- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

MYSTIC, Conn. (AP) - Gerry Nailon caught the casino bug during his high school days in Norristown, Pa.

Four decades later, it’s still in his system.

Nailon, 58, whose nomadic career has included a stint with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and, most recently, six years as chief executive officer of the Elk Valley Rancheria, a California gaming tribe, has launched PeopleChamps, a consulting firm offering executive recruitment, placement and other services to the gaming and hospitality industries.

Nailon and his wife, Kathleen Innaurato, founded the home-based business in Mystic, where they’ve maintained a residence since Innaurato took a job as director of workforce preparedness for the Mashantuckets in 1999. She stayed in the job until 2005. Nailon joined the tribe in 2000 and stayed until 2003, working as director of employment, staffing and recruitment. He also mentored tribal members who sought to move into leadership positions at Foxwoods Resort Casino and the Mashantuckets’ other enterprises.

“I started PeopleChamps because I didn’t want to move again,” Nailon said in an interview last week. “I wanted to work with the people I love . and to have the freedom to pick and choose the projects I work on.”

He might have added that he’d already logged enough miles to last a couple of lifetimes.

After Bishop Kenrick High School, where Geno Auriemma, the UConn women’s basketball coach, was a year or two ahead of him, Nailon headed to gaming’s mecca, earning a degree in hotel administration from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He interned at Caesars Palace, and in 1980 started working as a table-games dealer, working his way up to pit boss. When his mother became ill, he returned to the East.

Nailon worked in management at Atlantic City casinos and then for Mississippi-based Casino Magic Corp., helping open the first two private casinos in Greece. He moved on to casinos in Kansas City, Mo., and Iowa before arriving at Mashantucket. In 2006, he went to work for the Elk Valley Rancheria, expecting to stay a year. He ended up staying nearly seven years, a period during which the tribe’s Elk Valley Casino in Crescent City, Calif., faced the economic downturn, increased competition and the effects of two tsunamis.

“I’ve had a crazy career,” said Nailon, who’s been cleared for gaming licenses in 16 jurisdictions.

In addition to Nailon, who’s the president and CEO, and Innaurato, executive vice president and chief organizational development officer, PeopleChamps’ principals include Chief Operating Officer Larry Johnson, who has 28 years of executive gaming experience, and Chief Counsel Bradley Bledsoe Downes, a Chickasaw Nation tribal member whom Nailon considers one of the top Indian gaming attorneys in the country.

“Most of the problems people (in the gaming industry) come across today, we’ve touched,” Nailon said. “Most of the jobs in a casino one of us has actually done. We know what it takes.”

Nailon said PeopleChamps isn’t interested in securing management contracts but rather in showing casino operators, particularly tribal governments, how to operate things themselves.

“In tribal governments, self-sufficiency, self-determination is the key,” he said. “We understand that.”

Aside from tribal governments, the firm’s clients are likely to be smaller casino companies as opposed to the MGMs of the world.

Nailon marveled at the increasingly competitive gaming market in the Northeast.

“What’s happened to Atlantic City doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “The reality of competition has made it a regional market rather than a national market. You’ve got options now in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York.”

So is a similar fate befalling southeastern Connecticut’s casinos?

“Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods were built as destinations,” Nailon said. “But things are different now. … Be careful what you build - biggest is not always best. I would advise anyone to build something that will make money right out of the box, then expand as needed.”

He said he admires the Mohegan Tribe’s efforts to diversify and its aggressiveness in pursuing projects outside Connecticut. Still, he said, Massachusetts gaming regulators were right to award the sole Boston-area casino license to Wynn Resorts rather than Mohegan Sun.

“Wynn was the right choice,” he said. “It’s about creating an environment, and nobody does that better than Steve Wynn. He’s not going to cannibalize a market; he’s going to create one.

“But Mohegan’s right to say to the (Connecticut) legislature, ‘Let’s do something here.’ “

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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