The Apache Gold Casino and Resort sits just 5 miles outside of Globe on land owned by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and has played a key role in the economic health of the region since it’s inception in 1994. So in 2009 when the Casino announced that due to a worsening economy they would be shutting down their golf course and keno games and laying off 45 people there was an audible gasp from the community-at-large.
In 2008 during the worst of the financial meltdown the country has seen since the Great Depression, gaming revenues were reportedly down nearly 20% and showed that gaming was perhaps not the recession-proof industry many had thought it to be. Arizona was particularly hard hit with an unemployment rate of 10.8% and the mining industry in a stall from falling copper prices.
When the economy started to improve a year after the layoffs, the Casino announced to the SilverBelt in a January 2010 article that they had hired back 85% of those they had let go and revenues were on a modest upswing. At the same time, they launched several new construction projects, which had been put on hold including a new resort-sized swimming pool and gym, a new BBQ restaurant in the Pavillion and improvements throughout the Hotel property. Keno would not return to the floor and it would still be some time before the golf course would recover from a full shutdown. Yet perhaps most problematic for the health of the property was a continued turnover of senior management and leadership positions which plagued any real progress.
To some on the outside, it appeared the Casino may had survived, but was still treading water. The food and service at the Apache Grill were noticeably lackluster, and the new BBQ grill sputtered. The golf course had opened, but showed signs of neglect that only the hardiest of golfers could overlook as they played the course, and things that were broken, just didn’t get fixed.
When Gary Murrey accepted the position as General Manager this last July, he was clear on both the problems he faced and the promise of the property he was being asked to take over. He is no stranger to Casinos in crisis having spearheaded turnarounds at two casinos in Nova Scotia before coming to Arizona. Yet, during the interview process he faced a skeptical panel who had seen several GMs come and go. So, it was no surprise when someone asked him how long he expected to stick around and just what he was planning on doing.
“I’m not planning on any changes or improvements until it’s proven we need it,” Murrey told the panel. “ It’s not my job to come in and change the entire organization. That’s not reality. I’m here to improve the organization…as we need it.”
Janet Cole-Spitler, who is the Director of Information Systems for the property was one of those in on the initial interviews, and praises Murrey for coming in and focusing on the people first.
“You can’t expect to spend a bunch of money improving the place and ignore customer service,” she says. “Gary knows that…and his first attention is to the people.” According to several we talked with, that attention to people has improved employee morale and attitudes significantly and that is creating a better customer experience as well.
A good example is the gentleman who recently pulled Cole-Spitler aside to tell this story. Having been a long time customer of the casino he told Janet he was surprised a while back when he was greeted at the door for the first time with “Welcome to Apache Gold. What can we do for you. How can we make your stay better.” The greeter then went on to inquire whether the gentleman had tried their buffet recently and when he said no, was surprised to be tracked down on the floor 20 minutes later and handed a free ticket for the buffet.
Even phone etiquette is getting the attention from the GM and he has been known to pick up the phone and make a quick call to some department just to check out how they answer the phone. While Murrey may be quick to acknowledge a good job and push for an even better one, he is equally quick to make a correction when he gets the feeling he’s inconvenienced someone by his call or the person who answers lacks a “smile’ on the other end of the phone. Often a phone call is the first – and last – impression someone may get when calling the Casino and Murrey is working on making every impression a positive one.
According to Linda Michaels who serves as Director of Gaming and has been with the Casino since it’s inception in 1994, Murrey is someone who is dedicated to the property and not his own personal vision. Talking about Murreys’ experience as a poker player (He has played in the World Series of Poker and professionally in the past), she says, “ I guarantee you that Gary is a poker player – a professional one – but he didn’t come in here are say ‘lets’ get rid of some slots and put in poker.’ He is looking at what’s best for us. Whether it’s good for the property. The community.”
According to several we spoke with, it’s been hard to keep up with the changing of management in the last several years. The constant change and different management styles created an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future, and fear of one’s job or even what was expected of them. For many employees years have gone by without a review or even an ‘atta boy.’
Michaels goes on to say, “…with Gary, we have someone who is dedicated to here… that is on site and not gone all the time. And someone who has a vision for this place that is exciting…and familiar to us. What’s fortunate is the visions of what he sees and feels is what we as management have seen and felt for years… have talked about for years.”
From the outside it may seem like Murrey is writing a new chapter for the Casino property. But from the inside perspective of those who have been at Apache Gold for some time, it is more like he has joined them on a very old chapter that they all cherished at one time. Someone said in one of the meetings, “ We are not only on the same page, but reading the same book from the same library.”
Murrey says many of the improvements and programs they are working on now won’t be felt by the public for another 12 -18 months but some are already noticeable and making inroads to creating good first impressions, improving the customer experience and making things better for employees.
And all of this starts with hiring good people and promoting others into key positions, trusting them to make the decisions and come up with ideas to do good things on behalf of employees and customers, and giving them the tools to do act.
It’s a formula that is working.
