Joanne Israel, BBA’06, MBA’13: A Young Leader in the Gaming Industry
January 4, 2018 by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09
Over the past seven years, Joanne Israel has done just about every job at the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, from accounting and purchasing to cleaning the toilets and washing the slot machines. That experience is key for her in her current role as general manager, where she oversees the casino’s operations and its 800 employees.
“It's really good to see what your frontline employees are doing on a daily basis so you can appreciate what they do,” she says.
Joanne joined Seneca Gaming Corp. in 2011 after a five-year career in public accounting as a senior accountant with Chiampou Travis Beshaw & Kershner. When an opportunity to take a similar position with the casino became available, she took it, because she was interested in the fast-paced, people-oriented industry.
After about a year as a senior accountant, Joanne was promoted to positions of increasing responsibility, including casino controller for the three Seneca properties--Seneca Niagara Casino, Seneca Allegany Casino, and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino--and corporate director of finance gaming. This role, in particular, gave her experience in the operational aspects of the casino business, and she was able to learn from the general managers of each property.
In June 2016, at the age of just 32, she was named general manager of the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. One of her first responsibilities was taking a lead role in the casino’s $40 million expansion, including hiring an additional 400 employees.
“It was kind of like getting thrown into the flames really fast,” she says. “It was a lot of work, but it was a very eye-opening experience. Everybody from the whole process learned a ton.”
Over the course of the expansion, Joanne worked 14-hour days to build her teams, which included management, culinary, and retail, the latter two being new areas for the casino. She is proud that she was able to hire local individuals for these positions because it “really helped the Buffalo area.”
Joanne also established service standards to ensure that the casino’s reputation for excellent customer service was maintained, and had to deal with the effect the opening of the Del Lago Casino in Rochester had on their business.
“It was a busy year,” she admits.
Although her job is demanding, Joanne finds it gives her the flexibility to balance her career with her family. A mother of three children, ages 13, 8, and 1, Joanne says she appreciates the ability to work late and overnight shifts so she can attend their sports and school activities. She quickly adds that she also is grateful for the support of her husband, who took a “sabbatical” to stay home with the children so that she could take advantage of this opportunity.
“I think it's the same issue all working women with children have, balancing home vs. work and knowing when it's time to go home,” she says. “Work in this industry is 24/7/365, and sometimes it's really hard to close my computer and go home because you get so caught up in the every day.”
Joanne also notes that she counts on her team to help her succeed.
“I think the most significant thing I've had to learn is to ask for help,” she says. “Building a team you can trust is probably the most important thing you can do when you're a leader.
“I love my management team,” she continues. “They are some of the hardest-working individuals I've ever seen. They worked tirelessly during the expansion.” Joanne adds that she tries to facilitate a culture where her staff play as hard as they work “to keep it light and exciting.”
While making the switch from accounting to gaming, Joanne spent an extra 20-30 hours each week at the casino to complete the casino’s executive leadership development program, during which she was able to shadow individuals from different departments. She also was taking courses toward her master’s degree in strategic management at Niagara University, and pursuing a professional certificate in gaming management through the University of Nevada-Reno’s online program.
The long hours and hard work earned her the recognition of the industry; in 2015, she received the inaugural Rising Leader Award from the National Indian Gaming Association, and a year later, she received the Emerging Leader in Gaming Award by the Innovation Group at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.
Joanne notes that perseverance has been as much a factor in her success as has her hard work.
“Gaming is something that you get by experience, not just something that you get taught in the classroom,” she says. “I spent an exorbitant amount of time learning gaming that first year.”