wall Street, but instead upon climbing the ladder within the gaming industry, which she maintains is also the hospitality industry at heart. As well as creating the right atmosphere for casino guests, Cheeks loved the challenge of overseeing “literally 30-45 departments under one roof” and the rush that came from problem solving in such a unique industry.

She progressed from Internal Audit Supervisor, to Controller, to Director of Finance, to eventually CFO of Harrah’s and Showboat Atlantic City by the year 2006. Later, that ‘Rush’ would become literal.In her explanation of how the industry is run, Cheeks couldn’t help but interject her own personal fervor.

She said, “The way the career track is set up in the casino industry, you have your Head of Finance, Head of Marketing and Head of Gaming – always aspiring to be the General Manager, the top spot. When it came to Assistant General Manager, I had no desire; I wanted the top spot.”

Harrah’s, now known to the gaming industry as part of the larger empire, Caesars Entertainment, didn’t seem like the right place for Cheeks to enact her grand plans. “I went with a small, regional company, which was Rush Street, to achieve that ultimate goal,” she said. Her goal eventually became reality. She served as SVP and CFO of SugarHouse Philadelphia Casino and Rivers Pittsburgh Casino through Rush Street operations, reporting directly to the CEO.

As she continued to advance, she aimed to personalize her approach to management and leave her unique mark on the industry. “I enjoy people, and I have a certain business model in my head that I always wanted to not play with the playbook, but to have Mary’s Playbook. Let me loose, and let me do what I do. Rush Street afforded me that privilege.”

As part of her roles within Rush Street casinos, she was also instrumental in helping the company achieve the highest customer service ratings in all of its gaming venues at the time. But to Cheeks, the word “customer” isn’t the right terminology for whom the industry serves. “We don’t refer to them as ‘customers’,” she said of her approach within her current team.

“We make sure everybody’s lingo is ‘guests,’ because we’re, of course, welcoming them into our house – and we’re entertaining!” It may seem like an obvious choice in wording, especially when considering the fact that a casino and its dealers are often referred to as ‘the house’ during every table game, but Cheeks aims to cater to all who visit Jamul. She added, “Not everyone’s a gambler. You might want to listen to a band, or dine, or just socialize with friends in the hospitality environment.”

Cheeks attained the rank of General Manager in 2015 as part of the team at Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady, New York. From then on, Cheeks fell in love with another aspect of the casino industry: Tribal gaming.

Hooray for Jamul

When Cheeks moved to Jamul Casino in 2018, it was still under the name Hollywood Casino and ripe for the opportunity to rebrand. Though Hollywood was in the past, San Diego and Jamul were in Cheeks’ future. In New York, Tribal gaming was part of the competition, but according to Cheeks, Jamul is special.

“This is a place where the Tribe loves its team, and it cares about people deeply. To me, the success in any business (and the best business model) is about your team – because that’s who runs the day-to-day business.”

Though by now everyone is pronouncing Jamul perfectly, you may not know that the English translation of the Kumeyaay word is, “sweet water.” Jamul Casino offers Sweetwater Rewards as its loyalty program, as a nod to its Tribal culture. The Jamul Casino website boasts, “Fun! Above all else,” as its slogan, which prompted questions from Gaming America about the company’s culture, too.

When asked about what the daily environment is like at Jamul, Cheeks recited a company mnemonic used in Jamul’s overall approach: FIRST. “Our culture is driven by our core values: Fun, Integrity, Respect, Service and Team. Those five things have to be part of, or evolve, in everything we do.”

Cheeks’ commitment to hospitality extends throughout Jamul Casino and the way her team interacts with each other, not just with welcomed guests. As an example, team members are expected to acknowledge each other when they go past one another within the facility, “just as you would acknowledge your guests,” says Cheeks. “You treat your team members just as you treat your guests; it’s wildly successful.”

What Cheeks said next was a surprising revelation of how a difficult situation can either make or break a strong team. According to Cheeks, “what really boosted that whole culture was Covid.” The Covid-19 pandemic is usually seen by the gaming, and overall hospitality, industry as a dark spot in their records; how can productivity and morale be up when everything else is locked down?

Cheeks, of course, made reference to the difficult time the pandemic was for everyone, including the people of Jamul and the overarching gaming industry, but spoke proudly of the way she and the Tribe were able to maintain both their business and their team.

“Whereas my counterparts and business associates tried to advise that we had to lay people off, or that various levels needed to take a reduction in salary to keep the business going, the Tribe advised me that the directive was: we don’t want to lay off anybody.” For a people person, as well as an accountant, the pandemic presented a Herculean set of obstacles as Cheeks worked to keep the casino running smoothly.

She briefly put herself back in those times, asking herself, “How do we keep the business thriving?” Looking back with some perspective, she then said, “That’s a hard ask when you have no revenue coming in, but we figured it out. Worrying about the health and safety of our team members and our guests, and changing the whole business model really turned the tide for the newest casino in San Diego County.”

Jobs that other companies were outsourcing during lockdown closures were now responsibilities that the internal Jamul team took on together. Everything down to the cleaning of the facility was completed by the Jamul staff’s teamwork. Cheeks said, “Every aspect to get ready for opening: we tasked our team members and trained them to do so.”

The team responded well, embracing the care taken by both Cheeks and the Tribe, and their hard work did not go unnoticed. Cheeks stated that Jamul Casino managed to “successfully shift the market share” during the most unpredictable time for the industry.

