Kevin P. Thornton (center) served as CEO of KP Gaming from 1993 to 2010. Today he serves as Executive Director of MSC Gaming, a full-service gaming supply company based in Los Angeles. Blaise Verdi (left), Director of Sales for MSC Gaming, learned his table game trade knowledge from Thornton. Matt Campbell (right) is the founder and CEO of MSC Gaming. (Courtesy MSC Gaming)
At the cusp of the Tribal gaming industry, Cherokee Nation entrepreneur Kevin P. Thornton launched a business manufacturing tables and supplying casinos. Nearly three decades later, he recounts his journey — from woodworking in his garage to earning Tribal clients across the United States, to building table games for gaming markets around the world from Mexico to Macau.
In the early 90s, as a “hotshot” wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service, Kevin Paul Thornton was injured in the line of duty. Little did he know the incident would lay the foundation for his lifelong career.
“I had a long, drawn-out recovery. In my recovery time, back in ’92, I started building tables in my garage,” shared Thornton, who has always been an avid woodworker.
Back then, his mom worked in the American Indian health arena and regularly traveled to visit and consult with Tribal clinics on reservations across California.
“She was telling me that Tribes are starting to get into gaming. She put me in contact with the right people — and I went in there and asked if I could build their tables,” Thornton said.
One day, Thornton, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, brought the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a new table he had made for them to view, “and they started purchasing my tables for their upcoming expansion. That’s how my business started,” he told Native Business Magazine.
“Then I went to Morongo and did the same thing. Then Palm Springs started, and I worked with the [Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians] Chairman Richard Milanovich [a leader in the effort to legalize and grow the state’s Tribal gaming industry] and his assistant Nancy,” said Thornton, who was instrumental in supplying that casino with nearly everything it needed for its gaming floor to open its doors for business.
Casinos across Southern California began to turn to Thornton. Thornton officially launched KP Gaming Supplies, Inc. in 1994 as a provider of high-quality gaming supplies, focusing his business on supplying Tribal gaming facilities. His company has grown to become the largest supplier of gaming supplies in California and the largest Native American supplier in the United States.
“After that, I went to Spotlight 29 [owned by the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians] and Fantasy Springs [owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians], and then Pechanga started [owned by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians],” he continued.
Some three decades later, Thornton still counts some of these Tribal casinos as clients.
Thornton’s focus was poker and blackjack tables. His garage-based operations were short-lived. “When I got my first large order of tables, I rented a little shop and started growing KP Gaming. I got affiliated with the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, and went down and had meetings with them. They showed me how to do a business plan and get registered and get proper documentation to have a legitimate business,” he shared.
The name “KP Gaming” came about by happenstance — and it stuck. While waiting in a long line to acquire his business license, Thornton finally arrived at the counter, and the attendant asked, “What’s the name of your business? Sir, you have to have a name of a business to get a business license.” So Kevin P. Thornton used his first two initials. “I said, okay, just write KP Gaming,” he laughed.
Thornton opened his first business bank account in similar, casual fashion — using the change sitting on top of his bedroom dresser. “I started it with $123 and change, and then it grew from there. I started the business at the right time. I had an ‘in’ through my mom working for Indian health; she knew all the Tribal people. Then I went in as a Native American business owner, and it just took off from there,” Thornton said.
As a veteran woodworker, Thornton could master the tables and the rail. “I could duplicate that. What I needed was the drop boxes and the other equipment,” he said. “I went to a family friend who was a machinist, and he made the parts that I needed. And then once I started getting more business, then the other suppliers and chairs contacted me and wanted me to sell their products.”
Thornton started off as a manufacturer of gaming tables, and quickly became a full casino supplier — complete with chairs, chips and more.
In the beginning, Thornton used his lines of credit to capitalize KP Gaming. It also helped that customers put down a 50 percent deposit. “That kind of helped me with financing, but anything else, I financed on my own with my charge card. My wife and I probably had five or six charge cards; I had $20,000 limits on all of them, and all of them were maxed out. But we got through it.”
It’s All About Relationships
Back then, Tribal Councils and the Tribal Chair handled all the business. “This is before Tribal gaming commissions were put in place,” Thornton said. “I just went to the Tribal meetings. What was beneficial for me was knowing Indian politics and knowing how the procedure goes on Tribal reservations.”
Meanwhile, other companies started swooping in to address the Tribes, most of them sporting slick suits. “I just dressed nice in a pair of jeans and a button-up shirt,” Thornton said.
The Cherokee member’s personable approach worked to his benefit. Most everything boils down to communication, Thornton says. “I think it comes down to hard work and customer service — that’s the main thing,” he says.
While relationships are everything, Thornton is always aware that Tribal Councils change. “You have to kind of walk a straight and narrow line and not get affiliated with just one person or another, because it can devastate you. Because when that individual leaves Council or his or her term is up, and somebody else comes in, you gotta start from ground zero again. And that has happened to me a couple of times. I learned to just go in the front door, conduct your business, and don’t try to use any friendships or anything to benefit you. Just go in and sell your product, give them a great price, and stick to your delivery dates, perform the hard work, and you’ll be fine.”
