Laguna Development Corporation President and CEO Jerry Smith discusses the evolution and growth of the Pueblo of Laguna's diversified economy, and the importance of building an infrastructure of laws and rules in ensuring the success of Laguna's nation-owned enterprises.
Smith, Jerry. "Building and Sustaining Nation-Owned Enterprises." Executive Education Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Rapid City, South Dakota. September 18, 2008. Presentation.
â€œMorning everyone. I was afraid that when she was talking about the pig story, she was going to introduce me as the first pig on the panel. I appreciate being here today to speak to you on the experiences of and growth of Laguna Development Corporation, and in general the Pueblo Laguna. As some of you may know, Laguna Pueblo is located in Albuquerque, about forty miles west of Albuquerque on I-40. And what we have done over the years, my career, Iâ€™m very impressed with the academic capacities of the folks presenting to you in Native nations. Some of us on the other side are kind of educated in the school of hard knocks, in that we grew up in the tribal end of the entity at first. I worked, probably, about 20 years on the tribal side working as a tribal administrator for the tribe, and more specifically in the areas of trying to develop the economy of the tribe. And then later in the late '90s, I moved over and began to run one of the enterprises of the tribe. So I kind of have the understanding and experience of both sides of the equation.
My first slide basically gives you kind of a view of where our economy has been over the last number of years. Laguna economy pre-'50s is basically an agriculture-based economy, very entrepreneurial, small business (as I like to refer to them) -- individuals who ran farms, cattle, livestock, sheep. So, as we moved into the '50s, fortunately in our situation, uranium was discovered on our tribal lands. And so we went through a period of tremendous economic prosperity in that, we had at its peak production, the worldâ€™s largest open-pit uranium mine, and it provided substantial resources to the tribe as well as employment. We were able to live in a great environment. Unfortunately, that resource, as a result of the anti-nuclear type programs in the late '70s, mid-late '70s, we entered into the down crash of the uranium market. The mine ended up closing in the early '80s. So, from the '80s, as you can see, the tribe began to look at what to do. We had a situation of close to 80 percent unemployment. When I interviewed for the tribal administratorâ€™s job in 1982, the question I recall, the most pressing question I recall being asked is, 'What are you going to do to find me a job?' Asked by one of the tribal council members. And just out of business school, I didnâ€™t have a whole lot of answers, except, â€˜Iâ€™ll do my best.â€™ And quite honestly, I was not really looking forward to being hired, because I really didnâ€™t have the answers that I thought they were looking for. But surprisingly, I was hired by the tribal council as a tribal administrator to come in and begin work on these situations.
Itâ€™s key in that, for Laguna, it was very key in that, a lot of things we were able to do in the '80s were structure-related issues. We worked on a lot of infrastructure, and the reason we could work on infrastructure is we had the wealth of the uranium mine, which funded tribal government operations. So we had a period of time where we could focus on infrastructure development, which meant we had to change philosophically the way the tribe thought, the way they approach things, and began to take a look at how we could do things different in a way that we could grow tribal enterprises, which meant that we had to do a lot of education. And it was really strange for me, fresh out of business school, to be educating people that were very experienced in tribal operations. A lot of our leadership -- and it seems to be the same way today -- a lot of leadership comes from the federal sector. You know, leadership and tribes come out of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], IHS [Indian Health Service], HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] -- you know, those programs. And so when you begin to take a look at educating tribal leadership in this new mentality, you know, definitely training, educational training had to happen. So we began to develop our tribal enterprises.
Our first project was a project called Laguna Industries, where we stepped in and developed a manufacturing company. And at the time, at this time as you recall, the Defense Department was growing very significantly. So we targeted the Defense Department and developed a company that went after defense work. And the created company that, in its peak, employed close to 350 people and is still today, operating and defense contracting. They have, theyâ€™ve done not only manufacturing of electro-assembly products, but they also do a lot of on-site support training for the military. We have teams that go out to Korea, who have been out in Iraq, have been out in Germany, you know, supporting the troops in the systems that are built within the company. After learning this experience, then we were caught with the situation of claiming this open pit uranium mine. So, as we began to work with the company that operated that mine, we began to take a look at, 'How we can build a company, instead of using these dollars to go out and just contract a general contractor to come in and do the mining project?' We began to take a look at how we could do this ourselves.
