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Although the company is content to let it ride with its already successful gaming properties, Lakes Entertainment is ready to up the ante in the near future by seeking out new opportunities. Chairman and CEO Lyle Berman is the man in the driver’s seat for the Minnesota-based casino management firm, and he says the company’s full potential has yet to be realized.
Originally founded in 1990 as Grand Casinos to take advantage of the advent of Indian gaming in Minnesota, the company was founded by Berman and two friends who convinced him to get into the industry after years of managing his family’s successful leather wholesaler business. In 1991, it was the first company in the emerging gaming sector to go public, and by 1998 Grand Casinos had eight major casinos, three of which were owned by the company. The success of those casinos brought the attention of Hilton, which merged with Grand Casinos in 1998. Berman and his partners took the company’s Indian-owned properties and spun out to form what is now Lakes Entertainment.
Today, the company manages two large-scale Indian casinos: Red Hawk Casino for the Shingle Springs Tribe of Miwok Indians near Sacramento, Calif.; and the Four Winds Casino for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in Michigan. Lakes Entertainment also has a number of properties in various stages of development in San Diego and Mississippi.
Berman says the Indian gaming segment of the industry always has been competitive, with numerous firms fighting for the chance to offer tribes their expertise in managing casinos for them. However, Lakes Entertainment stands out from the crowd because of the level of its expertise. “I think first off, our specialty is large properties,” Berman says.
For example, Red Hawk Casino features 88,000 square feet of gaming space, along with five restaurants and six bars. The casino serves a market of more than 8 million people in the greater Sacramento area. Four Winds Casino features 130,000 square feet of gaming space and a 165-room hotel, along with five restaurants and four bars in a market of more than 8.8 million people.
Berman says the company’s success at managing large-scale properties such as these give it an edge over firms that specialize in smaller-scale facilities. Because the company doesn’t have its own casinos, Lakes Entertainment can devote its full attention to its clients. “Many of our competitors also have their own casinos … whereas our people are dedicated exclusively to managing these casinos,” Berman says.
That experience is absolutely essential when working for Native American tribes, Berman says, because simply understanding the gaming industry is not enough. “We certainly need to be very experienced in all aspects of running the casino, but in addition to that we work for the tribe, and the tribe is a government,” he says. “Many times, a tribe’s government function is not the same as a business function.”
For example, the first casino Lakes Entertainment built for a tribe back in the early 1990s was built on a reservation. At the time it was developed, the tribal leader told the company that the tribe did not want alcohol to be sold at the casino. Although it made more business sense to offer alcohol, Berman says he did not press the issue and respected the tribe’s wishes. That casino is still successful and alcohol-free nearly 20 years later, he adds.
Berman describes his management style as hands-on and highly involved in the day-to-day operations of the company.
The best advice Berman says he’s picked up about the industry over the years is to do your homework. “When you’re making all your decisions, my biggest piece of advice is to be prepared,” he says. “The person with the most information wins.”
Having the most information will be important for Lakes Entertainment as it prepares to diversify. With no debt, Berman says the company is in a strong position to take advantage of opportunities in and out of gaming. “Our biggest challenge today is actually looking for additional businesses,” he says.