The wider community also took note of Cheeks’ attitudes and leadership during an especially difficult time, naming her San Diego Business Journal’s Business Woman of the Year in 2021. Cheeks gratefully reflected, “That Covid policy, and treatment of our team and our guests, really led me to winning that award.”

Staying on her game

In the current day-to-day operations of Jamul, Cheeks has been responsible for, not only the human aspects of casino management, but also the implementation of the venue’s casino management system (CMS). She brought the Konami CMS that was used in her days with Rush Street over to Jamul, but commented that the biggest change she’s seen in the industry overall has been the advance in available technology.

Cheeks said, “When I first started as the Internal Audit Supervisor, we had a hard count and a soft count, because coins still went into the slot machines. Then we had ticket-in-ticket-out, then the casino management systems evolved – to where you didn’t need a separate player-tracking system, slots system, table game system – all of that integrated into a CMS. I like to say it’s a world of technology.”

Cheeks immerses herself in the world of casino technology in a different way during the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas. She has the opportunity to try out games and treat herself to a few rounds of craps. This undoubtedly gives her insight into what her guests enjoy, and why they choose the specific games they play.

Cheeks explained that craps is her usual game of choice because, “With craps, you really have to stay on your game and watch the bet and the payoffs. It’s really fast moving, and I enjoy that.” With everything in her life driven by a penchant for numbers and fast-paced learning, it makes sense that Cheeks would delight in applying the focus and strategies needed to increase her odds.

“It’s the hardest game to learn, from a dealer’s perspective,” she added. But Cheeks admitted that, when she wants to relax and have a drink, she plays slot games too. For the self-professed workaholic, sharing what she enjoys in her spare time outside of work was the question she originally said was the hardest to answer. “I just love what I do,” she grinned. “When you love what you do, it’s not work.”

Other than enjoying her industry’s creations and getting in on the game at G2E each year, Cheeks paused to think about how she spends her time outside of the casino. “What do I do for fun?” she asked herself with a laugh. “I’m a workaholic, so I don’t have a lot of spare time. When I do have it, I mostly spend it with family.”

Though neither her son nor daughter have followed in their mother’s footsteps to take on a role within the gaming industry, Cheeks’ 28-year-old son still lives in Atlantic City, and her 30-year-old daughter moved with her to California. “The children say the casino business is too much hard work; they don’t have the energy that mom has,” Cheeks laughed. Her son, however, did inherit his mother’s aptitude for math.

When Cheeks is not at Jamul, she and her daughter spend cozy days and nights in together, and like to order new foods to try. Due to her daughter’s preferences, the two try all the vegan options the city’s delivery services have to offer, except for when Cheeks can declare a “cheat night.” Cheeks’ daughter is also known to bring the local pets over for visits. She says though the two don’t have any pets of their own, they might as well.“

I keep saying to my daughter, ‘When are you going to get married and give me grandkids?’ And she says, ‘I’ll give you a dog or cat’.” Cheeks is always warm and convivial, even outside of the hospitality industry. It doesn’t matter if her visitors aren’t human, they’re still treated as welcomed guests.

Though Cheeks admitted she is waiting to be an “empty-nester,” she said her daughter “has become her bestie,” and that not only spending time together in person, but also FaceTiming with family on the East Coast is what is important to her when she’s not at Jamul.

Continuing to evolve

Jamul Casino is a boutique gaming venue, on six acres, and Cheeks is looking forward to the addition of a hotel. According to plans released in May this year, the property will gain a 16-story hotel, featuring 200 guest rooms, 52 suites, a 4,800-square-foot restaurant, a full-service spa, salon, fitness center and rooftop pool deck, among other amenities. Cheeks shared her excitement about the luxury hotel, saying she can’t wait for it to open.

“Not to let too many of the plans out, but I’m going to run this hotel very differently to a typical hotel casino model. It’s going to be very quaint, very relatable to what guests’ personal preferences are.”

Cheeks has been doing her best to relate to guests and listen to their experiences and preferences long before the planned upgrade. She recalled a moment, about two years after she began working at Jamul, where a guest admitted to her that they hated waiting in lines. “I said, ‘Oh, would you rather be texted when it’s your turn?’ And we started a whole text system.” Cheeks places critical value on listening to and nurturing the ideas of not only her team, but her guests.

Especially for someone who didn’t originally intend to work within either the casino or hospitality sector, Cheeks seems to have found her calling. After reaching the top herself, Jamul’s President was wholly encouraging about how much room there is for other people to make a difference and progress within the industry, too. “In the gaming industry, there are vast opportunities, like I’ve never seen, if you’re committed, you want to learn, you set your goals and you benchmark how you’re going to achieve them.”

In terms of being a President/CEO and managing a large company, Cheeks says, “You must care about people. You need to humble yourself. You can’t go in saying, ‘I know it all.’” Every part of her approach leads back to her hospitable nature, and all of the ideas and plans for the improvement of the overall Jamul experience continue to fill the metaphorical pages of Mary’s Playbook.

Cheeks maintains that, although sometimes she may think she knows it all, she’d never display that. Every day is still a learning experience for her, where she seeks to take on insights from both her team and her guests. “Talking to people, and learning what they desire in their form of entertainment, helps the business grow and helps yourself evolve. And the business is doing very well.”


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