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Mohegan Gaming turns to tribal member to lead it into post-pandemic era

Mohegan — Ray Pineault had been president and chief executive officer of Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment for all of two weeks when he appeared before the Nevada Gaming Control Board this past June.

Things had gotten a bit out of hand during Mohegan Sun Casino Las Vegas’ March debut, and it had fallen to Pineault to smooth things over.

While Mohegan Sun’s offer to pay a $60,000 fine for opening-night violations of COVID-19 protocols might have helped do the trick, it’s easy to believe Pineault’s reportedly sincere, it’ll-never-happen-again apology played well with the state gaming regulators. Pineault, a Phil Collins look-alike who’s worked for the Mohegan Tribe, of which he’s a member, for 20 years, tends to come across as authentic.

“I take full responsibility,” he told board members, attributing the missing masks and instances of an absence of social distancing — violations of rules then mandated by the Nevada governor — to “a lapse in judgement.”

Pineault had attended the celebration, his own mask in place, he said in a interview last week. The violators were mostly people Mohegan Sun had invited, including some celebrities.

“I was embarrassed,” he said. “That’s not the kind of organization we are.”

Pineault, 55, a Norwich native who lives in Glastonbury, effectively joined the organization in 2001. By then, the 1984 graduate of Norwich Free Academy had earned degrees at the University of Connecticut and the Quinnipiac University School of Law. Comfortably embarked on a career as a corporate attorney, he took a job with his tribe's legal team, never imagining he’d one day lead the billion-dollar enterprise the Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, or MGE, would become.

His final ascension to the company’s top post came in something of a rush, with Pineault being elevated multiple times in a 10-month span, starting with his July 2020 promotion from regional president to chief operating officer. When Mario Kontomerkos stepped aside as MGE president and CEO this past March, Pineault was named to succeed him on an interim basis.

On May 27, the tribe, which had announced it would conduct a global search for a permanent CEO, named Pineault to the job and soon thereafter raised his salary to $1 million annually.

“A few months into the search we realized that none of the candidates were going to offer us the depth of experience, knowledge of our properties, and the Spirit of Aquai that we were seeing in Ray,” James Gessner Jr., the Mohegan chairman, said through a spokesman last week. “The fact that Mr. Pineault is a member of our family just makes it that much more special.” 

From 2015 to 2019, Pineault served as president and general manager of Mohegan Sun, MGE’s flagship casino in Montville’s Uncasville section. Then, as now, he said, he sought to instill the Spirit of Aquai — the tribe’s guiding philosophy — in all MGE “team members.” Asked to define “Aquai,” he described it as a mindset that values cooperation and mutual respect among co-workers. Happy team members are good for business.

“We want leaders to follow that culture,” Pineault said. “Five-star service is something scripted. Instead, we talk about providing ‘authentic service’ — being nice, creating an atmosphere. That’s how we distinguish ourselves from our competitors.”

While Pineault’s previous roles mostly involved operations, he said his new focus as head of a corporate parent operating or seeking to operate in five states and three foreign countries is about strategic direction. Pineault said he and his team are developing a plan for the next three to five years.

First up, however, is stabilizing MGE’s finances in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August, during a quarterly earnings call with investors, MGE officials reported the company had generated net revenues of $328.2 million in the three months that ended June 30. That was three times the revenues it reported in the same, pandemic-plagued quarter in 2020, but 5.6% less than the $347.6 million it raked in during the same quarter in 2019, well before COVID-19 broke out.

“How do we maintain stability? How do we withstand another major event?” Pineault said. “We’ve had three now in the last couple of decades: 9/11, the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like we have to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime event every decade.”

Reducing MGE’s nearly $2 billion debt is a priority, he said.

MGE has a lot on its plate, much of it close to home, with this month’s rollout of sports wagering, both at Mohegan Sun and on a virtual platform, and online casino gaming, all in a partnership with FanDuel. The online betting could get clearance to start this coming week. Mohegan Sun’s chief competition, nearby Foxwoods Resort Casino, is engaged in the same rollout activity, and both casinos face new competition in the form of the Connecticut Lottery Corp., which also is rolling out retail and online sports betting.

For MGE, which has introduced sports betting at some of its other U.S. properties, the rollout in Connecticut is a huge undertaking, Pineault said.

Another massive project involves MGE’s plan to develop the former Norwich Hospital property in Preston. Pineault said an environmental cleanup of the nearly 400-acre site off Route 12 still has to be completed before MGE can acquire the property and market it to developers. Conceptual plans for the site's development showed a theme park, sports and entertainment venues, hotels, housing and a marina.

“We have to find the right partners and products that can drive people to both Mohegan Sun and the Preston property,” Pineault said.

The gaming facilities MGE either owns or manages in Pennsylvania, Washington state, Atlantic City and Las Vegas have emerged from the pandemic, as have its two casinos in Ontario, Canada, which kept COVID-19 protocols in place longer than U.S. jurisdictions. Pineault flatly denied reports that MGE has entertainment offers for Mohegan Sun Pocono, its racetrack casino in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"It's not on the market," he said.

On the international front, Pineault said MGE still is negotiating financing for the integrated resort it’s building in Incheon, South Korea, and hopes to open it in the fall of 2023. Steelwork at the construction site, halted amid the pandemic, has yet to resume.

Pineault declined to provide an update on the timetable for the Athens, Greece, project MGE has been licensed to develop.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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