Snoqualmie Casino CEO Brian Decorah Says the Key to Inspiring a Workforce Is Appreciation

Native Business Top 30 CEO Brian Decorah with his team at Snoqualmie Casino (Courtesy Snoqualmie Casino)

Brian Decorah’s Tribal name is Nagu roha (pronounced: Nah-gah chew-hee). It means many roads in Ho-Chunk. “I’ve certainly traveled many roads to get to where I am in life,” Decorah tells Native Business. 

A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Decorah’s journey began in Necedah, a small town of 773 people in central Wisconsin, where he was raised. While intelligent — with a verified IQ in the top 5 percent of the world — Decorah’s first attempts at college were anything but smooth sailing. His first resulted in academic suspension, and he dropped out of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point on his second try. 

That led Decorah to start his first job at a casino on October 15, 1995 — a date he quickly recalls much like a birthday or anniversary. He was working the graveyard shift as a security guard at Rainbow Casino, now known as Ho-Chunk Gaming Nekoosa. Little did he anticipate that this taste of the gaming industry would set his career in motion. 

A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and CEO of Snoqualmie Casino, Brian Decorah says a team-first mentality drives his approach to leadership. Click To Tweet

“I thought security at a casino would be as a lot of crowd control. I realized I was more of a purveyor of information. …I learned from a lot of people there that you had to keep your mind open, because the gaming industry is a very fast-paced industry. And I loved it. As soon as I started working there, it just got into my blood,” Decorah says. “I would volunteer for the overtime shifts; I would come in early. I would be one of the first ones there in a snowstorm. I would volunteer to stay late and work a double, and I’ve even worked triple shifts to help out the team.” 

Suddenly, Decorah felt a strong sense of focus and direction. He recognized he needed to finish his degree to excel in the gaming industry. “I returned to school, and I sat in the front of the room, instead of the back, and I got good grades,” he says. Decorah earned his degree in Business Administration, and soon after completed his MBA from the University of Wisconsin school system. 

From there, Decorah quickly ascended in the casino industry — bolstered by a team-first mentality that continues to drive his approach to leadership today. 

Because Decorah has worked at every level in the casino — from the front line on the graveyard shift to President & CEO — he’s gained unique perspective on relating to all team members. “Oftentimes, the CEO is considered inaccessible or disengaged from the team. My leadership style is very different. It is important to me that my team knows me, and that I am approachable to them, because we are all on the same team,” Decorah says. 

Prior to joining the Snoqualmie Casino team on January 1, 2018, Decorah served as the top executive at four casino resorts in the Great Lakes Region — as President & CEO of FireKeepers Casino and Hotel, General Manager of North Star Mohican Casino Resort, and Executive Manager of Ho-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg and Ho-Chunk Gaming Wittenberg Nekoosa. In all, he’s had management oversight within 13 award-winning gaming operations, including casinos in New York and Arizona, and has consulted for commercial and Tribal gaming operations across the country. 

When Decorah came on board at Snoqualmie, the casino had just wrapped up its best year in history. Decorah’s focus was clear: take care of the team and continue that momentum — profitability-wise and by raising the profile of the property on a national stage.

Within Decorah’s first year as CEO, Snoqualmie was rated one of Washington’s 100 Best Workplaces for 2018, as published in the Puget Sound Business Journal. “It’s the first time we’ve received that recognition. Turnover went from 38 percent, down to 27 percent. Our EBITA went up 12.2 percent, which is pretty substantial growth, considering the prior year was a record year. Things will continue to improve and be exciting, because we have a great team and great owners — a great Tribe to work for,” Decorah says. 

As CEO at Snoqualmie, Decorah also led the charge to develop an active shooter training simulation with current and former SEAL Team Six members. The casino partnered with NBC Seattle for a special media piece on the training that received an Emmy in 2019. Subsequently, Decorah and the Snoqualmie team developed the first-ever, multi-casino (10-plus) active-shooter training series with one of the FBI’s top active shooter trainers with live/blank assault rifle gunfire. “When it comes to active shooter preparedness,” says Decorah, who witnessed a gunman open fire in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, killing 58 people, “we want to share everything that we can to make our entire industry better.” 

Being solution-oriented is central to Decorah’s leadership style. That translates to meeting individual employee needs as well.  

“My favorite advice in business, and in life, is: ‘A person that feels appreciated, will always do more than what is expected of them.’ I couldn’t agree more. I used to think that the primary motivators in business were the carrot and the stick. I’ve since learned that the most influential motivator is feeling valued. I love seeing a team member’s face light up when I am able to share with them how their efforts make an impact,” Decorah says. 

Decorah continues: “As the CEO, I ask myself every day, ‘Did you make an impact? For the Tribe, for the community, for a struggling employee… did I do something that made a difference, in a positive way?’ Every day and every challenge is different, but being able to make a difference, whether big or small, provides me with endless motivation.” 

Decorah adds: “Receiving this honor is very humbling, and I owe a great amount of gratitude to the Snoqualmie Tribal Council, Homer A. Mandoka (former Chair, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi), Doug Huck (former Treasurer, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Potawatomi Indians), Greg Garvin and Randy Snowball, Ho-Chunk Gaming, and my jaji (father in Ho-Chunk), Bruce Decorah.”

Tools & Strategies To Maximize Profitability

“Speed and efficiency are critical in the gaming industry, so we are always looking for ways to improve our analytical efficiencies,” says CEO Brian Decorah, who shares a few of those tools and strategies with Native Business. 

  • Labor management tools: “We have over 200 different job titles at the casino, and 3 different shifts to cover, many with different staffing needs, so it is important to use labor management metrics to help us be efficient in our scheduling. Team morale goes down when they are idle, so we also want to provide efficient scheduling for their job satisfaction,” Decorah explains. 
  • Surveillance: Most casinos have the surveillance department under the regulators, which limits their ability to use surveillance for things that are profit-driven, versus regulations-driven. Snoqualmie manages its own surveillance department, which provides the advantage of monitoring table ratings (average hands per hour, then converting those to accurate player point accruals in the casino’s database).
  • Human Resource Information System (HRIS): HRIS tools allow for quicker analysis of Snoqualmie’s 1,100 team members, including turnover rates, benefits management, etc.
  • Tracking software: “Almost every casino uses player tracking systems extensively, but we have additional systems in place to identify players around the entire property, even if they don’t have a player’s club card, and they don’t play any games,” Decorah shares. 

Brian Decorah, Snoqualmie Casino CEO, was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our 2019 Leadership issue.

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