G&L Interview – Michael Day, VP & CIO of Cannery Casino Resorts, and Founder of TribalNet
G&L: Thank you for being our Summer Interview Mike. All I could think knowing you for so many years, is truly where to start? Your background as a CIO is extensive, you’ve started three important industry organizations/companies and yet you and your wife still found time to raise 5 children. How do you do it?
MD: Caffeine and long cold winters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had a lot to do with it. Seriously, for some reason my DNA formed in a way that I have always been intrigued and motivated by new possibilities and new challenges. That “DNA effect” seems to permeate my entire life.
The enormous extra work and risk associated to each challenge or decision has always been secondary to achieving the goal and the associated benefits. Why not try to act on ideas and possibilities that will make our life and our industry better? Why stop at just one child when you can have five? Why not give solid new systems or processes a chance to succeed in our industry even when you might be the first to use them? Why not occasionally take the time to help other people even when it does not benefit you? Why live in a traditional home when you can build a hobby farm on 80 acres with horses, goats, ducks, chickens, rabbits and all the associated barns and farm equipment?
Instead of complaining about problems or waiting for someone else to fix it, why not figure out how to fix them yourself (and then go do it)? In my life I have found that I have tended to answer and act on those questions far differently than most people. There is no right or wrong answer, but each answer and subsequent actions certainly define your path through life and your career. For the record, the hobby farm was a bit too much work and maybe not the best decision I have ever made. I have officially shoveled more than my share of horse manure in my life.
G&L: Imagine if all of us had that fire, and for the record growing up in farm country, I too have shoveled more than my fair share. You graduated with a Bachelor of Science in CIS Management from Lake Superior State University and then embarked on a 17 year tenure with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in 1989. When you started, there were less than 200 employees and that grew to over 3500 during your tenure and you opened five Kewadin Hotel and Casinos, the Greektown Casino in Detroit, and were responsible for managing over 25 non-gaming tribal properties. In looking back on nearly two decades with the Tribe, what would you identify as your most significant professional and personal growth accomplishments?
MD: I have many fond memories of my years spent building the IT infrastructure for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe. It was a tremendous challenge and also an incredible opportunity for a poor young workaholic fresh out of college and looking to start his career. In 1989, Indian gaming was in its infancy, and the use of technology systems was virtually non-existent at the Sault Tribe just as it was for most any Tribe across the United States. Having an opportunity to set the IT strategy, completely design and build the IT Department, implement hundreds of unique systems and design the technology infrastructure for more than 50 new large facilities during the many years of tremendous continual growth in the organization was great experience.
G&L: It’s probably difficult to pick only one or two, but with that type of growth and expansion were there any specific bits of knowledge you acquired that have guided your career?
MD: There is one basic rule in particular that comes to mind that I still use and try to pass on to my IT management team as well. “Treat this like it is being done for your very own business, paid from your own wallet and affecting your own livelihood.” It’s a simple thing, but I have found that far too many decisions are made, work is done, or effort is put forth that ignore that rule and the results typically show it. Simple as it sounds, trying to explain this concept to some people can be like trying to explain how the flux capacitor makes time travel possible.
The second thing that I learned over the years is that being an effective CIO is much more than simply being a technologist. You need to understand technology systems, processes and infrastructure, but very little of your time is actually spent hands-on. More importantly you need to be a thoughtful strategist, politician, leader, mentor, change manager, have business savvy, and be a very strong communicator. No problem, right? Anyone can do it. Did I mention “walk on water and the ability to fix systems by simply laying your hands upon them?” Those should be preferred qualifications in any CIO job description.
G&L: I think I read all of that in a recent CIO job description. To your earlier point as well, if employees treated the business as their own, they would in fact impact their livelihood in a very positive upward direction, the key is making that mindset happen, which is tough. You also designed and created the first Internet service provider business to serve that region called NorthernWay while there, tell us about how that came about?
