Kathy George, CEO of FireKeepers, on running a casino during COVID

Kathy George first fell into the hospitality industry while growing up on a reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Irving, N.Y.

During high school, George worked as a line cook and cashier at the reservation’s bingo hall, where she discovered a love for serving people.

“I was fortunate to fall into it,” she says of her now more than 29 years as a hospitality executive, including experience in hotel and casino operations, budgeting, team building and managing revenue and expenses.

Today, she’s the CEO of FireKeepers Casino and Hotel in Battle Creek. The casino and hotel, which opened in 2009, is an eight-story, 243-room hotel owned by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi.

FireKeepers is one of the largest employers in Battle Creek and employs more than 1,700 people.

As CEO, George leads the day-to-day operations, oversight and direction of the casino and hotel. She also oversees a 93-room Quality Inn and Suites hotel next to the casino that’s also owned by the tribe.

FireKeepers is an important pillar of the Battle Creek community. The FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board, which is made up of representatives from local governments, distributes funds received from FireKeepers’ annual net earnings each year. Since FireKeepers has opened, it has provided nearly $200 million to the state, local governments and area schools.

George leads some of these efforts, including The Fire Hub in Battle Creek, a counter-service restaurant FireKeepers purchased and redeveloped in 2015 that’s housed in a historic fire station. Within the Hub is the Kendall Street Pantry, which George also oversees. The pantry is run by FireKeepers Casino in partnership with the South Michigan Food Bank in Battle Creek.

George is also responsible for the Greenhouse and Community Garden in nearby Athens, which serves fresh produce for Athens area schools and families in need.

“The most rewarding part (of my job) is the positive impact that we make every day on our employees, our guests, the tribe, and the community as a whole,” George said.

FireKeepers is currently in the process of expanding, building a new 203-room hotel tower that plans to open in early 2021. The tower will bring FireKeepers’ hotel room count to 446 rooms. The casino is also adding an additional gaming space, lobby, bar and a new concourse.

“We look forward to being able to bring more people to the region to Battle Creek,” George said. “Our goal is to help make the community bigger and better.”

How did your upbringing influence your career?

I grew up in western New York on Cattaraugus Reservation. My father was an enrolled Seneca and my mother was part Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario, Canada. My dad was always big on using whatever skill or trait you have to hopefully give back to the tribe. When I was in high school, I worked in our bingo hall on the reservation. That’s where I learned that I liked dealing with the public. I enjoy serving people and making them happy. I knew at that point that I was looking at the hospitality industry, I just didn’t know exactly how. I was fortunate to attend a career night in high school, where I met a woman who was an alumni of Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. She told me she ran a catering business and how much fun it was. I said, ‘Well, I could do that.’ That’s how I ended up in the hospitality industry.

What was your first hospitality role after college? What did you learn from that experience?

I started with Wyndham just a few weeks after college. At the time, it was a small company. I joined what was called the Wyndham Manager Development Program. It allowed participants to work in management positions for 12 months in order to learn the departments. When the program was over, you would take over that position or they’d move you to a different position. It was all competency-based and it was great. The general manager that I worked for was a very strong woman leader. I learned from her and the people from our corporate offices that I had to do my time and learn all the different departments so it would make me a better general manager.

You worked for Wyndham for over a decade, then you moved back home to work for the Seneca tribe. Why did you make that decision?

I worked at Wyndham for almost 14 years, in many different disciplines for both small hotels and big hotels. When I left, Wyndham was changing. It’s a whole different company now. It was bought, broken up into pieces and sold off. At that point, I decided it was a great time for me to return to the Seneca tribe to give back. I went to help open a hotel on Niagara Falls (Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) and to open Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo, New York. My initial plan was to just open the hotels, but once I got home I continued in leadership there for a few short years. (In 2007, George was promoted to general manager of the Seneca Gaming Corporation, a wholly owned, tribally chartered corporation of the Seneca Nation of Indians which operated all of the Nation’s Class III gaming operations in western New York.) During a hotel or casino opening, you’re doing everything from the ground up and I like that excitement. I enjoy putting processes into place and building teams. We opened seven food and beverage outlets (at Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino), a spa, and everything in between all at the same time. I think people that open casinos or hotels are a special breed. Either you love the craziness and energy or you don’t. For some people, it’s overwhelming. I thrive on it.

How would you describe your leadership style?

When I think about my leadership style I like to quote E.M. Statler: “Life is service — the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more — a little better service.” I learned that on day one at Cornell. I incorporate that into my work and home life. If I can just be a little bit better, that’s what the world needs from me. That’s my philosophy as a leader. I ask employees, ‘What are you going to do a little bit better today?’ Whatever they do better makes us better as a company, as well as our tribe. Life is service, and I ascribe to that. I believe I was put here to serve others. I’m a hands-on, open communicator with the entire team. I’m a very laid-back, calm person. It comes in handy when you’re opening a hotel or casino or crazy busy. It helps ground everybody.

You left Seneca in 2009 and took a career gap year. Why?

