Courtney Wenleder was working in Las Vegas, as financial controller for the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, in the summer of 2005 when she was asked to step in and assist another property in the MGM portfolio, the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Miss.
She happened to be back in Vegas for some meetings when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the region several weeks after her arrival, but she’ll never forget the flight back to the area five days later on one of the company’s corporate jets that received special clearance to fly into the devastated area.
“Flying over Biloxi, you could see the blue tarps everywhere,” she said, adding that the casino complex itself was closed for exactly a year and had to rebuild just as the region around it did.
“The community saw us as a kind of beacon of hope,” she recalled. “We committed to rebuild right away; people lost their homes and their jobs, and we played a big role in the recovery.”
Wenleder related that story as she started to explain what brought her to Springfield late last summer and, more specifically, to the role of vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield.
While Hurricane Katrina was an exponentially larger natural disaster than the tornado that carved a path through Springfield almost seven years ago now, Wenleder can see a number of parallels between the two calamities and the two regions, especially when it comes to the role a casino complex can play in a devastated region.
And also in how rewarding it can be to be a part of such efforts.
“That experience in Biloxi was more than a job, more than just being a CFO in a casino,” she told BusinessWest. “It was helping the community, giving them hope, rebuilding, working as a team.
“The team that we had down there was incredible,” she went on. “When you go through something like that, you bond instantly; there’s no time for niceties, and ‘let’s just develop this relationship’; you become connected quickly.”
While different from the experience in Biloxi in many ways — the disaster is years in the rear-view mirror, not days — Wenleder says she can find many parallels to her current role with another team, the one that will open the $950 million MGM Springfield in roughly six months.
That’s why, when Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, first approached Wenleder, then the VP of Finance and CFO at the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, about coming to the City of Homes three years ago, she almost immediately started giving it some serious thought.
There were several reasons why she eventually said ‘yes.’ There was that opportunity to be part of another community comeback story, if you will, but also a desire to get back to the East Coast (she was born and raised in Virginia), and the chance to open a new facility.
“Springfield was a pretty easy sell,” she explained. “I was looking for change — I had been at New York New York for nine years and wanted a new challenge — and the opportunity to have a job that meant more than building a property and running the financials.”
Although those are, obviously, big parts of her job description, as we’ll see.
For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Wenleder about her role at top level of the leadership team at MGM Springfield, and also about why, as she said, this particular job involves much more than running financials.
Wenleder, one of the first members of the executive team hired last year (see story, page 15), said those letters CFO usually come complete with a lengthy and varied job description.
That’s especially true in the casino industry, where operations such as MGM Springfield have a number of components, myriad expenses, and (eventually, in the case of MGM Springfield) several revenue streams.
But at the end of the day, the job here, as it does everywhere, comes down to making sure the expense side doesn’t exceed the revenue side. (Although, when it comes to the Springfield casino, we’re going to need that word ‘eventually’ again because, at the moment, there are no revenues).
There’s no end to the expenses, though, said Wenleder, who said she’s trying to manage them the best she can.
“It’s quite stressful when you only have one side of the ledger,” she said with a laugh. “Managing the budget is difficult, especially when things come up that you didn’t anticipate, and there are plenty of those.”
One of the most pressing items on Wenleder’s to-do list is putting her own team together. For several months she was a one-person show, but over the past several weeks there have been a number of additions to the finance team.
But most of the hiring is still to come, obviously, she said, adding that, by the time MGM Springfield is ready to open, that finance team will number between 150 and 200 people.
They will be spread out across a number of departments, she noted, including purchasing; warehouse and receiving; inventory control; financial planning and analysis; those working in ‘the cage,’ meaning those handling money; the ‘counts team,’ individuals who pull money out of the slot machines and table games; casino finance (a compliance role); and a small accounting team. (Payroll, accounts receivable, and other functions are handled out of corporate offices in Las Vegas.)
It’s a big job, with big numbers, such as a projected $90 million in annual payroll alone for the Springfield facility, said Wenleder, adding that she does not yet have a budget or updated revenue projections for either the short year ahead (2018) or the first full year of operation to follow.
But she’s working on it — just as she’s working on a whole host of other aspects of the casino operation.
Such as staffing. That is the focus of much of the activity at 95 State St., and the goal is to come up with the right numbers across each of the various departments. Talks are ongoing as to just how many will be needed within each department, she said, adding that the goal, quite obviously, is not to overstaff or understaff. “There’s a balance there, and it’s important to get the right numbers.”
Other day-to-day work includes everything from financial analysis on potential partners, such as retail tenants, the movie theaters, and bowling alley, to setting of internal control drafting procedures related to the minimum standards set by the Gaming Commission.
While handling all that, Wenleder is thinking about that ‘beacon of hope’ aspect to this casino operation, the element that links it many ways to Biloxi, those blue tarps she saw while flying overhead, and the rewarding work of helping a community bounce back from adversity.
“That’s the element to this I really enjoy — engaging the community, helping people find jobs and improve their lives, training them on new skills, and, hopefully, bringing more vibrancy to the area, because other businesses will come because we’re here. There is that ripple effect.”
Watching the Bottom Line
She’s seen that ripple effect first-hand, in Biloxi and in Las Vegas, of course.
And she’s quite confident that there will be one here as well, and being one of the key drivers of that ripple effect is just part of what made Springfield the easy sell she described.
There won’t be anything easy about getting the doors open come September, but Wenleder is, by all accounts (that’s an industry phrase) well on top of things, thanks to a wealth of experience with these balancing acts.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org