Ameet Patel bet big on simplicity and transparency at Hollywood Casino Columbus, and the gamble is paying off Featured

3:54am EDT August 29, 2013
Ameet Patel, vice president and general manager, Hollywood Casino Columbus Ameet Patel, vice president and general manager, Hollywood Casino Columbus

When the Hollywood Casino Columbus beckoned Ameet Patel a year ago, he knew there was something different about the opportunity.

After 23 years in the casino business, Patel was looking for a personal challenge. An accounting and auditing major in college, he earned his master’s degree from what is now Philadelphia University and started as an accountant at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City right after graduation. Next came stints at casinos all over the country, but it was the Columbus venue that piqued his interest.

“It was to not only create and open another casino, which is what I have done before, but I finally had a chance to say, ‘Now is my chance to establish a legacy and a legacy that stays.’”

Patel had a vision of a casino operating on core values that he defined, that were grown organically, locally and uniquely within central Ohio, along with the employee base.

“What should our core values be in central Ohio?” he says. “That to me was the most interesting and intriguing but also the most challenging part. We were just not building a brick-and-mortar site. It was literally what should be our hiring practices, what should be our culture, and as a result, what should our core values be, and how do we make sure that everybody embraces that.”

Since opening last October, Hollywood Casino Columbus, one of Penn National Gaming Inc.’s 21 casinos and the city’s first, has worked hard at being the new kid on the block who wants to make friends with the neighbors. While it’s been in heated competition with Scioto Downs for market share, the casino, through July, has seen a respectable $190 million since opening.

Here’s how Patel has drawn up core values, put them into practice and built a fresh culture at Hollywood Casino Columbus.

 

Make your foundation

When Patel first arrived in Columbus, the casino was in its infancy — and he quickly realized he had to draw from his experience and craft a new culture, one that he had always wanted to build. The task would be to initiate the steps along the way and keep to his script to ensure the casino would develop optimally.

It was Business 101 — make your business plan carefully and then execute it accordingly. And Patel believed that if you supported the ideals of simplicity and transparency, the odds would be in your favor.

Patel decided to take the simplicity route in sculpting his model employee, of which he would hire 1,400. He knew that many prospective employees would be unfamiliar with the operation of a casino. But as long as they could offer the correct answers to a few questions, it didn’t matter.

“Do you have customer service orientation?” Patel says. “Can you handle 10,000 people a day walking through the doors? Can you function under that environment? If you can bring that, don’t worry about the unknowns because we can teach you the unknowns.”

Patel knew the core values he wanted and he posed them in the form of questions.

“Can you have fun?” he says. “Can you be a good host? Can you be a good neighbor in the community? Can you always be capable of doing the right thing when given choices?

And can you always see ways to improve, particularly financially?

“If you can say yes to these five things — perfect,” Patel says. “That’s what we are looking for at all levels of the organization.”

When those commitments come naturally, you are primed to experience the benefits of a great company culture.

“We have thousands of people working here who go back to their host communities and talk about what a fun culture it is to be here,” he says.

“The most repeated comment I hear from visitors is there is something unique about this property where people are just so warm and friendly.

“Well, that didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by accident,” Patel says. “It starts from establishing core values, then recruiting for those core values and then executing on those core values. And that is the end result, where people say, ‘Well, this is really unique,’ because when being a good host is part of your core culture and core values, by gosh, the delivery is a lot more than people saying, ‘Oh, just come on. We’ll be nice to you.”

Patel also stresses that core values could drive even your bottom line in ways you had not considered.

“Put it in simplistic words — can you see ways to improve everything that you do?  Today you are coming here just washing dishes. But if you have a suggestion on how we can expedite this and make the dishes cleaner, or reduce the workload, now you have contributed to the bottom line already.”

 

Simplify, and reap your rewards

Using simplistic principles to guide you when you are searching for highly suitable employees will most often bring dividends, but what it may bring to your management team can be another feather in your cap.

“Over the years, I found the best way to simplify things for management teams was to always ask people when they give a complex report to ask for a CliffsNotes version,” Patel says. “When they come back with a 10-page report on numerics, I would ask, ‘What would be a one-page summary?’

“When you force that kind of thought process throughout the organization, people start saying, ‘OK, before I talk to my leader, I know the question is going to come up — What does this mean in one page? What does this mean in two sentences?’”

Common wisdom holds that it takes more time to write a short composition than a long one, and people may shy away from wanting to do a short summary.

