Corporate Cultures

Rallying Point

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

December 98 Casino Executive    Multi-unit gaming companies whose properties don’t share a common brand identity face distinct cultural challenges.  With no single “handle” to link their identities, the individual properties tend to go their own way culturally.  Employees are often inclined to bond with the property, not with the parent company.  Often, the more distant the home office, the less aware employees are of it – out of sight, out of mind .  This condition is particularly acute when the properties are allowed a generous measure of autonomy.  The cultures are more a reflection of the general manager’s style than of the parent company.

    The difficulty of the challenge escalates considerably when the properties are brought together through acquisitions.  Different cultures don’t always mix conveniently.  “That’s not the way we do it” becomes a defensive mantra that impedes assimilation and cultural unity.

    The cultural mixture gets even murkier when executives, managers, and employees migrate among the properties.  Seedlings of policies, procedures, and cultural attitudes – not necessarily the strongest and best – get transplanted from one property to another randomly.  Some take hold, some don’t.  This hybridization results in cultural development based on genetic accident, not design.  Employees complain of inconsistencies in the way things are done.  They feel insecure about what is expected of them.

    A curious side-effect of the cultural ambiguity is that corporate headquarters frequently becomes a handy villain for anything unpleasant at the property.  “They” have decreed a hiring freeze, causing employees to pull extra shifts.  “They” have frozen wages, so employees can forget about a raise anytime soon.  “They” won’t spend the money to replace worn and aging equipment. Rather than take responsibility for decisions made at the property-level, managers and supervisors often find it easier to direct the blame to the home office.

    For many employees, then, the parent company – to the extent they are aware of it at all – becomes a faceless, perhaps insensitive blur.  They have little or no emotional attachment to it.  The systemwide corporate culture is fragmented and, not uncommonly, in conflict with itself.

    One practical effect of this cultural churn is degradation in customer service.  Employees beset by insecurity and lack of involvement with the culture have diminished motivation to care what customers think or whether they come back.  Even those who depend on tips are less likely to have their hearts really in their work.  As the quality of customer service suffers, the quality and quantity of customers does, too.

    Visionary casino executives in multi-unit companies are awakening to the benefits of a unified culture that binds diverse properties together.   Gregg Solomon of Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc., is one such visionary.

    One of three executive vice presidents in the company, he heads the division that includes Nevada Landing and Gold Strike in Jean, Nevada, Railroad Pass in Henderson, Nevada, Grand Victoria in Elgin, Illinois, and Gold Strike in Tunica, Mississippi.  The division is an amalgam of properties representing both factions of the Circus Circus-Gold Strike merger three years ago.

    Solomon grew up in the Gold Strike organization.  He started in the rank and file in 1983 and worked his way up.  After he was appointed to divisional responsibilities in the Circus Circus hierarchy, he took stock of the properties in his charge.

    There are no pyramids or castles among the properties, which are attractive enough but fairly traditional as casinos go.  He could not rely on gee-whiz brick-and-mortar to lure customers.  He concluded that his best weapon for building market share would be customer service.

    With the experience of one who has been on the line level, he is in tune with the mood of the rank and file employees.  He sensed that there were barriers to getting the best customer service performance from them.  He commissioned a research study to find out what the barriers were.

    The research confirmed his suspicions that employees at the different properties didn’t really feel a sense of belonging to the larger organization.  The lower on the totem pole they were, the less they identified with the parent company.  There was even some confusion about who the parent organization was; some employees thought it was Circus Circus, and some thought it was
Gold Strike.

    Solomon realized that the first step in building a service-focused culture would have to be uniting the fragmented cultures around a rallying point they could share.  He launched an initiative to develop and establish a universal process that embraces all the properties in a common spirit.  He reasoned that it would ease the job of management, reduce costs, and build awareness and pride in the corporate identity.

    He called the property general managers and some of their key reports together to construct a strategic plan for a systematic approach to the challenge.  The resulting plan properly respects the individuality of each property.  At the same time, it spells out a disciplined, orderly process for unifying the employees across the division in a mutual bond.

    Solomon concedes that the initiative will not magically transform the division overnight.  He expects changes in employee perceptions to evolve, not happen suddenly.  Attitudes will gradually be affected by consistent repetition and reinforcement of the cultural vision.  He emphasizes that it’s a process, not a project.

    Achieving cultural unity is challenging in any corporate environment.  When the complicating factors of entrenched fragmentation, confused loyalties, and geography are added, the task may seem daunting.

    The battle must be joined, however, for there to be any change in the status quo.  It will not happen by itself.  As a casino executive was overheard to say, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve got.”

(This article appeared in the December 1998 issue.)


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