Foxwoods names tribal gaming veteran to CEO post

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Mashantucket — John J. James, named this week to pick up the baton at Foxwoods Resort Casino, said Wednesday he’s “from the same school” as Felix Rappaport, the former Foxwoods chief executive who’d launched a transformation of the casino when he unexpectedly died 13 months ago.

James, 59, chief operating officer of Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, Calif., will take over as president and CEO of Foxwoods next month.

Like Rappaport, James spent decades in Las Vegas, where their careers converged for a time.

“I knew Felix well,” James said in a phone interview. “We were on board together at Station Casinos before he went on to MGM (in Las Vegas). It was no surprise to me that he brought his method of operation and success to Foxwoods.”

Rappaport, who arrived at Foxwoods in 2014, had been especially intent on diversifying the Mashantucket Pequot-owned casino's nongaming offerings.

James, who joined Morongo in 2014, previously was chief executive officer of Gila River Gaming Enterprises, leading three tribal casinos in Arizona, and also held chief executive positions with Seminole Gaming in Florida and Pechanga Resort & Casino, California’s largest casino.

Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket tribal chairman who has been serving as Foxwoods’ interim CEO since Rappaport died, said James’s experience in tribal gaming should prove helpful to him in his new job, though it was not factor in his selection.

“There are some nuances to working with a tribe, and knowing that the point is not making money for shareholders but to support a tribe,” Butler said in an interview. “He met yesterday with the tribal membership and fit right in.”

Butler said the tribe engaged a search firm “almost immediately” after Rappaport’s death and about a dozen candidates were considered. That number was narrowed to “four or five” finalists who were vetted by the tribal council, which endorsed James.

Asked about the challenges awaiting the new CEO, who will start Aug. 12, Butler said competition is at the top of the list.

In the last year, Foxwoods and its nearby rival, Mohegan Sun, have felt the impact of new casinos in southern New England, including MGM Springfield in western Massachusetts, Tiverton Casino Hotel in Rhode Island and, most recently, Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, Mass. MGM Springfield and Tiverton have cost Foxwoods about 7 percent of its slot-machine revenue, and Encore could take another 3 percent, according to an assessment Butler did not dispute.

The Mashantuckets and the Mohegans, owners of Mohegan Sun, plan to open a medium-size casino in East Windsor to recapture some of the Connecticut business they’ve been losing to MGM Springfield.

At some point, the tribes and the state are expected to resume negotiations over the tribes’ possible involvement in a Bridgeport casino project and the state’s legalization of sports betting and online wagering at the casinos and other forms of gaming.

“We need to stabilize, then regain some of the market share we’ve lost,” Butler said. “We’ve already done a lot ...”

Foxwoods, under Rappaport, began emphasizing entertainment and had added a number of amenities and interactive attractions aimed at a younger audience. In recent months, the casino has opened new bars and restaurants, including a remodeled buffet, and has relocated its poker room.

An observer of the casino business said the Mashantuckets made a sound move in hiring James.

“John (James) is a visionary in the same way Felix was,” Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine, wrote in an email. “He’s been running the No. 2 casino in California for the past five years and his experience there will be very beneficial to the property and the tribe. He understands regional competition and what a property needs to do to stand out.”

James, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, graduated from the University of Nevada. He said he and his wife, Giselle, hope to relocate to Mystic.

“We want to be part of the community," he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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