So we created a second company called Laguna Construction Company. And Laguna Construction Company ultimately came on board, they performed the reclamation of the Jackpile mine and then began to develop the capacity in reclamation remediation and began to get defense contracts to begin to do work, not only within the United States, and did a lot of reclamation. This time as you see military base closures were coming online. So there were needs to go in and reclaim those military bases. So they received initially a lot of work doing that; and then they stepped into, then the Iraq situation came on. Right now theyâ€™re one of the subcontractors of Halliburton, doing a lot of the reconstruction of Iraq in terms of rebuilding buildings and doing a lot of the reclamation work over there. So itâ€™s significant in terms of their growth and experience.
The third company we created was Laguna Development Corporation and thatâ€™s the company I run. In the creation of the first two companies I stayed on the governmental side, and the companies were set up and we brought in management in those arenas. This third company, I kind of wanted a career change, so I kind of moved to the company and we set up this company called the Laguna Development Corporation. Initially, the mission of Laguna Development Corporation was retail development. We ran retail operations. And if any of you have run C-stores, a grocery store, you know how tough that is because your margins are at the bottom line, hopefully, about 3 percent. So as we began to run those operations, it became very important for us to have the proper infrastructure in place in terms of the business itself. Later on we brought in the gaming operations. So our growth has been substantial. We were created in 1998 and our first year, full year of operation in 1999, we had out $6.5 million in sales. In closure of our books in 2007, we closed our books in excess of $250 million in sales, of which over 50 percent is non-gaming revenue. Itâ€™s a substantial effort in terms of trying to diversify our corporate portfolio. And one of the things that we learned coming out of the Jackpile Mine was that, as a tribe, you cannot put all your eggs in one basket. You have to take the opportunity and begin to diversify the economic base because if you lose a Jackpile Mine -- and if any of you and Iâ€™m sure a lot of you are experienced or have experienced 80 percent unemployment -- it is not pleasant. It creates a whole lot of social/economic issues for you as a tribe, and itâ€™s very important to keep people productive and keep them working and keep their value system in place.
So as we stand here today, we lost close to about 600 jobs in the closure of the Jackpile Mine. Since then, with the enterprises, weâ€™ve been able to create close to 1,600 jobs within the tribal environment. So as I speak here before you -- and I donâ€™t have any statistics to support this -- but I would say Laguna, as a population base, weâ€™re pretty close to full employment, which is saying that anybody that wants a job can get a job. So thatâ€™s been an experience. Now weâ€™re working on the quality of the job. Now weâ€™re working on moving people in their career development towards improving the quality of the job and improving their quality of life, improving their capacities.
Tribal government also benefits because I sat on tribal council in the mid-90s and as a tribal councilman, I began to take a look at where our mix of revenues were coming from. And at that point, 80 percent of our revenues were coming from federal sources, 20 percent of our revenues were coming from investment income off the Jackpile uranium operation. As I stand here before you today, 80 percent of our revenue comes from the enterprises, 20 percent of the revenue [of] the tribe comes from federal sources, federal/state sources. And when you look at that equation, you begin to see why these business development efforts are very important for the survival of the tribe, because I think the only way, one of the ways we can exercise our true sovereignty as tribal people is to be fiscally solvent, so that we donâ€™t have to have our hand out to a governmental entity and take all the flow-down conditions that come with those contracts and grants that say, 'You got to do it this way, you got to do it this way, you got to do it this way.' Itâ€™s great for the tribe to have that discretionary money, that money that doesnâ€™t come with any strings, to go out and do the things the tribe wants to do, without having to say, 'Mother, may I?' And if, coming from the tribal side, itâ€™s very frustrating to me to always have to talk to a grant, a contract administrator on the federal side that basically gave me permission to do this or do that or do this other thing. And it really, in my opinion, stymied a lot of economic development in tribes, because federal people are not business people. They are not risk-takers. They are not people that have to go out and lead and be the entrepreneurs to go out and take the risk. They are very low-risk tolerant. So a lot of the projects fell on the wayside because I had to go before an administrator who had no experience telling me what I could and couldnâ€™t do. So in that regard, this money thatâ€™s discretionary, this money that comes from enterprises that the tribe has full flexibility to decide what they need to do with -- it gives a tremendous opportunity to begin to take a look at getting outside that box.
