FireKeepers’ Trailblazing CEO Thrives With Simple Message: Stability, Success, Innovation

Written By Nolan Bianchi on May 24, 2021
Kathy George FireKeepers Casino 2021

For two decades, Kathy George liked to fix things. A lot has changed in the last nine years for the FireKeepers Casino Hotel’s CEO.

She is an agent of consistency and preservation, maintaining a vision for future generations set forth by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP). And in a time where stability feels like a privilege, George is doing her best to make sure that her employees feel as if steadiness is their right.

Fortunately for all involved, she has the ability to do that.

FireKeepers Casino keeps staff, gives back during pandemic

FireKeepers in 2020 was able to keep all of its staff employed through a lengthy shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every employee’s health insurance was covered by the casino during the 12-week period at the beginning of the outbreak, when unemployment was often the only option.

Michigan Tribal Casinos 2020 Revenue FireKeepers
FireKeepers Casino Hotel kept its entire staff employed during the worst portions of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Photos courtesy of FireKeepers Casino Hotel)

As the rest of the country begins its trek to normalcy, the popular Battle Creek gaming resort — which features an 11,700-square foot gaming floor with 2,900 slot machines, 70 gaming tables, live poker and bingo and multiple dining options — is on pace to finish construction of an eight-story hotel wing by late summer.

It’s holding job fairs in June for more than 100 open positions while the current staff gives back in a dire time by volunteering with the South Michigan Food Bank. And despite the revenue disruption, FireKeepers still contributed $15.6 million toward the State of Michigan and the FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board for 2020 (down from $24.7 million for 2019).

“We’ve got a team of 1,800 people here that will only give back to the community because they know it’s important to the tribe,” George said. “I think I’m most proud of that, because we make a difference. Not just to the 1,800 team members or just the 1,500 tribal members, but really to the whole community.

“I think when a business can do that and still hit their financial goals as a business, that’s pretty special.”

George’s balance: Consistency and innovation

Half of George’s job is rooted in consistency and fairness. The other half is a mission to innovate and shake up the field. She wears a lot of hats, but something that makes it easier to sport all of them at once is the fact that they were accumulated over time.

FireKeepers Casino Hotel CEO Kathy George, second from left, is pictured with NASCAR driver and 2019 FireKeepers Casino 400 champion Joey Logano (left).

The Cornell grad carries nearly 30 years of experience in hospitality and gaming after growing up with the Seneca tribe, to which her father belonged. On her mother’s side, George has Mohawk heritage.

George started in the business as a prep cook. She rose through the ranks at Wyndham Hotel and Resorts for more than 13 years before a three-year return to western New York, where she helped the Seneca Gaming Corporation open two hotels and a casino before moving on yet again to spend 18 months with Hilton as a general manager.

Despite the significance of a woman with her background holding the position she does, George nonetheless expected her stint with FireKeepers to follow a similar trajectory.

“Typically, I’d usually leave a year or so after it’s all ready to go, and try to go open something else, because that’s kind of my thing,” George said. “Or fix something.”

Stability brings success in Battle Creek

Plans change: George celebrated her ninth anniversary with the company in January and her fourth as CEO in May. Her humility has accumulated much cachet from the staff and has led to an organizational momentum that’s rising rapidly and moving in the same direction.

FireKeepers catering sales manager Tara Forrester has known George for more than nine years. She can’t recall George ever wanting to be called a “boss” during that time.

“She prefers to say that her team works ‘with’ her, not ‘for’ her,” Forrester said. “I can honestly say that I have never known another senior executive to care more about every single team member than Kathy.

“She can appreciate the importance that each member contributes. For instance, during the opening of our first hotel tower, she worked alongside of the housekeeping team making beds. There isn’t a job that’s beneath her.”

To the FireKeepers staff, George brings a sense of authenticity to a management phrase that typically lacks it: “I would never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.”

If there’s a job in the hotel that needs doing, there’s a good chance that George has already done it.

“I think I’ve done almost every position in the building,” George said. “But I think more importantly, I try to be very approachable. I try to be accessible to everybody, and they know that my requests are genuine.”

The right moves at the right time

That speaks to the here and now, but George and the tribe abide by the Seventh Generation Principle — an ancient Native American philosophy that states today’s decisions should be made with the hopes of achieving a sustainable world, seven generations into the future.

“When we think about that and think about all of the moves — is it at the right time? When is the time to renovate a restaurant or change a concept, or whatever?” George said.

That’s not the easiest guiding principle in an industry that feels like it’s changing every seven minutes, but bringing things back to basics certainly helps.

“The product itself has to be ever-changing to keep people’s interest in bringing in the new, the better games, the more flashy whatever that might catch their eye,” George said.

“But what it comes down to is service, because if someone has (bad) service, they’re not going to come back, no matter what machine we put on the floor. And so that’s really what we focus on to keep us sustainable.”

The casino opened its sportsbook in June of 2020 and plans to get in on some of the other fun in Michigan’s growing gaming and betting industry. But much of George’s day-to-day consideration remains on the brick-and-mortar operation. Keeping the guiding principle in mind, it’s hard to predict what FireKeepers has in store, following the expansion.

If you see her on the FireKeepers casino floor — which you well might, perhaps even serving drinks or fixing a slot machine in between executive duties — don’t bother asking her what’s next.

You’ll get the same response as everyone else.

“My crystal ball is a little fuzzy right now,” she says.

Photo by FireKeepers Casino Hotel
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Nolan Bianchi

Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit-based freelance journalist covering the Lions, Red Wings and everything in between. He is the former host of the Locked On Red Wings hockey podcast, still collects sports cards, is a published playwright and is a harsh critic of sandwiches.

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