Published September 29. 2012 4:00AM
Mohegan - Robert J. "Bobby" Soper, the 40-year-old newly named president and chief executive officer of Mohegan Sun casino, will become the first member of the Mohegan Indian tribe to lead the gaming enterprise when he assumes his role Oct. 22.
"This is a perfect example of what tribal gaming was intended to do," Tribal Chairman Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum said in a statement. "My goal has always been to have Mohegan Tribal members in senior positions in our operations."
The elevation of Soper now puts tribal members in the top two positions at Mohegan Sun. Raymond Pineault, current chief operating officer of the casino, holds the No. 2 position.
Soper, currently chief executive of Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said Friday in a phone interview that he will step into his role replacing former CEO Jeffrey Hartmann with no preconceived notions about a new strategic course for the casino. Mohegan Sun, which announced layoffs this week totaling more than 300, has been in a downsizing mode for several years as gaming-revenue declines and new competition have hit the local industry hard.
While Soper has been successful at the smaller Pocono Downs racetrack casino, he acknowledged that he is stepping into a bigger and much different market in Connecticut. Gaming in the Poconos is considered to be a convenience, while Mohegan Sun is a destination property, he pointed out.
"There is no property like Mohegan Sun," Soper said. "Mohegan Sun is one of the most special entertainment destinations in the world."
Mitchell Etess, who heads the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority that owns Mohegan Sun and will step in as interim CEO at the casino until Soper relocates, said a previous Mohegan Sun executive, the late William J. Velardo, had been instrumental in grooming Soper for his role.
A 'great choice'
Soper, whose father, Robert Sr., is chairman of the tribe's Council of Elders and whose cousin is public relations manager at Mohegan Sun, has developed a stellar reputation as a casino operator in Pennsylvania, helping guide the property through a major expansion and launching the state's first table games, Etess said.
"He has really done an amazing job building the property," Etess said. "He's got a great personality, he's a great communicator. He's a great choice, regardless (of whether he is a tribal member)."
Soper, who has a law degree from the University of Georgia and grew up in Atlanta, started his career in 1997 as legal counsel for the Mohegan Tribe and spent four years beginning in 2001 as senior vice president of administration for the casino.
In 2005, he became the first CEO and president of Mohegan Sun's Pocono Downs facility, which has been a relative bright spot in recent years even as total revenues flowing to the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority have trended down. Financial difficulties forced the gaming authority earlier this year to push back maturity dates on its long-term debt as it refinanced $1.6 billion in securities.
Troubles at Mohegan Sun and the region's other Indian-run gaming mecca, Foxwoods Resort Casino, have hung like a cloud over the region in recent years, leading to thousands of layoffs and job losses through attrition. More than 3,000 jobs have been lost at Mohegan Sun alone over the past four years, and John Beauregard, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, pointed out that large layoffs like the one announced this week have a ripple effect throughout the local economy.
"It's almost like a perfect storm," he said. "When are we going to catch a break? When is this going to stop, these large-size layoffs?"
Just last week, Yardney Technical Products in Pawcatuck officially issued a plant-closing notice affecting 150 people, related to a previously revealed move to a site in Rhode Island. But one of the biggest drags on the local economy, according to economists, was the announced layoff last year of 1,100 Pfizer Inc. employees in Groton, many of whom were shuttled off to Cambridge, Mass., in a big research-and-development shakeup.
Layoffs hamper recovery
Big layoffs in major industries have put the Norwich-New London area way behind the rest of the state and nation in terms of economic recovery after the Great Recession. In the last quarter alone, the region lost nearly 2,000 jobs compared with a year ago.
The layoffs have taxed the workforce board, which operates job centers throughout eastern Connecticut. But Beauregard's organization is hoping for an extension of a national emergency grant it got two years ago during another casino downsizing that helped workers transition to other jobs.
"You're never dealing with just the number in the layoff," Beauregard said. "Ultimately, you're dealing with a larger number."
Beauregard said he feared the casino layoffs would delay an expected job recovery locally that a University of Connecticut report just this month predicted would start at the beginning of next year.
"It shakes people's confidence when you add that anxiety about your employment situation," Beauregard said.
Etess, the Mohegan gaming official, said no one wants to lay off workers, but he is confident that the move will help put the casino on a stronger financial footing. The idea in the future, he said, would be to focus on non-gaming revenues by building additional attractions to give people more and more reasons to come to the property.
By announcing the layoffs now - before the new CEO Soper arrives on site - Etess said the healing process can begin and Mohegan Sun can move forward.
"We made a lot of tough decisions already," Etess said, agreeing that having Soper direct the layoffs as he came on site would not have been optimal.
Etess was less forthcoming about the decision to replace Hartmann, who has long ties to Mohegan Sun dating to its beginnings. Etess would not say whether the decision to remove Hartmann was tied to labor problems at the casino, where the United Auto Workers union is currently trying to organize Mohegan Sun's roughly 1,400 table-games dealers, or whether the executive had been released for some other specific reason.
According to an employment contract, available in Securities and Exchange Commission filings and signed just this past February, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority would not have to pay Hartmann any salary if he were discharged "for cause," including an "intentional material breach of his obligations" to Mohegan Sun. If Hartmann were fired without cause, according to the contract, the gaming authority would be required to pay the executive's salary - currently more than $1.3 million annually (about $25,000 a week) - until the end of the three-year agreement in June 2015.
Soper said he plans to bring "a fresh set of eyes" to the Uncasville casino, but he doesn't plan any immediate changes.
"I do like to occasionally get in the trenches," he said. "I definitely want to spend a lot of time with our team and with our guests."
"You have to have a culture and environment that fosters great guest service," he said. "That's what differentiates a great property from those that are not so great."