One of the things we have to do from a tribal side, is teach our tribal leadership how to get outside that box, because these tribal leaders -- and this is no different than my tribe -- many of them grew up in the federal system. Many of them are contract administrators for the BIA. Many of them ran BIA/IHS programs and have since come back and are working for the tribe. So theyâ€™re trained. Their whole career is trained in this federal process and it says nothingâ€™s wrong with them -- Iâ€™m not saying anythingâ€™s wrong with it -- but on this other side thereâ€™s this whole different dynamic that we have to work with and that is risk and learning how to manage risk. And fundamentally, in order for you to be successful in an enterprise, is to be able to understand that and take safe calculated risk; but youâ€™ve got to take risk. So from a Laguna story standpoint, Iâ€™m learning as Iâ€™m going on, talking to people, a lot of tribes, especially gaming tribes, 90 percent plus of their money now come from their enterprises. So we are no longer federally dependent. We are independent from a fiscal management standpoint, but weâ€™ve got to get out of old habits. Weâ€™ve got to get out of habits of letting public policy from somebody in Washington (D.C.) tell us how to run our communities and begin to take responsibility for being creative to develop those communities that fit our situation, which leads me to the next slide, and that is understanding the difference between the governmental model and the business model.
What was very difficult for me, in the early '80s, was to educate my tribal leadership that governments are important. Tribal governments are important. Governments have to exist and have to exist and be effective, but you donâ€™t run a business to a governmental model. Governmental models are there to provide governance to the tribe, to the organization. They are not profit motivated. Ask a tribal budget manager as to what their profitability is for this year and they donâ€™t know. They canâ€™t answer the question. Business models work within the governance of the tribe and thatâ€™s a very important point. People think you have to choose one or the other; itâ€™s not that way. The governmental infrastructure has to be in place and the governmental rules have to be in place and stable so that the business can flourish within that environment. So they have to work together. So what you have to do is build the governmental infrastructure in place so that the business can survive because business as a fundamental, any start-up business -- what is the statistic? Sixty-five percent fail in their first year of operation. So youâ€™re already dealing with a very dynamic situation in running a business with a high propensity to fail. So if you move the tribal environment on top of it, you create a higher percentage risk of failure if you donâ€™t have the infrastructure in place to support that.
So in that regard, governance is very important, but it also has to be, it has to provide the energies for businesses to succeed. The other thing is that business model is profit motivated. And thatâ€™s one thing our tribal leadership have a hard time with because many of us have to be sometimes in position where we have to say, â€˜I am not meeting my EBIDA [earnings before interest, depreciation, and amortization] goals.â€™ And a tribal leader will look at you and say, â€˜What? What is that? What is EBIDA?â€™ You know, that is a measure of business performance. And as you begin to take a look at the language, itâ€™s kind of like, in some cases, speaking French and English because the terminology is not the same. Even the way that youâ€™re audited is different. Governments are audited to whatâ€™s called GASB and I think probably a lot of you know what GASB is. Businesses are operated on a FASB process. And so you have to understand that even the formula and even how things work, are different. So when you go to a tribal leader and say Iâ€™ve had tremendous EBIDA performance you have to take the time to take them through what EBIDA means, because they do not have the experience and understanding of what EBIDA means.
And so those kind of things are, there are differences in terms of the name of the game and how the game is played. So what we did over our evolution at Laguna was we tried different business models. We tried different business structures. We initially set ourselves up under tribal enterprises. Now one of the benefits, and we talked about lessons learned at Laguna, was prior to trying to put the structures in place, we killed a lot of good businesses. We killed a lot of good businesses because we just could not keep people in their roles. And one of the strongest influences in this environment is political influence. And what you ended up having was you ended up having political leaders making business decisions. And the business decisions normally were not of quality because they were not being made for the necessary reasons, or the proper reasons why that decision should be made. One of the biggest challenges, for example, one of your biggest expenses in the business is labor. And your revenues fluctuate as you operate during the year, and especially if youâ€™re running a seasonal business. So as a business leader, you have to manage labor and you just canâ€™t have people sitting in an office, twiddling their thumbs waiting for the season to pick up. So you have to deal with the issue. You may have to lay people off or you have to lay them off seasonally. So if you donâ€™t make that decision, then youâ€™re going to be impacting your EBIDA line. And EBIDA is Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization, and that is how businesses are measured. They are not measured on net income. They are not measured performance from an operational standpoint on what your profit is. Itâ€™s basically what your EBIDA is, because your EBIDA is what really tells you whether or not youâ€™re operating efficiently or effectively. So the two things you watch for in a business is EBIDA and cash flow. And if you are not functioning in those areas then you better do something.