Cristobel Mull, who is the Operations Director is in charge of the C-Store and RV park smiles when she says they now have a reservation system for their RV Park which helps both the customer experience and her employees. And she explains some of the recent improvements have been on the back end such as a new system at the C0Store concerning the sale of liquor which improves the safety for her employees.
Over in the IT department, Director Cole-Spitler explains the importance of the new WIFI installation which was put in last month. “Prior to August of this year we had internet in the hotel rooms, but it was managed by a third party and was ‘spotty’… We often wouldn’t hear about a problem until it showed up in a bad review,” she says. “ Gary allowed me to hire a consultant and together we worked out a plan to put in WIFI for under $10,000… I’m a little pitbull when it comes to getting things done and once I was given the green light I worked hard at keeping the cost down by hiring out only what we ourselves could not do. “
She goes on to explain that in the past there was no support for changing the system since ‘internet for all’ wasn’t seen as contributing to the bottom line. “Gary understood right away that it is all about the customer experience. He came from the real world and knows the importance of reliable and secure WIFI in serving the public.”
The new WIFI installation is just the first of many planned tech improvements including those that will happen in the back office to create a more green robust, secure environment overall, as well as those aimed at making it easier for the customer to access the casino and redeem rewards without the need for vouchers or standing in line. Also in the works is a completely re-designed website, expected to launch this Fall, which will include current information on Casino events and promotions, better navigation, links to the hotel and golf course websites with their own reservation systems and a tie-in with the Tribes’ website.
Since arriving in April, Murrey has set up weekly meetings with front line staff, supervisors and managers and Directors. Each week he listens while others talk – out of earshot of their bosses or staff – about what is happening in their jobs. The success of these meetings can be heard in the lively conversations, which happen when people feel comfortable in saying it like it is with the GM in the room. In just 6 months they are learning to trust his style, his willingness to hear them out and to act on ideas to improve things.
“It’s comfortable working with him,” says Linda Michels. “You don’t have to worry about your job. And he gives us the freedom to make decisions. He is eliminating fear and replacing it with trust. His style is more collaborative than top-down. He pulls information from everyone … from front line employees to directors. “
He accomplishes this by meeting with the various groups each week but also by walking around. “He is everywhere, says Cole-Spitler.”He’s in the back of the house, he’s in finance, he’s on the floor… You don’t know where he is… But he’s around.”
She describes his style as professional…but light hearted. “He has a way of keeping the fun in the process and challenging employees to do better – not threatening them. Gary acknowledges everyone’s importance while pushing us to do better.”
“We get a Casino Manager’s report three times a day,” says Michels, “…and Gary will follow up on everything, from customer service to back office issues, he stays on top of how we do each day and let’s people know he ‘sees’ what’s going on. He’ll bring it up in the weekly meetings. And whether it’s to acknowledge a good job or point out where something could have been handled better, he does it in a positive way, you know.”
Within the first six months, Murrey has filled six key management positions, promoted people from within to new responsibilities, created a 100 page business plan and budget with both near term and long term projects and put many of the Tribe’s earlier projects which had stalled, back on track.
There are plans to install a drive-through espresso coffee shop at the C-Store and open up an “Outback-ish” Steak house where the former BBQ restaurant was. The new Steak house, scheduled to open this coming spring, will also include 2 additional private rooms that can be booked for smaller parties. And over at Apache Grill, the new Food and Beverage manager, Gary Hess, is also making changes including a fresher menu, and expanding popular buffet nights like Taco Tuesday and Friday nights’ Seafood Buffet.
Mark Twain once said, “You never get a second chance to create a good first impression.” And with that in mind, Murrey has launched a program called “Polishing the Gold” which is all about First Impressions. Taking a long walk around the property when he first arrived, he photographed areas that had been allowed to deteriorate, like a rock wall, which was breaking apart, or parking lot striping, which had faded…or even the stacks of cardboard awaiting recycling which guests could see on their way to play golf.
When these things are scrutinized under a new lens – looked at through the eyes of those visiting the Casino property for a first time, they are seen for what they are. Signals that someone doesn’t care. Murrey is asking his staff, from management to front line employees to care. And he is backing them up.
In an article several years ago featuring the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation where Murrey served as General Manager of 2 Nova Scotia properties, his penchant for service was compared to the Casinos architectural grandeur and sprawling gaming floor. After describing the beauty of the facility, the writer goes on to say, “…it’s the hospitality experience that is the essence of Casino Nova Scotia. True to the tradition of maritime hospitality, the staff exudes warmth, friendliness and knowledge. This approach to customer service starts at the top, with the example set by General Manager, Gary Murrey.
“We’re an entertainment venue that offers more than just slots and table games,” he said in that interview. It is a philosophy he brings with him to Apache Gold. ” Murrey looks at the entire property and it’s resources to see how each segment can contribute to the overall guest experience, the betterment of the community-at-large, and the property’s bottom line.
With Apache Gold he sees a bright future for all three.