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Q&A: Andre Carrier, CEO of Eureka Casino Resort

Andre Carrier is the CEO of Eureka Casino Resort, the only hospitality company in the U.S. that is 100% employee-owned.

Andre Carrier, CEO of Eureka Casino Resort (Courtesy of Eureka Casino Resort)

Andre Carrier, CEO of Eureka Casino Resort, is a 30-year veteran of the gaming industry. Eureka Casino Resort – which operates casinos in Nevada and New Hampshire – is the only hospitality company in the U.S. that is 100% employee-owned. Through the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), employees can receive an ownership interest in the company without any personal investment. Previous to 2016, the company had low participation in the 401(K) plan, about 18%, which verified that saving for retirement was not a priority. Today, over 500 employees are involved in the ESOP, allowing people who are hourly wage earners to acquire shares of the company and have more money in their retirement.

In addition, in 2019, Eureka acquired a former greyhound racing track in New Hampshire, the area in which Andre and his business partner Greg Lee grew up, and have transformed it into a complete entertainment destination, investing millions of dollars into the property and creating hundreds of jobs. Since 2019, the casino has donated $12 million to local charities such as Make-A-Wish, Nutrition Meals on Wheels and Angel Flight.

1) What inspired you to pursue a career in the casino industry?

It's safe to say I never wanted to do anything other than be in the restaurant and hotel business. Very early on in my life, I would pull a step stool over to the stove to help my godmother make lunch or dinner. This passion was not just for food, but for what it felt like to be part of serving my family dinner, what it felt like to participate in the traditions of a family recipe, and what it was like to put love and passion into what you did.  

By the time I was a teenager, I was washing dishes in my first job at a restaurant and, fortunately, one day I was offered the opportunity to clean shrimp. That turned into the opportunity to sauté and grill those shrimps and by the time I was 17 I had a restaurant of my very own. It helped that my best friend was as big a food and restaurant geek as I was. 

Of course, I wanted to go to hotel school and was fortunate enough to graduate from Cornell where Lady Luck would deal me one of the great hands of my life, landing me in Las Vegas. I had already accepted a job with Four Seasons when I met Chris Lowden, whose family owned Sahara resorts, on a snowy day in Ithaca, New York. A one-hour conversation changed the course of my life as I became convinced that no city in the world meant more to the future of resorts, restaurants and hospitality than Las Vegas.

It's safe to say before that moment I never saw a life in the casino industry, but this industry and this city has been exceptionally kind to me. I've worked with what I believe are some of the best entrepreneurs in the world, from Steve Wynn to Tillman Fertitta. I learned about the importance of having imagination, of being creative, of having a vision, but also about the hard work and details it takes to realize those things.  

But the universe would give me one more gift, and that's the opportunity to work with my friend and business partner, Greg Lee, where we formed the vision for Family Business 2.0. A 100% employee-owned, family business and that is what we pour our love, time and talent into today.

2) Eureka Casino Resort is the only hospitality company in the U.S. that is 100% employee owned. What inspired the founding leadership team to make Eureka Casino Resort 100% employee owned? And how does employee ownership impact company culture and employee engagement?

 What is the purpose of your work? What is the meaning of what you do in your community and society? For some people this is an easy question to answer. They're surgeons who save lives by transferring organs or repairing heart valves. They return people safely to the arms of loved ones. Others are police officers and teachers. Their contribution and their purpose are clear. 

For others, this can be more difficult to answer, particularly for some of us in the hospitality and service industries. After all, spending time or money with us is normally not required. It may even be indulgent, so the purpose for us sometimes in the hospitality industry can be harder to connect to. 

Of course, we love being the facilitators of great memories and great times. We love providing the support and backdrop for people to celebrate milestones in their lives, or simply recapture time with friends they've lost touch with. We love serving our guests, preparing food and drink.  With this said, sometimes it is more difficult to connect to the purpose of our work.  

In our 100% employee-owned company, people can find purpose in not only securing long term financial stability for themselves through a meaningful retirement, but also helping their coworkers and fellow owners do the same. Our good work lifts everyone up.

Both Greg and I felt there could be more to a family business if we thought about things a bit differently. We tend to think about things over the longer term and tend to have a profound commitment to the care of the business and the men and women who work in it. It's safe to say some family businesses are synonymous with legacy. This is true in our 100% employee-owned family business. The decision to become an ESOP, which means an employee stock ownership plan, wasn't just one thing, it was many things.

Nearly 20 years into the operation of the Eureka Casino, fewer than 16% of employees were participating in the 401K. Even fewer had any meaningful balances in their retirement savings accounts. This meant that, even though we had many wonderful employees who had given us the majority of their working years, almost none of them were prepared to enjoy retirement.  

This was a problem we were aware of and it was on both our hearts and minds. It wasn't until a friend was talking to us about their decision to investigate the possibility of becoming an ESOP themselves that we asked questions about what it was. Quite simply, ESOP is a long-term retirement plan where the beneficiaries are the men and women that work for the company and their investment is the company itself. The more they care and grow the business, and the more they invest their time and talent, the more their retirement plan grows.  

With almost no debate, the service industry is one of the lower paying industries. The index between cost of service and elasticity of pricing can be pretty narrow. As a result, for many people who work in the hospitality and service industry, it's difficult to set aside any savings at all, never mind save for retirement. An ESOP allows for employees to save money for their retirement with no contribution coming out of their paycheck. They instead earn shares every year in the business. Those shares are later sold back to the company, so those employees can have the opportunity to enjoy their retirement years.  