So in that regard, we started in tribal enterprises. Tribal enterprise worked, but unfortunately we got into the mix of IRS. And I give IRS a lot of credit for this because we would not have gone through the evolution we went through without IRS intervention, because IRS intervention or interest was to tax our profits. And at that time they did not recognize tribal enterprises as an acceptable structure for them and they basically determined at that time, and this is again in the '80s, that our income was taxable. So we went then and went to a state chartered corporation. So we chartered one of these entities under the State of New Mexico and we were able to get away with that for a little while until IRS came down again and told us state charter corporations are taxable. And so then we went to the structure we are now and all three of the entities I showed you on the board are structured under this is a Section 17 federal corporation.
Now one of the things that this did (and you can go to the next slide), one of the things that it did is it helped educate the government to the point where they understood why we need to separate business from government and why they had to release day-to-day control of the business. And it has to do with something called liability. Because when youâ€™re running a business, the fundamental nature of the business is risk and you have to take risk. Why do private people with money, with wealth, set up corporations? Itâ€™s because theyâ€™re protecting their personal assets. So they set up these corporations where if something happens from a risk decision in that corporation, their nest egg is protected. Fortunately, at Laguna, we had a nest egg that came from the uranium mine. We had a substantial nest egg. So we were able to approach the tribal council to say, â€˜Before you go out and start taking risk propositions you need to protect your nest egg. And we need to build this wall between government and the enterprises so that if something happens within the enterprise, your assets are protected. They can sue the corporation only to the extent of the assets of the corporation. They cannot touch tribal assets.' So with the protection mechanism in place it was very, it helped us tremendously in selling the concept. Now we were a tribe without assets and itâ€™s the same fundamental thing. How many of us own private corporations because how many of us have something to risk and lose? So we donâ€™t really think that way. But when youâ€™re a person of wealth, you think that way. Itâ€™s a difference in thinking. So if we were to try to do that today, with whatâ€™s going on today, we would probably have a very difficult time. For the reason that tribal, and itâ€™s still happening in all governments, the tribal political factors want to get into day-to-day operations. They want to get into day-to-day control of the enterprises. So how did we define this so that we can protect the enterprises from that situation, and how can we protect the tribal council from assets being touched? Itâ€™s called penetrating the corporate veil.
If a tribal leader comes down into the corporations and starts hiring and firing employees, that tribal leader has penetrated the corporate veil. So what happens is they put a hole in the corporate veil and if theyâ€™re sued back, whoever is filing the claim can go right back through that hole and get the tribal assets. So as you can see, thereâ€™s a lot of education that needs to go on. And a lot of these principles arenâ€™t necessarily understood at the beginning, but as you keep educating, educating, you begin to finally hit home with some of these things. One thing that was very important to us was to formalize these relationships, not just gentlemenâ€™s agreement, not just from one council to the next, because councils turn over quite a bit. So the institutional knowledge of the government isnâ€™t always there. So when you go back to this say, â€˜You remember ten years ago we talked about it?â€™ And you look at the people in the room and theyâ€™re all different. No one remembers what you talked about ten years ago. So itâ€™s very important to formalize anything that you enter into in terms of relationship with the government. And youâ€™ve got to treat it like a state government, like a federal government. Tribal government, even though theyâ€™re your owners, you have to also understand that theyâ€™re governments. And so nobody has a problem writing a grant proposal and signing a grant agreement with the state government, with the federal government. Thatâ€™s a formulation of what the conditions are and what are the terms and what happens in this situation. Itâ€™s very important that we be at Laguna, that we begin to formalize this relationship so that we can retain the institutional knowledge of what was agreed to. So we have charters. We have corporate charters. You can go online, because weâ€™re a federal corporation, you can go pull up our charter. You can see what our charter looks like. Bylaws of the corporation; bylaws are what the board of directors manages the corporation by. Itâ€™s their internal rules of the corporation. We have very sophisticated reporting relationships. We provide financial statements to the tribe on a monthly basis. We provide them quarterly financial statements. We go before the council twice a year in terms, semi-annual shareholderâ€™s meetings.
Our tribal councilmen wear two hats. They are councilmen from the government side, but they are our shareholderâ€™s representatives and they have to learn how to operate in two different environments. As shareholderâ€™s representatives they are not councilmen, they are not governmental representatives, they represent the shareholders. And they fall within corporate law duties of shareholders and they have to fill their duties to shareholders. And what is their primary duty? Their primary duty is the appointment of the board of directors. I report to a five-member board of directors and that board of directors is delegated authority to run the corporation. And so the major power of the tribe is to make sure they have good, competent people on the board of directors, and experienced people on the board of directors.
