Casino Gambling

Coast casinos' deck stacked with winning women

"Being Superwoman is exhausting," Cathy Beeding said.

Beeding, vice president and general counsel of Island View Casino in Gulfport, said she and other women who made it to the top of the casino industry will tell how they instead strived for balance and humor along the way.

They started in different places and took different paths, and now most will share what they learned during two Global Gaming Women events at next week's Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi.

Treasure Bay CEO

Susan Varnes is president and chief operating officer of Treasure Bay Casinos. She grew up on a farm in Illinois and became a paralegal out of college before a dare changed her career and life.

"My big brother dared me to go learn how to deal," she said. She was a paralegal during the week and dealt cards on weekends and holidays for more than a year. Having a legal background and the experience of interacting with casino customers and management served her well, she said. She recalls how a man who lost $5,000 on the table game she was dealing left angry and without a tip. He returned awhile later, admitting she and the table had beaten him. His luck had turned on the slots, and he tossed a $500 tip on the table.

Varnes' mentor at the time told her, "Someday you're going to run a company. When a dealer has a question or needs you, you need to be there for them."

She later became the first woman casino operator in South Mississippi, and she oversees Treasure Bay's six casinos in the Caribbean. Yet a business website lists the head of Treasure Bay as Mr. Susan Varnes.

Scarlet Pearl executive

LuAnn Pappas is the second woman casino operator on the Coast. After 30 years with Harrah's/Caesars Entertainment, her last day there was Nov. 18. She flew to South Mississippi Nov. 19, started Nov. 20 as chief executive officer of Scarlet Pearl Casino in D'Iberville and opened the casino Dec. 9.

Pappas' office overlooks the casino's volcano, which erupts periodically throughout the day -- kind of a reminder of the calm and the fire on her journey as a single mom and a casino executive. Her first job in the industry was in a gift shop on the graveyard shift and much of her career advancement came after her son was in college.

"The more you advance, the more accessible you have to be 24/7," she said. A Jersey girl born and raised, Pappas said her father, who taught her to be "firm, fair and disciplined," told her no daughter of his would ever work in a casino. When she left Atlantic City and Harrah's in November, she was surprised to see her picture displayed across one entire side of the casino with the message: "Thank you for 30 years."

She's worked with and mentored up-and-coming male casino executives, "and they've gotten phenomenal jobs and careers," she said.

Women still have a way to go. There are no female casino operators in Tunica or even Atlantic City, Pappas said, yet 52 percent of casino customers are women.

Isle CEO

Virginia McDowell retired this week as CEO of Isle of Capri Casinos. A native of Philadelphia, Pa., and a journalist by trade, she loved her job in broadcasting, but decided it would be fun to get in on the ground floor of a new industry.

"Atlantic City was brand-new," she said of the market that in the early 1980s was growing fast and had a huge demand for talented men and women who were willing to work hard and take chances.

She started as a publicist at Bally's Park Place and found "tremendous opportunity," working her way up at Argosy Gaming and then for Donald Trump before getting the call from Isle Casinos, which moved from Biloxi to St. Louis after 2005's Hurricane Katrina. When she walked out of the Isle corporate office for the last time, four of her top people were promoted behind her and she said, "I did shoot off a big confetti cannon."

She is one of the founders of Global Gaming Women and said about half of all employees in the casino industry are women yet only a small percentage are in leadership. She works to change that.

Every year at the East Coast gaming summit in Atlantic City, each of the region's CEOs gives a 10-minute presentation. She spent 20 years in Atlantic City and said, "Every year, I was the only female CEO on the panel." Knowing it was her final presentation, last year she took on her male counterparts. Atlantic City long was the second-largest market in the country, she reminded them, "and you guys have not stepped up to help the women in your business."

Analytics company chief

Jackie Parker is president and founder of Harvest Trends, a casino-data analytics company based in Ocean Springs. A man recently asked a male staff member, "That's the company that is owned by a woman, right?"

She and the other women in the company don't fit the mold of what is expected in the casino industry, she said, and that has been a challenge.

"Yes, we had a lot of cynicism when we tried to borrow money," she said, but they also had a lucky break when one bank executive told his loan officer they needed to find a way to finance the new company.

"My background is in technology," she said and it's provided her the opportunity to work with and train men and women.

The challenges for women aren't unique to the casino industry, Parker said, She was managing an IT department at a Midwest company and when she pulled the salaries of the men and women. "You could clearly see the inequality," she said.

She told her boss he needed to pay men and women in the same positions equally.

"Why would I do that?" the boss asked.

"Now that you've been told you could be sued," she replied. It took her awhile to convince him he needed to give the women raises, but "he did it."

Former Copa executive

Cathy Beeding was a young attorney when Island View Casino owners Rick Carter and Terry Green first hired her as counsel for their Copa Casino in Gulfport.

She was determined, had the confidence of her bosses and met every challenge with "Yes, I can figure it out," she said.

"Our generation grew up being told we can do anything we want to," she said. As a single mom raising two daughters she found out differently. "That ideal of you can have everything is not real. It's just an ideal," she said. Real life takes a constant examination of what's important, but she said that can make family stronger.

Her daughters had to figure some things out on their own and watched her do the same. They were life lessons, she said. "They are so self-efficient. They never met a stranger. They know how to talk to people."

Mentors are very important on the way up, she said, but cheerleaders are essential. "I have five of them that are near and dear to me," she said -- girlfriends on the Coast who will call her up and say "nice job."

Having two women from diverse backgrounds operate casinos in South Mississippi is unique in the industry, she said, and Varnes and Pappas are "incredible leaders. That's what the casino industry grows," she said.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald