Grand Breaks the Cycle
The role of the casino in gaming's emerging markets is more subtle and complex than just being an economic boon, important though that is. For the most part, emerging markets are small towns. Not uncommonly, gaming becomes the largest employer in the area. Inevitably, the cultures of the casinos exert significant beyond-the-walls impact, reaching into the community itself and affecting the way it acts and thinks.
Whether this influence results in the betterment or detriment of the community depends on what casino executives make of it. In Tunica, Mississippi, one casino has chosen to make its presence an unquestioned benefit to the community it serves.
Before gaming came, the Mississippi delta region was the poorest place in America. The glitter and gold the casinos brought was, in some respects, overwhelming. For the most part, people from the area were poorly educated, had little to no work experience, and were lacking in rudimentary job readiness.
From the start, employee turnover was rampant. Employees, having money for perhaps the first time in their lives and no real sense of longterm commitment, would jump ship for as little as fifty cents an hour more. To worsen matters, Tunica casino executives now are bracing for an expected drain of employees to the Gulf Coast with two major new casinos.
At Grand Casino Tunica, turnover averaged 100%, about the norm for the market. Management considered this excessive, even in the somewhat transient world of gaming. The company determined to do something about it. They recognized that the answer lay deeper than just money. Attention was directed to the culture of the company and ways to create bonds that would make employees stick to the Grand.
Bill Baker, Vice President of Human Resources at Grand Casino Tunica, took up the challenge. He reflected on one of the key declarations of the Grand corporate mission statement: "Respond to community needs." Baker sought a way to create a win-win scenario that would bond the Grand to the area around it, serving both the needs of the people who live there and the casino's need for a stable workforce it could depend on.
He launched an initiative known unofficially at the Grand as the "Adopt-a-Town" program. On a map of the area, he inscribed a circle with a fifty-mile radius around the Grand. He met with Mississippi job security officials in nearby Clarksdale to identify the communities with the worst unemployment. Jonestown and Marks both suffered from crushing 30% unemployment. Each is about 45 miles from the Grand Casino.
Baker had his targets. He reasoned that if he could put these people to work, the communities would take the first steps to recovery and he would have employees loyal to the Grand for making it possible to climb out of the misery.
Baker met with the mayors and town leaders to map out a plan to inform the people of job opportunities offered by the Grand, help prepare them to enter the workforce, and provide the means for them to get to work (since few can afford a car).
It was a daunting challenge. If they had any work experience, it was probably in agriculture and piecework from the local mills. As a general rule, they suffered from low self- esteem, reluctant to make eye contact with anyone dressed better than they, and kept silent around authority figures.
The plan constructed by the town fathers and Baker created a step-by-step process to lead the people from poverty to productive lives — to "teach them to fish" instead of feeding them on welfare.
The towns are responsible for getting the word out to the unemployed and distributing applications. Those who are interested can attend a job readiness training course provided free by the Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale. The course provides 20 hours of intensive training in how to get and keep a job — dress, grooming, attitude, responsibility, and teamwork being among the topics.
They work together to set group and personal goals. They begin to sense that a piece of the dream they see on television every day, only an unreal fantasy to them, could actually be theirs.
A strong camaraderie developed among them. Baker says the transformation during the five-day course was astonishing. "I didn't even recognize many of them," he said, noting that they dressed better, wore make-up, were fresh-scrubbed, and sported new hairdos. They showed spirit, confidence, and hope.
Grand Casino conducted job fairs for those who finished the course. Baker and his Human Resources team carefully screened the applications to find the people with the greatest potential for success. He felt it was crucial to the initiative for the first wave to prove the point that a valuable resource lay beneath the veneer of hopelessness.
To date, fifty-three employees have been hired through the initiative, with seventeen more approved for hiring and awaiting openings. It's a small step, but it's a beginning. Baker arranged bus transportation to shuttle the Jonestown and Marks employees to and from work.
The Grand's "Adopt-a-Town" initiative is only a couple of months old, so it's premature to rate its success. However, early signs are encouraging. Only two of the original group have left, one for failing a drug test. That's a turnover of less than 4%, illustrating the strong bond among the group and its attachment to the Grand.
The reaction of the town fathers has been positive. "They're ecstatic,"Baker says. "They call frequently to ask when we can get together to plan the next phase. They stop me in the bank or on the street to tell me stories about how the initiative has made a big change in this person or that person's life in their town." He adds cryptically, "Church leaders are among our most avid supporters."
For Grand Casino, the initiative makes good business sense. The cost has mainly been time. Cash outlay has been less than $25,000. Baker expects that the savings in turnover costs alone eventually will more than pay for the program. He says the higher-ups in the Grand organization give him solid support for the initiative. Baker's vision is that, in time, other Grand properties in emerging markets will start similar programs.
Bill Baker speaks with the passion of man with a mission. He fervently believes it is possible for a casino to be both socially responsible and profitable. He also believes the Grand culture can make a difference and be a force for good in the community.
So far, he seems to be proving his case.