MD: I am definitely going to date myself a bit here, but this all happened back in the days of dial-up Internet service. I think that was probably right after Al Gore created the Internet. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe has a seven county service area that extends across the seven eastern counties of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula bordering Lake Superior and Canada. At that time the majority of that area had either zero, or close to zero Internet access. However, the Sault Tribe owned and operated facilities located across all of those counties, and those facilities had space available to install and connect Internet access equipment. So…. the DNA effect I spoke of earlier kicked in, and after several weeks of late night research and studying, I put together a complete new detailed business plan and proposed it to the Tribal Board of Directors. NorthernWay was born soon after as new revenue generating business offering service to the public across the seven counties and also across the border via microwave signal into Canada.
G&L: That was a great idea, and I believe overall Tribes are more open due to their flexibility to try new things. How would you describe the key differences in being a CIO for a tribal entity and a non-tribal entity?
MD: There are many differences, but the answer to this question really depends on the organizations that you work for. In addition to having worked directly for a Tribe, I have also had the opportunity to provide IT consulting for numerous Native American organizations, and although similar, each one is different based upon the number of Tribal Members and their governmental structure. All CIO’s deal with the same general issues of staffing, security, compliance, standards, integration, communication, strategy, and system dependability and support. However, having to balance the added governmental systems as well as the governmental structure political aspects of being a CIO for a Tribe is particularly unique and challenging.
I would say the key difference is the addition of the governmental systems and the governmental processes and politics that come with that. Specifically to my time at the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, I was dealing with a tribe with over 30,000 Members and a service area that stretched across a geographic area covering several hundred miles. It was a common daily occurrence to be “shifting gears” throughout the day in working with such a diverse organization. Meeting with clinic management and doctors and nurses regarding health care systems and facilities in the morning, followed by work with other large organizational divisions such as social services, education, housing, membership services, public services and gaming and hospitality divisions of the organization throughout the remainder of the day.
In many ways, being a CIO for a large Native American organization is more challenging than at a commercial casino(s) due to the diversity, complexity and size of the organizations. Complexity of an organization is not always synonymous with total revenue.
G&L: Agreed. As you know, I am honored that you partnered with G&L in year 3 on the TribalNet show, which is now in year 14. Explain your inspiration for TribalNet and the value that TribalNet brings each year.
MD: TribalNet is a great organization with a great story behind it. It also illustrates how one person can really make a difference and turn a good idea into a reality – given that you don’t mind taking on a heap of extra work and responsibility.
After working for the Sault Tribe for ten years and helping to build that environment into what was a very successful and respected Tribal organization, I was continually baffled by the lack of communication that existed among Tribes across the United States. Here we had similar organizations, going through similar experiences, and each one choosing to go it alone rather than share some basic (noncompetitive) knowledge and experiences. It simply did not make any sense and it was once again a waste of time and resources that could be fixed. To explain how bad the problem was at that time, of the multitude of Tribes located in Michigan (and one of them located less than ten miles away) I did not know a single person at those Tribes, nor was I aware of a single system they were using or anything about them. So, I decided to try and do something to fix this by bringing all of the Tribal IT leaders together for an annual technology conference and also by developing an informational website that would provide contact information for each Tribe’s IT leaders as well as a summary of systems they use and how they are structured. After starting work on the website, and developing an organization name, logo and basic plan of action – I was off and running. In the first year I made hundreds of phone calls and sent thousands of letters to Tribes to find out who their IT Directors were and to invite them to the first annual TribalNet conference. All of that culminated in the first TribalNet Conference located in the convention space of the Sault Tribe’s Kewadin Casino in Sault Ste. Marie. Although we only had approximately 15 attendees and maybe 5 sponsoring vendors that first year, it was the kickoff to something that would quickly become much bigger.
Today TribalNet boasts membership from most of federally recognized Tribes across the United States. The website and newsletters are a wealth of information, and the annual conference has grown into a very large and well attended event. It is really a must attend event for Tribal IT leaders that are really interested in learning about best practices, systems and learning and networking with their peers. Many large technology companies created new divisions within their own companies to specifically service and assist Tribes based solely upon the TribalNet model.
Due to many other projects and commitments, my time spent on TribalNet has diminished substantially over the past 7 years. I still act as Director of the Advisory Boards, but it is gratifying to watch the organization continue to grow through the continual effort, support and capable hands of the TribalNet team and Tribal IT community with their involvement.