We also have a very sophisticated agreement with the tribe on how cash moves from the corporation to the tribe. Iâ€™ve worked and Iâ€™ve consulted to a number of tribes and it amazes me when I go in to sit down with them and I ask, â€˜How does cash transfer?â€™ And they say, â€˜Well, the tribe comes in and gets it every month.â€™ So then I say to them, â€˜Well, how do you take care of capital maintenance, capital development reserves?â€™ And you can begin to see real quickly in the enterprise why they havenâ€™t replaced, in the gaming property, slot machines; why they havenâ€™t replaced carpet; why they havenâ€™t done, you know from a maintenance standpoint; they havenâ€™t developed a new venture. Itâ€™s because the tribe comes in and takes it all out. And so the enterprises really donâ€™t retain the cash because itâ€™s sucked out to the government on a monthly basis.
In our situation, weâ€™ve negotiated a relationship with the tribe where money transfers, but it transfers at year-end after all the audits are done. And so we do transfer like pre-payments monthly, but itâ€™s all reconciled at year-end. And itâ€™s based on a formula so that, like anything else, as the audit kicks in and itâ€™s produced then formulas run. So thereâ€™s no dispute. And if they want to come in and look at the books and understand why they got this in their check, itâ€™s all auditable, itâ€™s all transparent. So even those relationships are formalized so that we donâ€™t get into disputes. Many times we get accused of holding all the money in the enterprise, but in reality, we can answer that claim any time; just come in and audit us and weâ€™ll show you exactly where things are.
And so, as it relates to that, we probably at this point within our enterprise, the two things that usually are stress points are the financial end of it and human resources end of it. So from the financial end of it, weâ€™ve been able to take 50 percent of the equation in terms of disputes away. We still fight over human resource issues on a day-to-day basis. But at the same time, we set up a system where Iâ€™m the final say on human resource issues. Nothing goes to my board of directors, nothing goes to the tribal council. And so as we deal with day-to-day operations, weâ€™re able to handle those things and Iâ€™m able to handle issues that some tribesâ€¦and Iâ€™ve had people tell me how...tribal councils have come in and youâ€™ve disciplined a brother or nephew or niece and theyâ€™ve come in and damaged the organization. Weâ€™ve had to deal with those kind of things up front and itâ€™s very, itâ€™s worked effectively today.
We also have had to take investment and tried to help the government infrastructure develop. One of the things that happened at Laguna with the quick growth of the enterprises is what we call the brain drain syndrome. The capacity that used to sit on the tribe transferred to the enterprises for a number of reasons. One was pay; we could pay more on the business side than what they were getting as a tribal employee. So what ended up happening is that we ended up wakening capacity of human resources at the tribe. So weâ€™ve been going back in and helping them develop their capacities: how to read a financial statement; how to read a business financial statement versus a GASB financial statement; and what it is you look for in terms of managing the enterprise. Most of us know, especially those of us who run gaming enterprise, your three big numbers are revenue, marketing expenses, and labor. Thatâ€™s probably 60-70 percent of the equation. So you can make comment about â€˜how come so and soâ€™ or â€˜how come somebody got a company car?â€™ But thatâ€™s so minute compared to those big numbers.
So as you begin to educate tribal government, then you begin to help in building this bridge between government and enterprises. One of the things we went into was help develop, for a tribe, a budgeting ordinance where we set up the infrastructure where they come and ask us for forecasts, five-year forecasts for revenue. How many tribes have five-year forecasts in terms of their operational standards? Businesses have to do it all the time. So we took that into that environment and said, â€˜You guys need to do a five-year forecast. This is how you get the information from us so that you can begin to start planning your growth; because the moneyâ€™s going to be coming over and the growth and the revenue of the tribe are substantial, are going to be substantial for the next five years.â€™ Unless they know that, how can they begin to plan? How can they begin to put their governmental infrastructure in place to be able to do the things that they need to do? What normally happens is they do it on a year-by-year basis.
