Calculated Risk Taker Holly Gagnon: This Industry Powerhouse Seriously Loves the Casino Industry

Holly Gagnon is a Native Business Top 30 CEO.

A certified CPA, Holly Gagnon started her career at large accounting firms, before she transitioned to handling internal audits. When Gagnon interviewed for the head of internal audits at what’s now known as the Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise, she was told the 60 to 70 hour work weeks referenced in the job description only pertained to the opening of Foxwoods Resort Casino. 

“It was like that for the entire duration of my tenure; it was that intense,” admits Gagnon, who became the Executive Director of Finance at Foxwoods. And yet, she loved it. “We were in this rapid expansion mode. We didn’t have enough equipment to count all the money that was coming in, and the money was piling up on trolleys, in drop boxes in the count rooms. …So much learning happened so quickly. I feel very fortunate,” she tells Native Business.

“Really define the kind of leader you want to be, and try to be that every day,” Gagnon says. Click To Tweet

“In that time frame of eight years, we went from 2,000 employees to close to 10,000. We were constantly building,” she adds.  

Rodney Butler, Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, actually served as an analyst under Gagnon in the 90s. “I just think the world of Rodney; he’s an amazing leader,” she says. 

That prompts Gagnon to reflect: “I think one of my greatest assets in life are those networks that I forged back in those days.” And then she shares a bit of wisdom: “You will never regret being kind. You will often regret when you’re not.” 

Gagnon has built her career working for world premier gaming organizations like Foxwoods Resort Casino. She went on to serve in a number of key financial and operational roles in her six years with Harrah’s/Caesars Entertainment, and from 2006-2008, as President at Gold Strike Casino, an MGM Resort property. 

For two years, 2008-2010, when Gagnon had a noncompete contract, she lectured at the University of Massachusetts’ Isenberg School of Management. “I taught casino curriculum. Really, it was when I was out of the game and teaching that it became apparent — not only to me but to my students, who were like, ‘Why did you leave if you love it so much?’ — just how much I absolutely love what I do. It’s very dynamic, and it’s very analytical, which suits me very well. But it’s also about people and relationships, which are important to me. It’s the one job where you can work on strategy, and then go down on the casino floor and watch it play out — which is very interesting. It’s very immediate feedback,” she says. 

After teaching, Gagnon returned to Harrah’s/Caesars where she served as Divisional Vice President of Planning and Analysis from 2010 to 2012, before taking on the President and CEO position at Pearl River Resort, where she managed a multimillion-dollar renovation and rebranding effort. From late 2015 to June 2017, Gagnon led Chumash Enterprises as CEO for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. 

Continuously Improving Seneca Gaming 

Today, as President and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corporation, Gagnon leverages her 27 years of knowledge in the gaming and hospitality industry. In her two-plus years at the helm of Seneca Gaming Corporation — which encompasses Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino in Niagara Falls, New York; Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo, New York; and Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in Salamanca, New York — she’s made a significant impact within the corporation. 

A calculated risk-taker who likes to “over-deliver on a commitment,” she’s proud of a recent accomplishment by Seneca Gaming Corporation — the $40 Million “Seneca Arrival Experience,” which elevates the gateway to Niagara Falls. “In  June, we opened our new Arrival Experience. It is fantastic; it’s spectacular, and we were on time and under budget, and it was a $40 million project,” Gagnon says. 

Her enthusiasm extends beyond superior results. Gagnon deeply cares about the guest experience. For instance, Tim McGraw recently performed at Seneca Niagara Events Center. “It was the largest concert we’ve had in the history of the property. It was flawlessly executed, and to have [Tim McGraw’s] management say how impressed they were with our team…. If that doesn’t excite you, then this isn’t the business for you,” she laughs. 

When it comes to excelling in business, Gagnon’s advice is simple and direct: Be the kind of employee that you would pay for, and be the kind of boss you wish you had. “Really define the kind of leader you want to be, and try to be that every day,” she says. 

Gagnon is particularly passionate about Seneca Gaming’s new Continuous Improvement department implemented this year. It’s empowering stronger team members and involving them in decision making. Continuous Improvement, “a refinement to our executive development program for Senecas,” is based on Kaizen, a strategy where employees at all levels of a company work together proactively to achieve regular, incremental improvements. 

Five Seneca Nation members run the Continuous Improvement department, including the executive director. “Not only are they learning the business, they are the change agents for the organization,” Gagnon says. 

Leading Like a Woman 

As a founding board member of Global Gaming Women, where she chairs the mentorship committee, Gagnon proactively works to uplift women in the industry. “Global Gaming Women is a foundational infrastructure for women to tap into networks, education and leadership,” Gagnon says. 

In general, Gagnon is an avid supporter of a diverse leadership team and workforce. “What fascinates me is that, in the United States, we lag behind other countries [in terms of the number of females who hold executive leadership positions], even though, statistically, we know that companies that are led by women, or have a good representation of women on their boards of directors, tend to have better long-term profitability,” Gagnon says. “So, regardless of whether we feel it’s the right thing from a social standpoint, it’s the right business decision to promote a diverse leadership team. Because we all will approach the solution differently, and probably come up with a much better solution than if we had everyone thinking the same as we did.” 

Gagnon is one of the few female CEOs in the gaming industry, though she’s the third female CEO at Seneca Gaming Corporation. “I work with a lot of talented women. Our team happens to be about 60 percent female,” Gagnon says of Seneca Gaming Corporation.  

It will likely come as no surprise that the Seneca Gaming team describes Gagnon as an authentic leader. “We laugh a lot, and we’re warm, and we are approachable,” says Gagnon of her executive team. Gagnon adds that her take on leadership is greatly influenced by Dr. Brené Brown, a best-selling author and research professor at the University of Houston, who is renowned for her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. 

Speaking of values, Gagnon’s are aligned with the Seneca Nation. “I love working for a Native American organization, because I think our our horizon for results is much longer-term. It’s about sustainability,” Gagnon says. “This is about the next generation that these businesses support. I say: Judge my success five years after, because what I put into play should be sustainable, and be of that level of quality, that it’s a building block for future growth.”

Holly Gagnon, Seneca Gaming Corporation President and CEO, was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our 2019 Leadership issue.