Connecting this back to my opening thoughts, our 100% employee-owned family business has a purpose unlike few other companies. Our work each day, our success year in and year out, goes directly to the financial security and long-term opportunity of the men and women who work at Eureka Resorts. Our ability to successfully grow the business will allow more opportunities to not only the men and women of the company today, but also to introduce more people to the benefits of employee ownership. This is a way the men and women of our company are able to leave a legacy with their talent and hard work. They do not only build a better future for themselves, but for everyone they work with. At the end of their career, when they sell their shares back to the company and retire, they make that opportunity available to a new service employee.

To grow our ESOP we purchased the last remaining OTB in New Hampshire in 2019. With hard work and an effective working relationship with legislators, regulators and charities, we have built that property, The Brook, into the largest charity casino in America. We have donated $14 million to essential charities since just 2019.  

This absolutely helps many of us in the company feel a strong sense of purpose; America’s only 100% employee-owned casino is also America's largest charity casino company. 

The purpose of Eureka is to show that people and profits can not only coexist, but thrive. I think our company is certainly making good progress to fulfill its purpose.

3) How has the gaming & hospitality landscape changed over the course of your career? What are some of the biggest differences you've seen?

So much has changed since I first started in this industry. I will try not to date myself too much, but first and foremost, when I started, casino revenue at Las Vegas Strip resorts represented in excess of 70% of total revenue. Now, at many strip properties, it represents less than 50%. 

This is, no doubt, a response to the fact that when I came to Las Vegas out of college only two states in America allowed casino gambling. Now, all but two states have some form of legalized betting. When I started in this industry, ownership was still personified by the individual; these magnanimous personalities who stood in front of the brands from Steve Wynn to Sheldon Adelson to Paul Lowden. Now, the industry is held by sophisticated financial models by often faceless private equity funds and investment companies. 

Technology has changed the games themselves. They are quite different today. We saw a rise in the power of the penny when video reel games made it more profitable to lower our denominations rather than raise them. We are in the middle of a transformation in table games technology where dealer-assisted games are allowing us to manage the scarcity of employees while keeping the personality involved in the experience.  

We are watching Las Vegas return to the live entertainment capital of the universe. On a nightly basis, the most popular and powerful entertainers in the world perform on Las Vegas Boulevard in, not only our casinos, but in our arenas and stadiums. Nationally, we have seen the commoditization of casino gambling. We have seen much of the fear give way to hope and opportunity and the latest frontier is mobile and online. The story of sports betting in America is still largely untold. The derivatives of what come from it are still largely unknown.

Though I could cover many topics here, as the CEO of America's only 100% employee-owned resort casino company, I'll keep my answer confined to the future of people in the gaming and hospitality industry.  

Prior to the global pandemic, finding the people and talent that were needed to maintain and even advance the service programs that we put in place in the hospitality industry was difficult. In the post pandemic era, it has been nearly impossible.  

Many, if not, most resorts and casinos, operate with fewer people than they did in 2019. Finding people to fill open positions has, fortunately, led to increasing pay rates and improved employee benefits. But it's all quickly revealed that it isn't just about the money, it is about the difficulty of the work, and, most importantly, the dignity of it. In the post-pandemic world, it is, perhaps, fair to say that more people than ever before want to travel and eat out and fewer people than ever before in the United States want to work in the service and hospitality industry. This is a difficult equation. 

If we are to maintain guest service experiences, if we are to maintain product quality, it will take a better ability to attract talent and a better ability to retain talent. And this may require us to reinvent how jobs are done, where service is provided and how talent and contribution is rewarded. Yes, technology will play a role in this. Yes, robotics may play a role in this. And, yes, AI will play a role in this. But those are not the tools of the human service and hospitality environment. They are merely augmentations that may be necessary to allow talented men and women to be the curators and caretakers of people's memories.  

We are in the experience business. We work backstage in the autobiographical movie of others, making sure the spotlight stays on our star. To do this well, and better than ever in the next decade and beyond, our industry must do things differently. There must be great dignity to our work. There must be the potential for financial independence in the career.

I believe business education, hospitality-specific or otherwise, will be central to meeting the needs of frontline supervisors, managers and leaders in our industry in the years to come. 

That is why our family business works directly with UNLV on the future of its business educational programming. My partners’ family endowed the Lee Business School at UNLV, recognizing the importance of Southern Nevada having a world-class Business School. This is one of the most entrepreneurial places in the United States. This is also a young city whose personality, population and potential continue to evolve. It will need great leaders and it will need great business tacticians, accountants, analysts and marketers in order to drive the future. The Business School at UNLV will play a central role in attracting talented people and preparing talented Nevadans to contribute to our economy and community in the next 50 years.

5) Looking forward, what are your future goals and plans for growing Eureka Casino Resort? 

Anyone who works inside our company knows we love our mantras and none is more prevalent and central than Saint Jerome 's prayer, “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. 'Til your good is better and your better is best.” The future for Eureka is about getting better all of the time. The goal is always to be the best in the markets we operate in with the quality of our product and service. Be the best job for hospitality workers in the market when it comes to, not only pay, but the possibilities that come from working with us. But more than any of those things, perhaps the best intentions.   

An ESOP as a pension vehicle is, of course, wise to diversify an ESOP with a long-term vision. Its success must grow to make opportunities for its employee owners to advance the way in which it grows should be purposeful and driven by the best intentions for the men and women who work in and own the business. 

In the last six years, America's only 100% employee-owned resort casino company has become the largest charity casino company in America. Our aspirations are great. Our employee owners have shown they're willing to do the hard work that it takes to grow.  The combination of work ethic, clarity of vision and purpose, I believe, makes our potential limitless.