G&L: It is gratifying to watch its continual growth. What was it about Cannery Casino Resorts that compelled you to leave the Sault Tribe after all of those years and move to Las Vegas to be their CIO?
MD: After living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for 20 years, they had me at “it does not snow in Las Vegas.” Of course, they failed to tell me that Las Vegas is like living on the surface of the sun each July and August. All kidding aside, it was a very tough decision to make. I had put my heart and soul into the Sault Tribe, but due to political upheaval and general changes in the direction of the organization that occurred at that time that were not conducive to success and growth, I knew it was time to leave. Meanwhile, I had known the owners of Cannery Casino Resorts from our time working together opening the Greektown Casino in Detroit. Besides being generally good people, they are intelligent, motivated true entrepreneurs who wanted to grow and expand their new company. They contacted me and I was looking for new challenges. It was a great fit. Next thing you know I am packing up the moving truck and heading out of the frozen wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula across the country to the desert of Nevada.
G&L: I’m glad you did. Tell us about the latest endeavor, the Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Pennsylvania.
MD: The Meadows is our largest single casino property. With over 3300 slot machines, 80 table games, poker room, restaurants, food court, bowling alley, full horse racing facilities and race track it is an impressive property. This was my first opportunity to integrate the systems and technology used in a traditional horse racing track with a casino gaming infrastructure. In order to open the property as soon as possible, we actually needed to design and build the property twice, with the first build being a full temporary casino inside a sprung structure that opened in 2007. The permanent Meadows facility was a completely separate design and facility that was built right next to the temporary casino and opened in 2009. For both facilities it was complete technology and system design and build from the ground up.
MD: As always, Cannery Casino Resorts continues to look for new gaming sites and opportunities to grow our business. We are looking much more closely at online gaming opportunities and formalizing what our strategy will be in this new space. Additionally we have been very successful in providing very positive results consulting for Native American organizations and we will continue to look at those opportunities.
From a purely IT viewpoint, we have several large initiatives. We are continuing to look at cloud technologies and services and we recently completed a move of our email system from in-house Exchange to cloud based Google Apps. We are working on business intelligence products to enhance the investment we have put into a centralized data repository and CRM system that we implemented over the past several years. Strategically speaking, we are trying to stick to technology initiatives that have an achievable positive ROI.
G&L: Mike you may be a CIO, but you are truly a serial entrepreneur. Last year your idea and efforts kicked-off an industry-wide effort to create the Gaming & Hospitality Research Center (GHRC) partnering with the respected Info-Tech Research Group to carry out this vision. Now from the G&L Roundtables, I know that you and other G&L Board Members and Roundtable Colleagues have discussed the strong need for this body of gaming and hospitality research to be created, maintained and available on a consistent basis. How did you finally create a true research solution and why Info-Tech?
MD: This is another classic case of my DNA kicking in and pushing me to take action. For over 20 years I have looked for industry specific research on technology systems without success. Year after year the same issue of lack of third party research and vendor product and process scoring was identified during the G&L Roundtables as a need. Year after year no progress was made or solution found. Time after expensive time, every organization, including every organization I have worked for, has had to be completely self-reliant in researching both their existing and new vendors and systems to stay current with the industry. Why? What a complete waste of time and resources. So, after contacting numerous third-party research firms and getting the same basic reply “Gaming and Hospitality is just too much of a niche market and we can’t do it.” I thought we had hit another brick wall. Then as fate would have it, about 18 months ago I received a call from Info-Tech Research Group. That call was intended to try and sell me their existing research service (which is great by the way, but that’s another story), but I quickly turned the conversation around to me selling them the concept of what was to become the GHRC. A series of calls over the next week followed with their executive team and they were very excited about this new opportunity and they were onboard. Finally, a positive change that would benefit everyone in the industry was underway. The following month had numerous phone calls, lunches or evening cocktails with other industry CIO’s and of course you Jeannie as well. From those discussions came the current GHRC reinvestment membership model designed to provide a continually updated and growing library of industry research for a small annual cost (much less than the cost of doing similar research on a single system or group of vendors on your own), with the membership fee funding the continual production of new research. It was an easy win-win for everyone. The growing value of the GHRC is self-evident, and I suspect that once they learn about this that all of the proactive IT leaders in our industry will quickly join their peers in supporting this industry-wide effort. It is long overdue.