After the sudden explosion of Oklahoma’s gaming market, KP Gaming’s company counted about 60 to 80 Tribal licenses —mainly across California and Oklahoma and expanding into Arizona, New Mexico, Washington.
“Once KP Gaming got into slot machines and started doing electronic gaming devices, then that’s when our numbers just quadrupled,” Thornton shared.
KP Gaming began designing tables for major casino suppliers and original equipment manufacturers (“OEMs” for short) in the U.S. gaming market. “When we got licensed in Oklahoma, we started manufacturing and distributing for some of the largest gaming entities, as they contracted with KP Gaming to manufacture their tables. That’s kind of how my consulting started,” Thornton said.
Years down the road, a gaming company from the U.S. market went to Macau for business. One day Thornton received a call: “Hey Kev, we’re trying to design a table doing this, and if we can fly you over here and show you what I need, can you build it?” So Thornton jumped on a plane to Macau and built what they requested.
Sharing His Trade Secrets
Thornton honed his knowledge about quality playing cards and table game manufacturing — from the proper wood to the lacquer finish to the laminate — from the ground up. Thornton knows how to build a gaming table properly and how to save customers money in the process.
Thornton served as CEO of KP Gaming from its founding to 2010. He went on to serve as Director of International Sales for a start-up gaming company until 2016, when he transitioned to his current capacity as Executive Director at MSC Gaming, a full-service gaming supply company based in Los Angeles, California.
At MSC Gaming, Thornton shares his expertise across every avenue. “MSC Gaming has been growing exponentially ever since,” said Blaise Verdi, Director of Sales for MSC Gaming.
Verdi met Thornton about 20 years ago; the pair often interacted at gaming shows. At the time, they were in different industries — Verdi in the slot machine side of the market, Thornton leading the table game side of the market.
“Kevin was a living legend in the Southern California market,” Verdi said. “Because when the California market opened up for Tribal gaming, Kevin was really one of the only people supplying cards, tables, chips — everything to do with casinos based in California. Those casino clients were his friends, his contacts, many of them people he grew up with, and he was the only Native American full-service gaming supplier doing it at that time.
“So Kevin was in the right place at the right time to supply most California Tribal facilities with all their table game products when they opened their doors,” Verdi continued. “Kevin learned how to make tables, he learned what a quality playing card was, he learned what a quality chip was. He went out and procured all of the other items that he didn’t make himself, and he represented it as his own, and brought it to casinos.”
If it was a product that he didn’t physically manufacture himself — he made sure that he knew how it was made, what it was made of, and that it had the quality his customers deserved.
Today, MSC Gaming offers their customers a full-line of casino floor products — from pit podiums and gaming tables to custom logo playing cards — under Thornton’s experience and supervision. The company additionally sources a wealth of gaming products and resells them under the MSC name — but only if it passes with Kevin’s approval. MSC Gaming, owned by
Matt Campbell, is a “customer first” type of company that believes the customer is always right.
Thornton and Verdi strongly advise casinos to buy their products and supplies from a sales representative with whom they can build a solid relationship, and someone willing to stand behind that relationship. “One of the things about MSC is that we live for our customers. If something isn’t right, regardless of whose fault it is, we will change it and make the customer happy. Our life is our customers,” Verdi said. “We like to believe that our customers are our friends first and customers second and we think that every single one of them would agree with that.”
Thornton emphasizes the need to consider: “Point of origin of manufacturing, inventory availability, and how long the individual has been in the gaming market, and what other companies he’s worked for,” he says. “There’s a lot of folks who don’t have that. They come into sales and they’re just a typical sales guy who wants to make numbers and sell products. They need to know more than what the purchaser needs to know, because I’ve found that’s what made my company successful — knowing more. I sit and listen to them. I go back and engineer it, and bring it to them, and they try it out.”
Roughly four years ago, Kevin shared with Verdi all of his insider knowledge gleaned over the course of three decades in the gaming supplies industry. “To give yourself like that to someone, to teach the inside of an industry that took him 30 years to learn, and all the bruises and cuts [that come with that], I mean, it’s changed my life,” Verdi said. “So, present day, everything I do is because I’ve learned it from Kevin.”
California, where Kevin maintains deep roots in the industry, is MSC’s main market. MSC also services some of the major casinos in Mexico, and a good portion of the gaming market in Oklahoma. MSC works with strategic partners in geographic areas outside of the Golden State to sell its products to their local casinos, because relationship-building is pivotal to MSC’s core values. The company believes that distributors are best served by working directly with their neighbors to secure supplies for their gaming floors.
Thornton’s storied career is a testament to that.
“Kevin has made countless friends over his 30-plus years in the gaming industry. When he meets someone and they become friends, there’s no walls there,” Verdi told Native Business. “You feel like he loves you without putting that much effort into it. He’s one of those kind of guys. If you know Kevin, you love Kevin. There’s no other way.”