Seven years ago, 30-year gaming veteran Wendell Long (Choctaw) assumed the helm at Pascua Yaqui Casino Del Sol in Tucson, Arizona as its chief executive officer. At the time, only about half of the staff was comprised of tribal members.
“We implemented a management succession program to increase that rate to 80 percent and we’ve been successful in this goal—[and] in some departments, dramatically exceeding it,” Long said. Of the casino's 300 Spa & Conference Center employees, 87 percent are tribal members. The casino's food and beverage operation started with one tribal supervisor—now there are 14 in management positions.
“As planned, I’ve worked myself out of a job,” Long said.
After he steps down in June 2013, the casino will select one of its own to run the operation. As intended, Long will serve as the last non-Pascua Yaqui CEO, thanks to the management succession program.
The tribe’s innovative STEP (Supporting Tribal Employment Partnership) program offers training in professional development and management succession to tribal member-employees. Training includes on-the-job training, on-site workshops, classes at a local community college, personalized coaching and shadowing of department heads. “We work hard to provide our tribal members with job opportunities,” said Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio.
The Pascua Yaqui Tribal Council will collaborate with Long to select his successor. The Council has narrowed the candidate pool to five, all currently vice presidents in areas such as gaming, finance and marketing. Announcement of the appointment is expected in March or April.
“I’m confident any of the five candidates can do this job,” said Long. While three decades of experience is hard to replace, “It’s like a pilot flying solo after training is completed—a little bumpy at first perhaps, but they have the tools to do the job and all the candidates are ready to move up in level of responsibility.”
Hiring tribal members greatly benefits the community at large. “They are owners of these properties who will basically spend their entire careers here so we can invest time, money and training for them, and that investment will continue to bring a reward,” Long said.
The STEP initiative has proven so effective, other tribes are considering mimicking it. “We’ve already talked to half a dozen other tribes and people have embraced the process with open arms," Long said. "And we’re ready to share some of our demonstrated pathways to success with other interested parties.”
As an unexpected side benefit, increased tribal hiring has coincided with a lower crime rate on the reservation—something the outgoing CEO says shows the importance of tribal hiring at Indian casinos.
The 49-year-old Long isn't sure of his next move. His portfolio includes time spent as general manager at Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Minnesota, casino executive at Foxwoods Resort Casino and director of table games at Mohegan Sun. Prior to working in Indian gaming, Long worked in Atlantic City including 11 years with the Trump Organization. He is confident of one thing: he wants to take his skill set to another tribal casino.
“That’s the difference in working for tribal gaming versus working in commercial gaming, and I’m committed to Indian gaming because you can see tangible results that improve the lives of employees and the tribe itself," Long said. "Tribes reinvest gaming revenue in housing, education and wellness centers…. You can tangibly see the good results in things that will make the tribe stronger and increase the revenue stream so they can do even more.”