“That is always the first reaction that I receive from everybody I have asked summaries from,” Patel says. “And over time, I know a lot of the leaders developed in our company have told me otherwise. That is, the biggest benefit of them being pushed to write summaries or give a one-page or two-sentence viewpoint was that it allows them to think about what they are doing.

“If I asked for a report, and I say, ‘Give me an income statement,’ that is great, people would spend time developing that income statement, and, ‘OK, here’s everything. Now the problem is yours.’ The critical thinking stops there.”

But if you continue to regularly write summaries, it keeps your critical thinking in top form.

“Before you go there you know you will be answering what this all means in one sentence,” he says. “Is the income statement good or bad? Why or why not? And if it is good, do you understand where it is coming from?

“So critical thinking develops for the long run, which I think is a real, real key to success when you get into leadership positions.”

 

Create a transparent operation

Another important tool is to establish transparency as a priority.

“The more transparent we were — I think that has paid off huge dividends,” Patel says. “There was a tremendous amount of community involvement with tours taken by people, social groups and charitable organizations, to let them know before construction, during construction and post-construction that this is one of the real, real unique success stories in almost the entire country.”

Patel had to defuse the perception naysayers held that a glitzy Las Vegas was coming to Columbus, since that was not the case.

“We are very, very mindful of the host community in which we operate,” he says. He found it useful in his effort to be transparent to remind people how a casino has parallels to other businesses.

“I just reference that this is exactly the same regulation that a bank goes through in monetary terms and action — then people relate to that,” he says.

“I am a firm believer in providing known industry references to simplify your message to the public.”

Beyond the glitz and glamour, it really comes down to a normal business. For example, investors put up their money and expect a rate of return.

“To that return, you just have to develop a business model that is a socially responsible business model. If you keep your shareholders happy, keep your employee base happy, keep your community involvement transparent and abide by the regulations, now you are creating a business model that is sustainable over decades,” Patel says.

“We spent a tremendous amount of time educating everyone including a number of employees here. When you hire 90 percent of the employees from the local community, your employees don’t know what it means to work for a casino which is a large corporation and a public entity.”

 

How to reach: Hollywood Casino Columbus,
(614) 308-3333 or
www.hollywoodcasinocolumbus.com

 

Takeaways

Set your foundation first — obviously.

Simplify, and reap your rewards.

Focus on transparency in all area.

 

The Patel File:

 

Name: Ameet Patel

Company: Hollywood Casino Columbus

Title: Vice president and general manager

 

Born: Tanzania, Africa

 

Education: I got my first college degree in accounting and auditing in India. I came to the U.S. in 1987 and received a master’s degree from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, now Philadelphia University.

 

What was your first job? My first job getting a paycheck was at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. I started tutoring undergraduate students in statistics and economics. They were my two major areas in business, and it was a real rough road because I was new, I had a heavy accent, and students more often went with somebody who had gone to Temple University, or had graduated from a local high school.

When you say you are a tutor from Tanzania, who speaks Swahili, and can tutor you in economics not too many students were willing to sign up. So my first paycheck was literally $8 after working 2½ hours at a time. To this day, I saved that pay stub; it has been one of my biggest motivators because that taught me what I had to do, not necessarily what the world had to do but what I had to do in order to succeed in life; that is, to work harder than an average American.

 

Who do you admire most in business? Warren Buffett. By far. One of my biggest motivators has been him. I’ve learned a lot about him by just observing him, reading about him and watching him on YouTube videos. When he does any public speaking, I learn so much about simplicity and making people understand what we do. He is someone I have admired and closely followed literally my entire career.

 

What is the best business advice you ever received? Always simplify things so you understand and so everyone around you understands. When you do that, it's incredible how many people become not only supporters but also followers of what you do because people have some real complex perceptions of what you do. Sometimes people see you are a general manager, so you must be busy, you do so many complex things, it is a $400 million operation, and I would say it is really not. This is really exactly what we do. That is the best business advice I have ever received. It is very easy to make things complicated. Nine out of 10 times people go out of the way to make things complicated.

 

What is your definition of business success? To make sure that you are running a socially responsible business model that is sustainable for decades because it creates an employment base. It is really when you relate the human life element to a business — that to me is your ultimate business success. Can you provide a sustainable living to people who are working with you  — vendors, people in business who are contracting with you as well  — can you provide a long-term sustainable source of living and income? That to me is the biggest part of what I call business success. A lot of businesses become reckless. They go in and out, and it becomes a flash in the pan. A lot of people depend on you. So when you look at thousands of lives depending on a business model, you have to take that as the very core by which you define business success.