G&L: I agree as I feel like the GHRC is growing daily. Do you see yourself creating more industry benefitting endeavors in the near future?
MD: I would like to honestly say that I already have way too much on my plate to tackle anything else. However, I know that this has never stopped me in the past. Maybe I should just break my right arm off so the next time anyone needs a volunteer for a worthwhile effort I cannot raise my hand. The truth is, I doubt I will ever change that part of me and thus I more than likely will be onto some new way to change the world for the better many times in the future. Stay tuned.
G&L: We shall stay tuned indeed. If you could solve only a couple current challenges in our industry near term, what would they be?
MD: That’s a tough question. There are many little things to choose from, but overall I think the most important change needs to come from a stronger and growing economy. Unfortunately, not something that any of us has much direct individual influence over. Not that I would make a good politician, but I think I would need to run for president of the United States to have any real chance of enacting any positive changes to the economy. The entire gaming and hospitality industry has been so involved in cost saving and belt tightening endeavors for so many years now that many organizations have lost the “fun factor” that has traditionally been a part of working in gaming and hospitality. We need to get that back. The excitement and fun of working within a vibrant and thriving industry that is growing is something I think we all want. A vibrant economy and customers with more disposable income solves many ills.
G&L: We do need an economy that supports more new and exciting creations in the gaming and hospitality industry to motivate people to get out and indulge in those. What do you predict will be the key technology innovation that will revolutionize gaming and hospitality in the next 3-5 years and what will that innovation yield for your properties as well as for your customers?
MD: Ahhh, the dreaded crystal ball interview question. I really wish I, or anyone could provide an accurate prediction for the next 3-5 years. I will give you what I feel is a logical assumption of what will change the industry over that time period. Drum roll please…. I predict that it will be online and mobile gaming that will have the most innovation and biggest effect on our industry and our customers. Not exactly an earth shattering prediction, but it is the most likely opportunity.
To be clear, I do not think that online and mobile gaming will replace the traditional “bricks and mortar” casinos, but it will have an effect. Just like I can (and do) buy clothing off many websites on the Internet, but I still go to the “brick and mortar” stores as well. If you simply “follow the money” it is hard to imagine that both online and mobile gaming will not become a reality in some form over the next 3-5 years. The investment of capital by business has been significant. Governments want the tax revenue. Now if we could just predict what the politicians will do in the approval and regulation process we might have some clarity. In my humble opinion, the most unique possibility of online and mobile gaming is the ability to break out of the geographic restrictions to drawing customers that are a part of most traditional casino and hotel properties.
The Internet is world-wide, and your new customer base is only restricted by the constraints of eventual law and regulation. How many potential customers do not actively use the Internet or own a mobile smart phone today – including grandma and grandpa? That number is small and shrinking, and thus the potential reach of online and mobile gaming is increasing. This is more than an extension of any organization’s current properties; this eventually needs to be a completely separate and new business.
MD: As for the topics, I imagine that we will be venturing into some discussions on online and mobile gaming. I might guess that we will be discussing various revenue generating technology being used on the casino gaming floor and the many new innovations in in-room technology for hotels. Regardless, it is always interesting to hear other organizations angles on these topics and to hear how they are approaching it. This forum is always a very worthwhile couple of days. You might hate me for this answer, but I may enjoy the golf invitational and the awards reception the following night the most. Of course I enjoy the actual Roundtable and all of the discussion and information that is shared. However, the chance to meet and talk informally with this many industry CXO’s in an informal setting is always interesting and a lot of fun. Jeannie, we really appreciate the G&L Roundtable each year.
G&L: Great to hear Mike and as anticipated, your interview was interesting and a lot fun as well.
Jeannie Caruso, Publisher of Gaming & Leisure Magazine.