So weâ€™re involved in developing that capacity on the tribal side by teaching them some of these disciplines and hopefully over the years -- weâ€™re not there yet -- we use Joanâ€™s program a lot to come in and do the same kind of training thatâ€™s going on here with tribal leadership. But still yet itâ€™s on a hit-and-miss basis. We hope to, and itâ€™s very difficult, we got to do it with a lot of humility, because we donâ€™t want to be; I mean, weâ€™ve been accused of being the Pueblo of LDC and thatâ€™s not what weâ€™re about. But we definitely need to do what we can as a child in this household to be better children and help dad and mom develop their infrastructure.
So we work with the administration, you know, a lot of us, you know, depend on tribal water, so we have to help with the water department. We have to help with all those areas where we draw resources out of the tribe so we can deal with them within a business context. We also have to help in the legal arena; because a lot of the areas, for example, in human resources individuals do have a tribal resolution if they do not agree with my decision, and that decision is in the structure is to take me to tribal court not to tribal council. So if they have a problem with wrongful termination and they believed that as the chief executive officer of the tribe, I mean, the enterprise, that I made a wrong decision then, in Laguna, they have the ability to take me to tribal court. So then we go into an environment where we can deal with things on a very consistent basis. In a tribal council environment, for example, thereâ€™s this thing called 'freedom of information,' and unless I get release from that individual to release their personnel file, Iâ€™m going to walk into that tribal council with my hands behind my back and theyâ€™re going to slap me all over the place and I cannot tell them the true story unless I have that sheet of paper that says I can. And employees who take you to that venue, I have not yet found one thatâ€™s willing to sign that piece of paper. So you will always lose in that environment because they have the bullets and the gun. You have the bullets, but you don't have the gun. And so we were able to set up legal environments where now it doesnâ€™t go to tribal council -- council has the ability to raise policy issues/policy questions with us -- but in terms of individual cases, the legal infrastructure of the tribe takes care of those issues for us.
Again, emphasize the appointment of board members. Itâ€™s very important that you get the best competency on your board of directors if you want them to be managing a $250 million business; and so board development is also very important and the continued development of board of directors, especially for tribal members who want to get active in this area is very important. So we do the same kind of programs in trying to develop our board of directors. The last thing is, one of the other things that government has to do effectively is properly capitalize the business. A lot of tribes, especially in the gaming industry, donâ€™t capitalize their business adequately. At the Pueblo Laguna, from a $250 million business, the initial investment into us was $250,000. Thatâ€™s all we got from the tribe. So we had to go out and get the capitalization needs from outside sources; where it has an effect on the tribe, is now we have to pay interest, expense, cost of money that could be going to the tribe. So those are the things you have to deal with in this environment and this is kind of the issues weâ€™re working with. Capitalizing the business effectively, especially in your low-margin businesses, itâ€™s very important; because a lot of these businesses canâ€™t afford the cost of money that we sometimes have to pay, especially in todayâ€™s market. Now as Laguna Development Corporation, itâ€™s interesting that if you read the paper right now, the down economy and people always thought gaming was recession proof. Across the country, the gaming industry is beginning to experience their first effect of a down economy and its impact on gaming. Gaming is down 10-20 percent across the country. And why is it that Iâ€™m here telling you to look at these things? Itâ€™s because at Laguna Development Corporation, Albuquerque in New Mexico is tagged as one of the most competitive Indian gaming markets in the country because we have five significant properties around a little over half a million people population base; very competitive. And in a down economy, you definitely have to take that planning into consideration. Our infrastructure has helped us. Itâ€™s helped us retain executive competency. In the gaming industry, turnover is almost annual. General managers are released almost annually. In New Mexico, 1.5 years is the average life of a general manager. My executive team has been with me since they came on board because they understand stability. One of their first questions to me, because a lot of these individuals have come out of Indian gaming, have said not, â€˜Howâ€™s the business running?â€™ but â€˜How does this thing work between the tribe and the business?â€™ And so I have not had anyone refuse or pull their application as a result of understanding this structure, and it helps me go after better people. It opens the door for me to go recruit better people [because] they know that their headâ€™s not going to be taken off by tribal government. My head may be taken off, but their heads are going to be protected because of the infrastructure, and itâ€™s helped me tremendously.
The last thing is a discipline issue, is, the other thing is you can have all the rules in place, but if you donâ€™t adhere to the rules theyâ€™re not worth the paper theyâ€™re written on. So discipline, in terms of teaching people their roles, and ensuring from business side that we operate to our boundaries, on the other side, the governmental side theyâ€™re operating in their boundaries, has been very successful for us in that arena.
