A Genuinely Effective Leader: Kathy George, CEO, FireKeepers Casino Hotel

Leading with her heart, Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, finds motivation by listening to her employees and guests. George is a Native Business Top 30 CEO.

Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, attributes the resort’s success to one thing: “If someone asked me the word for what makes FireKeepers so special, I’d say heart.”

“I think the heart of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, and the heart of the 1,800 employees of FireKeepers, is really what makes it special,” she continues. “In 10 years, what we have accomplished from the service standpoint, but also the impact we have made both on the Tribal community and community as a whole, is something I’m really proud of. There are so many casinos in the state of Michigan,” George says of the 23 Tribal casinos across the state, “but we really distinguish ourselves by our heart, and it shows everyday, and I think that’s really what makes the difference.”

In August 2009, the then-$300 million FireKeepers opened in Battle Creek, Michigan. The gaming establishment has since expanded to feature an eight-story, resort-style hotel along with five restaurants, an event center, convenience store and gas station, downtown restaurant and food pantry. Currently under construction, a second hotel tower will be erected in December 2020. 

The FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board has provided nearly $200 million, or $192,717,102, to the state, local governments and area schools since opening in 2009. “The Tribe is a wonderful partner to the community, and it really gives us a sense of purpose beyond just serving our guests. We’re serving a community,” George says.  

Today FireKeepers is one of the largest employers in Battle Creek, and the casino has retained an astounding 303 employees since its opening day 10 years ago. FireKeepers has amassed a number of awards over the past decade, including being named the Employer of the Year for the state by Michigan Works! Association this year.

“I get a great deal of my energy from my team, and from the guests,” George says. “I think that’s why I do what I do. I know that if I walk the walk and talk the talk that so will my team, and I think that we feed off of each other’s energies. I also look to my guests for a lot of my motivation and my guidance. They’re going to tell us what they want, if we just listen properly.”

The FireKeepers Casino 400 is a 400-mile Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stock car race held annually at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo Courtesy FireKeepers Casino Hotel)

George continues, “One of the quotes that I have learned to build into my life, both outside of work and at work, is by E. M. Statler: ‘Life is service – the one who progresses is the one who gives a little more – a little better service.’ I really try to work on that. And that’s why I do what I do. What we do isn’t rocket science. We just want to treat people well. But if we can do a little bit better every day, and that’s what I ask of my team every day… just pick one thing and do it a little bit better today.” 

George offers these tips for someone vying for an executive leadership position: “Ask questions, and be involved. We catch people’s attention by what we do outside of our normal bounds. What committees are you on? What have you done to raise the bar of the company? What have you done to make it better?” 

She adds, “There’s definitely a lot of time and energy spent on succession planning here.” 

FireKeepers operates a four-track, training-for-succession program. In the first track, the Tribal enterprise provides an overview of a different department weekly, so employees can educate themselves on different roles, if they want to transfer departments or better ascertain how their work compliments that of other departments. Track two addresses supervisory roles and leadership. Track three covers a variety of topics, both personal and professional. For instance, FireKeepers’ 401k company recently led a talk about investing, budgeting and saving for the future — “general skills that will make our team members better leaders, better team members,” George says. 

“In track four, they go through Dale Carnegie and Franklin Covey [Trainings] and Toastmasters, providing that high level of development and succession planning and a more formal mentor program,” George says.  

George credits much of her professional success to mentorship and training programs — and a bit of good fortune, or being in the right place at the right time. 

To take it from the beginning, George grew up on the Cattaraugus Reservation, about an hour south of Buffalo, New York, raised by her father, who was Seneca, and her mother, who was Mohawk from the Six Nations in Canada. She entered the hospitality industry at age 17 by happenstance. “The Tribe had a bingo hall on the reservation, and I started working there in the kitchen. Soon, I realized I really enjoyed serving people and interacting with them,” she says. 

When she attended a college and career fair, she met a woman from Cornell University who ran a catering business. George thought, “I could do that,” and then she was accepted into the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. 

While at Cornell, she worked at the hotel on campus, and then took an internship in Atlanta, Georgia. one semester. “Those were really significant in terms of me getting my feet wet in the industry,” says George, who joined Wyndham Hotels’ Management Development Program immediately after graduating from Cornell. The program exposed her to all parts of the business, and she spent the next 14 years of her career at Wyndham. Then the Seneca Nation of Indians announced plans to open a hotel in Niagara Falls. “I had the opportunity to return home and work with construction to get that property open,” she says. 

FireKeepers CEO Kathy George (Courtesy FireKeepers for Native Business)

George helped to open the hotel at Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino, as well as the temporary casino in Buffalo later replaced by the “humongous and beautiful” Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, she says. Come 2007, after serving as Director of Hotel Operations and Vice-President of Resort Operations, George got to crossover to run the gaming side of things as General Manager of Seneca Gaming Corporation, leading a team of 3,000 employees in delivering four-star service. 

After a stint with Hilton, in January 2012, George joined FireKeepers Casino Hotel, holding roles such as General Manager and Vice President of Hotel Operations for more than 7 years before becoming CEO in May 2017. 

George offers this simple yet profound career advice: “Have fun, and be true to yourself. You know, sometimes people, as we’re climbing that ladder, we forget why we got into something, or we forget who we are at the core of it. And that’s my advice — don’t ever lose sight of that. Be you,” George says.

George also lives by the philosophy that “if one of us is struggling, we all are. And I think that has been very successful for us — to not only improve morale, and knock down the silos, but it has helped us increase revenues,” she says of FireKeepers. “Because we’ve had some great revenue ideas come from some who are not in that discipline.” 

In addition to listening to her executive team, employees and guests, George surrounds herself with other inspiring leaders. “Susan Steinbrecher is someone I have been able to work with, and I look up to her. One of her books is about heartfelt leadership [Heart-Centered Leadership], and that’s something that helps me to refocus. It gives me some tough questions to ask myself and answer.” 

It’s evident that George leads with heart, compassion and grace. Yet she’s quick to point out that she shouldn’t be underestimated. “I often quote, ‘do not mistake my kindness for weakness,’” she says. “My genuineness is really what makes me an effective leader.”

Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our 2019 Leadership issue.