New CEO played key role in expanding Mohegan Gaming portfolio
Mohegan — In 1998, fresh out of Cornell, where he earned an industrial engineering degree in operational research, Mario Kontomerkos started digging into “reams and reams and reams” of data as a forensic accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the big accounting firm.
After a few years there, he moved on to equity research with Lehman Brothers, where the road opened up a bit. Tantalizingly, as it turned out.
He could analyze chemicals or waste management — or gaming and lodging.
Kontomerkos, a Trumbull native, chose the latter, though at that point he’d never visited the gaming palaces of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and in Connecticut had been to Mohegan Sun just once. Plenty about the industry intrigued him, though.
Last week, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, Mohegan Sun’s parent, promoted Kontomerkos from chief financial officer to chief executive officer, at least partly in recognition of his role in helping steer the company’s post-recession turnaround.
In an interview in his back-of-the-house office at Mohegan Sun, Kontomerkos, 41, of Madison, came across as mild-mannered and cerebral.
“I did get into gaming unexpectedly,” he said. “It’s a fascinating business — the casinos, hotels, entertainment, food-and-beverage. There are five or six different ‘verticals’ that have to be integrated. It takes a lot of coordination, a lot of analysis. It’s very stimulating, intellectually.”
But it’s far more than a numbers game, Kontomerkos acknowledged.
“I’m happy to interact with people,” he said. “I’ve learned that the only way to solve problems is to communicate. It doesn’t work unless people are talking to each other. Everything we need to sustain, every moment of the day, requires talking to each other. I spend most of my time making sure we communicate.”
A financial background can be a vital asset to a gaming CEO, according to Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business, an industry trade publication.
“Financial guys who pay attention to how operations work can be very successful,” he wrote in an email. “Some of the top guys in the business like MGM’s Jim Murren and Dan Lee, who once led Pinnacle and is now CEO at Full House, have financial backgrounds. You have to be able to see beyond the balance sheet, however, and understand what drives those numbers. Not all finance people can do that ...”
Kontomerkos will assume his new post next month, replacing Mitchell Etess, the formerly retired CEO who was pressed back into service when Bobby Soper resigned in February.
“We were extremely fortunate to have Mitchell ready and willing to step in and help us through this difficult interim period,” said Kevin Brown, the Mohegan tribal chairman who leads MGE’s management board. “His long-term commitment to the Mohegan Tribe and Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment has always been clear, and we are thankful to have been able to lean on him these past few months.”
MGE, formerly known as the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, announced Soper’s sudden departure at the same time it alerted the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Pennsylvania gaming regulators were reviewing “possible operational control deficiencies” at Mohegan Sun Pocono, the racetrack casino MGE operates in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
So far, the status of that review is unknown.
Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said last week that if the investigation leads to matters requiring board approval, such as fines or other sanctions, it will be made public.
In announcing Kontomerkos’s promotion, Brown said he emerged as the top candidate during a process that included interviews with two other finalists from outside the company. Brown cited Kontomerkos’s work in restructuring and refinancing MGE’s debt, efforts that he said have put the company in “an enviable position” among gaming operators.
Impressively, MGE did it without hunkering down.
“The tough part has been deleveraging while expanding,” Kontomerkos said. “Five or six years ago, it was difficult for us to borrow. But we realized that even though we had little money, we had tremendous assets — two billion dollars of infrastructure, an incredible brand, an incredible database — all things that we can leverage.”
At that point, MGE had Mohegan Sun, its flagship, and Mohegan Sun Pocono and not much else. Mohegan Gaming Advisors, a one-time subsidiary formed to pursue consulting and management contracts, had been formed in 2010.
“But we hadn’t been able to pull the trigger,” said Kontomerkos, who arrived in September 2011. Soon thereafter, he said, “We started pushing ‘capital light.’”
He defined the approach succinctly: “We invest a small amount and make it back in three years or less.”
In 2012, Mohegan Gaming Advisors struck a deal to manage Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. The Mohegans invested $5 million in a small ownership stake, made it back in three years and have continued to derive management fees while resurrecting the property, which has thrived amid the boardwalk’s downsizing.
MGE signed on with partners in pursuing casino licenses for projects in Boston, Philadelphia and the Catskills, N.Y., in each case losing out to competitors. At the same time, it forged ahead with a plan to add a 400-room hotel to Mohegan Sun, a $130 million project the tribe itself financed. Completed late last year, the Earth Tower has been a raging success, helping boost revenues throughout the casino, MGE officials say.
This year, a long-term collaboration with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe culminated in the opening of ilani Casino Resort in La Center, Wash., where it taps the Portland, Ore., market. Kontomerkos said the Mohegans invested between $45 million and $50 million in the project over a 12-year period and stand to make back “several hundred million” in management fees over the next seven years.
In early 2015, Kontomerkos and Brown, the tribal chairman, traveled to South Korea to begin pursuit of an integrated resort project there. Having secured the necessary gaming license and a joint-venture deal with KCC Corp., a South Korean company, MGE has tentatively scheduled a November groundbreaking for the so-called Inspire project.
Kontomerkos said MGE has invested $100 million in South Korea and, through management fees, expects to make back “multiples of that over time.”
“The key” to such deals, he said, “is bringing other parties in.”
For MGE and its new CEO, more deal-making and more growth are on the agenda.
The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot Tribes expect word any day on a federal approval that would enable them to proceed with the third Connecticut casino they've been authorized to build in East Windsor. Brushing aside MGM Resorts International’s threats of legal action designed to stop the project, Kontomerkos said the tribes could get it built in six to nine months — quicker than previously suggested.
Even sooner, Mohegan Sun expects to open an $80 million convention center under construction near the casino’s Earth Tower. Kontomerkos said the “fully financed” project is “going to be very important to us and Connecticut.”
He said MGE’s plans to develop the former Norwich Hospital property in Preston will turn on third-party financing.
That project, he said, represents “the next phase of evolution of this property — our version of Disneyland.” He said he sees casino guests and visitors to the theme parks and other amenities envisioned for the Preston site being able “to go back and forth easily between the two.”
“That’s about 10 years out,” he said.
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