Whatâ€™s the businessâ€™s responsibility? The businessâ€™s responsibility is to hire the best executive team it can find. I always remember my 201-business course and I was told, â€˜Your key to success is to hire the best you can afford.â€™ And Iâ€™ve taken that principle and Iâ€™ve applied very consistently within our operation. So I go hire the best I can afford. Some I canâ€™t even, I canâ€™t afford now but I cannot not afford them. So I go after the best. So I have a senior team that is very -- and I guess I would be bold enough to say -- Iâ€™ll put them up against any senior team in the country in terms of their depth, their experience, their knowledge and the industries that we run. We provide and evolve our business systems constantly, our operating systems, our financial systems, our human resource systems. We under our, probably our fifth revision of our HR [human resources] manual because the dynamics of what happens within this industry, you canâ€™t just take a book and adopt the rules and just let it sit. Youâ€™ve got to evolve them and you got to keep current.
And so weâ€™re constantly looking at those fundamental processes that we have in place and updating them constantly. We provide adequate reporting to the board and to tribal council. Thatâ€™s one of the big things that has to happen is that the board needs to fully understand full disclosure, whatâ€™s going on. The tribal council needs to understand in full disclosure whatâ€™s going on. And so in that regard, the board, you know, we have very confident board members so itâ€™s not difficult for them to come back and say, â€˜Okay, what happened here? What happened there? How come youâ€¦?â€™ You know, on the tribal council side weâ€™re still evolving there. How do you read a financial statement? You know. How do you readâ€¦? How does an income statement differ from a balance sheet? And how does a balance sheet different from a statement of cash flow? You know, most tribes when tribal leaders look at a financial statement, they stop at the income statement, you know. Thatâ€™s probably the least effective document in the statement. Itâ€™s your balance sheet and statement of cash flow that really tells you whatâ€™s going on, you know. And so teaching tribal leadership how to evaluate that balance sheet and really see where their net worth is now. You know, we in this down economy, this 20 percent decline in Las Vegas, 18 percent decline in revenue in Las Vegas; in 2008, we grew our revenue by 26 percent. Weâ€™re only two companies in the JP Morgan --which just bought out Lehman Brothers -- weâ€™re one of two companies in the JP Morgan portfolio that had a growth in revenue in this down economy in the gaming industry. And a 26 percent growth in revenue while others, the big boys, MGM -- those big boys are losing 18 percent. So to me, itâ€™s fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.
(Inaudible question from the audience).
Indian gaming. You know, this phenomenon is going on in Indian gaming as well, but in the JP Morgan portfolio, JP Morgan is big investor and theyâ€™re where we get our money to do our projects. They basically have a portfolio of all the people they loan money to in their portfolio, they just bought Lehman Brothers, thatâ€™s this transaction you read about in the papers, so theyâ€™re one of the biggest companies in the, finance companies in the United States. Weâ€™re one of two of their gaming companies in their portfolio that had growth in their portfolio, in their revenues. So, and again the other company didnâ€™t have the substantial growth we had at 26 percent. Even in this down economy, where everybody else is losing 10-18 percent of their revenue, and weâ€™re doing it in Albuquerque which only has a half-million population base. So, as I can say, itâ€™s focusing on basics.
(Inaudible question from the audience).
Theyâ€™re the things Iâ€™m talking about here: put an infrastructure in place, put in the relationships, tying them together, teaching people their roles, and education is very critical component to this thing. One of the other thing is we focus on growing and developing the business, we donâ€™t focus on politics. We have tribal elections this year. We have no strategic agenda to be involved in tribal elections. They happen on the election side. Weâ€™re here to grow the business. And we donâ€™t make decisions on day-to-day objectives, investment objectives as to whoâ€™s going to be the governor and what kind of council weâ€™re going to have next year. We focus on the business and we stay focused on the business and run the business, because at the end of the day, youâ€™re not going to be evaluated based on whether or not you did the right political thing, youâ€™re going to get nailed if you donâ€™t get the EBIDA, you donâ€™t get the revenue over to the tribe, because thatâ€™s really what theyâ€™re all about, what they need.
(Next: Lessons Learned).
This is my, I think, final slide and itâ€™s what have I learned through all this? Iâ€™ve got pretty close to 30-some years in doing this. Iâ€™m an old man. Maintaining separation of government and business is a very delicate balance. Like I said, if I was to try to do this at Laguna today, I probably would not be able to succeed, because the tribe was not as desperate today as they were twenty years ago.