I came to a point in my career where I needed to take a sabbatical. I was very stressed out. I had become someone who wasn’t me. I laugh a lot and smile all the time. Most importantly, I’m talking to the employees and the guests every day. We got so busy and tied down into meetings. In the old days, I worked 60, 70, or 80 hours a week. That’s what the industry calls for. I wasn’t smiling anymore. So, I took time off. I picked the year 2009 when the economy was horrible. But, it was the right thing for me. I was plodding along and that wasn’t OK. I traveled to Australia, Alaska and everywhere in between. I think I went to every dance recital, baseball game, and softball game of my nieces and nephews that I had missed before. I saw them all that year. The time off allowed me to recharge and rededicate myself and my efforts to serving people, which is why I got into the industry in the first place. It taught me a valuable lesson in ensuring that I maintain a balance between work and home life so that I can be the best me to those around me. After that, I was fortunate to get a position with Hilton in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Why did you join FireKeepers?

Hilton is a wonderful company, but it’s tremendous in size. It reminded me that I like to be in a smaller pond. I thrive a little bit better there. During my second day of my job at Hilton, I got a call from the tribe at FireKeepers and they said, ‘Your resume has crossed our desk three times this week, so we decided we had to call you. We’d like you to come work for us.’ I said, ‘That’s great, but I am on day two of my job here with Hilton. I can’t leave.’ After that, I committed to staying (at Hilton) for roughly 16-18 months. I started (at FireKeepers) 18 months to the day that I told Hilton I’d leave. Once I filled that commitment, I came here and have been here for nine years. It’s been great. A tribally owned business is really a family business. I feel that even though it might not be giving back to my dad or mother’s tribe, at least it’s still giving back to a tribe and making a difference on a smaller scale. From the day I interviewed to when I started, I felt it was a good fit. They respected me and I respected them. It formed a great partnership and relationship.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, what were some tough decisions you had to make in order to get the casino up and running?

When it initially hit, I remember thinking, “Are we really going to close? The casino never closes.” Then, March 16, we closed. Some of the biggest adjustments were having to do things like calling the bank to have them come get money out of the unoccupied building in order to protect the assets of the company. We had an 1,800 member team here. You want to open for revenue, but my biggest concern was getting 1,800 people back to work. There’s also 1,500 tribal members that rely on us for the programs that they receive. There’s a whole community of people it impacts as well, like food purveyors. It was important that we reopened and that we did it safely. It took us a couple of weeks to prepare for that. We ran two days of test runs for invited guests only to make sure all of our protocols were in place. We opened up to everybody on June 1.

As far as protocols, we’ve been very cautious. Our entire team has been focused on providing entertainment, food and beverage, etc., but doing so safely. Our property is currently non-smoking, including for employees. We created an outside venue for the guests to smoke at. We implemented temperature checks and social distancing between machines. The state had instituted a 50 percent occupancy in restaurants. We abide by that even if we don’t have to, because we think it’s a good business practice. We also made the decision not to reopen the buffet, banquets, and our food court area as well as bingo and poker. We were fortunate after we reopened that by the middle of July, we had called most everybody back. Some of the positions had to change. For instance, no one can run valet cars right now, so most of those employees switched to temperature takers or cleaning crew. We redeployed people and were fortunate to still end up with 1,700 people. We’ve had two job fairs since, so about 150 positions that we had open. In February every year, The FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board pays out funds (to state, local governments and area schools received from FireKeepers’ annual net earnings). It’s based upon the amount of revenue we bring in from the previous year. We look forward to still doing that, but will it be changed from normal? Of course, revenues are down. But we’re still able to do all the programs we do for our employees and the community, such as our food pantry that feeds thousands of people each year. We haven’t cut back on any of our charity work. It has been a challenge, but the team has risen to it.

When it comes to running a casino, what’s something other people might not think about?

When people think about a casino, they think it generates tons of money and that’s all there is. Really, it’s so much more. In addition to the entertainment portion of the gaming floor, we have restaurants, hotels and retail. There’s so many different jobs here at the casino. We hire finance people, engineers, HVAC technicians, drain cleaners and cashiers. I used to do recruiting for college students. I challenged students by telling them there’s very few jobs in the world that can’t find a home here. So they’ll say, ‘I want to do something in the medical field.’ Well, great. We have emergency medical technicians on site and we have a clinic here. Or they’ll say, ‘I want to work in IT.’ IT is one of our most important positions in this building. People know there are games, but they don’t recognize that we have an entire team that’s making sure the 3,000 slot machines we have are online and working and reporting properly. We’re so much more than just a game floor.

Do you have any advice for women hoping to work their way up the ladder in the hospitality industry?

Stay true to who you are. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, people would say if you’re a woman in power you have to be mean or come across as not so nice. Well, that’s not true. I am a kind, caring, giving person. But I’m also very strong, fair and consistent. There’s a balance. I’m true to me. When I wasn’t true to me, I had to walk away until I could be me again. Don’t let people change you for what they feel you need to be. Be better than yourself the day before. That’s who you’re competing with, not anybody else. If we can all do that, then we’re all going to get better.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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