From Slots to the C-Suite: Kenneth Manuel, Jr., CEO, Gila River Hotels & Casinos

Kenneth Manuel, Jr. ​is Native Business Top 30 CEO.

Kenneth Manuel, Jr. began as a slot attendant at Gila River’s first gaming venture and worked his way up to the C-suite — and he’s just getting started.  

Not only did Kenneth Manuel, Jr., grow up in the Gila River Indian Community in southern Arizona, he has worked in the gaming and hospitality industries for his Community for 25 years. “I’ve grown up in this business,” he emphasizes. “So many of our team members, I have worked alongside with, from day one. So many of the folks that I grew up with, within the Gila River Indian Community, work here today. Whether they’re relatives, neighbors, friends, people who know my family, people that I went to school with… these are the folks that I interact with on a regular basis.”

Manuel laughs and adds, “I chuckle a bit… because we’re taught to respect our elders at an early age, and we’re taught to respect our Community. So they’re not afraid to to pull me aside and scold me at times.”  

And that’s just fine with Manuel. He whole-heartedly believes in innovation through teamwork. “I say this on a regular basis to my team: I never want us to be stagnant or stale. I’m always open minded. I know that the best decisions don’t always come from myself. I have an excellent leadership team who provides me with guidance and provides me with suggestions,” he says. 

It’s not surprising that Manuel sees value in input from people throughout the enterprise and Community. He’s held positions across departments at Gila River-owned ventures, from entry level to C-suite. He was involved in his Community’s first foray into gaming, beginning as a slot attendant. “For myself and other members of the Community, this was our first experience, our first exposure to gaming. Many of us learned this business from the ground up,” he explains. 

As a slot attendant, Manuel quickly became passionate about the gaming industry. “It was not uncommon for me to volunteer for shifts, outside of my own shift, whenever they needed help,” he says.  

The Gila River Indian Community’s Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino

Gaming on Gila River grew at a rapid rate in the mid-90s, and Manuel advanced with it, quickly graduating to a slot supervisor position. Come 1997, the Community opened the doors to Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino, in Chandler, Arizona, where Manuel served as slots manager before eventually getting promoted to acting director for slot operations. Manuel thrived in the fast-paced environment. 

“It was non-stop: day shift, swing shift, graveyard. We were constantly moving and engaging with guests and just about every department of the casino. We were at somewhat of an infancy stage, and we were learning together as a team and as a Community,” he says.  

Seeking to hone his skill set on the hospitality and hotel side of the business, Manuel transitioned to join the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa team for a year, where he participated in their Executive Management Trainee Program. 

He also honed his leadership skills on Gila River’s corporate board of directors. “I became exposed to all of the different departments, all of the different areas of casino operations, and to the Tribal government perspective as well,” he says.

Over the course of those seven and a half years serving on Gila River’s corporate board of directors — including five and a half years as the President of the board of directors — Manuel witnessed how the Tribal enterprise could affect change and benefit the Gila River Indian Community. “Because I grew up in the Community before gaming, I did see the struggles, I saw them firsthand,” he tells Native Business. 

When an opportunity presented itself to advance his career through Gila River Hotels & Casinos’ mentorship program, Manuel took it. Manuel had the unique opportunity to work under two different CEOs through the mentorship program, and he officially took the helm at Gila River Hotels & Casinos as CEO in January 2017. 

The mentorship program that groomed Manuel for executive leadership continues strong today. “I believe at last count, approximately 70 members of the Gila River Indian Community have gone through this program and have obtained positions in management within the enterprises at our three different locations,” Manuel says proudly.  

Speaking of the Gila River Hotels & Casinos’ three properties, Manuel has been key in the creation and completion of them all: Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino, Lone Butte Casino, and Vee Quiva Hotel & Casino. 

“We have a group called the Casino Expansion Owners Team or CEOT. I’m a member of CEOT, so we meet on a regular basis. We’re always looking at our long-term goals, strategic plans and the ways of carrying out the different facets of that,” he says. 

Manuel is also particularly proud of Gila River Hotels & Casinos’ corporate relationships with professional sports teams in Arizona — including the NFL team the Arizona Cardinals, the Major League Baseball team the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the NHL team the Arizona Coyotes.

READ MORE: Partnership With Arizona Cardinals to Increase Gila River Hotels & Casinos Brand Recognition and Empower Youth 

With NFL rules relaxed, at the start of this year’s NFL season, the Arizona Cardinals named Gila River Hotels & Casinos as its official hotel and casino partner. “It definitely helps put us on the map,” Manuel says. “When I look at our partnership, I look at it from a couple of different perspectives — one, from the business perspective, and two, from the community perspective.”

He explains, “From the business perspective, there’s brand recognition. When you go into a football stadium, you see Gila River Hotels & Casinos alongside other big businesses like Budweiser, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the various airlines that partner with the Arizona Cardinals. Having our product and our service alongside those names is extremely important to the business with some 70,000 fans there not only throughout football season, but year-round with the different events held at State Farm Stadium.”

The partnership is also beneficial to the Gila River Indian Community — particularly its youth, Manuel expresses. “The Arizona Cardinals will be donating $5,000 to the Gila River Fire Department apprentice program, and they also host four youth football clinics each year for children in the Community. There are player appearances, cheerleader and mascot appearances, and many other activities that we collaborate on. Our long-standing partnership is proof that, with a shared vision and mutual respect, anything is possible.” 

As a Gila River Indian Community member who worked his way from slot attendant to CEO, while witnessing the evolution and growth of his Community’s economy, Manuel is a believer in the power of Gila River Hotels & Casinos to make a positive impact now and for generations to come. 

“We are the largest revenue source for the Gila River Indian Community. So I have a vested interest in what we do on a daily basis,” he says. 

To Manuel, effective leadership is achieved by staying grounded and continuously reinforcing and remembering the vision, purpose and mission of a business. “It doesn’t matter what business you’re in — it goes back to the core vision and goals,” he says.  

And Manuel underscores, again and again, that he’s a big proponent of not only investing and reinvesting in the business, but investing in the team. “I’m a big believer in team,” he adds. “I understand 100% that no one succeeds alone. I give all my credit to the team. I give all the credit to my Community. There is a great sense of pride in the Community.” 

Kenneth Manuel, Jr. was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our Leadership issue.