Iâ€™ve been asked to come into some tribes and help move this model into their operation. I had a situation recently where the tribe came and adopted our structure, almost identical. Tribal leadership changed. The tribal leadership came in and had a socialistic agenda and they wanted to build community projects that had no ROI [Return on Investment]. And they said, â€˜I donâ€™t care, we want the money.â€™ 'Well, I have a project over here thatâ€™s going to give you 15 percent return on investment.' â€˜I donâ€™t care, we want to build this community program.â€™ And they just said, â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. What you have to give us is we donâ€™t need it this time. I need this more importantly.â€™ So we just said, â€˜Okay, thatâ€™s fine. You donâ€™t need us then. We can do something else. We donâ€™t need to do this.â€™ One of the criteria my board of directors have on me, before I can do any projects, I have to show my 15% ROI. And that goes all the way down to entertainment. We have an entertainment venue, and if Iâ€™m going to bring in Carlos Mencia, I have to show the board that I can get a 15 percent return on that investment. So thatâ€™s what I mean in terms of decision-making. Itâ€™s not thatâ€¦thereâ€™s some people that say, â€˜How come you donâ€™t bring in country [music]?â€™ Itâ€™s because I canâ€™t get an ROI on country. I have lots of people that like country, but I cannot financially make it work; because itâ€™s not about the entertainer, itâ€™s about its impact on the gaming floor and how much more money I can make that night if I do that. So those are the kind of things we have to work on.
But maintain this separation from tribal government. Probably about 80 percent of my job is in two areas: one is human resources dealing with people; the other one is managing tribal government, constantly being available to tribal government, constantly working with tribal government to try to help them understand so that I can protect my management team. My management teams needs to be able to have the flexibility to do their job and they cannot do it with tribal interference. So the buck stops here both ways. And itâ€™s building that trust through example that your management team develops that trust in you, that youâ€™re able to do that. Doing proper due diligence on the management groups that you bring in especially when itâ€™s staff.
One of the things I see in the gaming industry is that industry grew so fast that the development of executive capacity in the industry did not develop as quick as the industry grew. So a lot of Indian gaming facilities were hiring executives that had no experience. They were an assistant table game manager and they gave them the role of GM [general manager]. And you see that a lot. Itâ€™s amazing how much you see that. The guy puts on a suit, looks nice, talks well and theyâ€™re sold. But they donâ€™t have the experience because nobody did the due diligence on this person to found out whether they really had the capacity. And thatâ€™s why you see this turnover in management because after a year, the person shows he doesnâ€™t know what heâ€™s doing, so then the tribe has to fire him because he just lost money for them or did something that he wasnâ€™t supposed to do. So due diligence on the executive team is very critical.
Setting up the infrastructureâ€™s very critical. I canâ€™t stop reinforcing that area. Government has to be there. The business entity has to be there. The infrastructure for the two -- itâ€™s very important to develop those things. Business needs to hire the best capacity that it can afford. I hired, we opened up 150-room hotel just recently. I hired an individual that ran a thousand-room property, because I wanted his experience that was beyond what I was doing because not only did I want to open that facility with zero problems, but I wanted somebody there that could take me to a thousand-room property. So I hired for five years from now, not just for today. My chief of gaming operations; right now we have 2,100 machines; he ran a facility that had over 5000 machines. So again, itâ€™s to take me to where heâ€™s been. I donâ€™t want to go that path for the first time myself. I want people that have been there, that have been down that trail that know what the pitfalls are. And so every position I have, from food and beverage to retail to the gaming operations and all my administrative staff are people that have been there before. And Iâ€™ve made sure from a due diligence standpoint, I verify theyâ€™ve been there before, because I definitely donâ€™t want to go where no man has gone before. I want to go with someone thatâ€™s gone there before.
The next thing is tribes need to adequately capitalize their business and the last thing is tribes need to look at diversification of economy. Even within our business, weâ€™re on diversification strategies. What happens if gaming goes away, heaven forbid? What happens if it goes away? We know that, because we thought uranium was going to last forever. So again, the strategies are: what are we going to do? What are we going to do to diversify? And weâ€™re looking at those strategies now, right now within our portfolio and thatâ€™s within our five-year planning cycle. And so these are the things that I can offer you today. I hope that I, I hope I fit the bill in terms of what you wanted me to do today. But again, these are real experiences and things that I experienced at Laguna. And again, ours is just one story and thereâ€™s plenty more stories, successes out there that can help you in your decision-making."