Gaming courses raise the stakes

With training available in the form of a specialist MBA, running a casino could be less of a gamble than you think
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The Independent Online

Forget banking, consultancy or telecoms. How about running a casino? In the age of corporate social responsibility and business ethics you might think this an unlikely destination for MBA graduates, but you'd be wrong. "A number of senior managers in the industry here in the United States are MBA graduates", says Professor Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada. "If I tell you that the chairman of the board at one of the two biggest gaming companies in the US is a former Harvard Business School professor, brought in to advise the company, it will give you some idea of how important this industry is."

Forget banking, consultancy or telecoms. How about running a casino? In the age of corporate social responsibility and business ethics you might think this an unlikely destination for MBA graduates, but you'd be wrong. "A number of senior managers in the industry here in the United States are MBA graduates", says Professor Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada. "If I tell you that the chairman of the board at one of the two biggest gaming companies in the US is a former Harvard Business School professor, brought in to advise the company, it will give you some idea of how important this industry is."

With the gambling tables of Reno and Las Vegas on its doorstep, it is hardly surprising to find that the local university has capitalised on the opportunities for training industry executives. A specialist MBA for the gaming industry has been on offer here since the 1970s. "US gaming companies are taking an increasing number of MBA graduates on as managers," says Eadington. "Some of the most established have a 20-year history of graduate recruitment."

Now, with the help of European business school colleagues, Eadington is marketing his expertise on this side of the Atlantic. A new part-time MBA course for European gaming executives is being planned, run jointly with the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and based at an American-style casino hotel complex on the Slovenian coast. Subjects such as the social and economic impact of gambling, casino marketing and public policy will be included, as well as all the usual core MBA modules.

Eadington is realistic about the likely numbers involved - he hopes around 15 students will sign up for the first course - but says that one Slovenian company has already shown an interest in sponsoring its managers. "We are trying to catch the wave of expansion in Europe," he says.

For the time being, that expansion is unlikely to include the UK, where the government recently dashed industry hopes for a series of so called "super-casinos". But that doesn't mean the industry is on its uppers. Around £8bn a year is spent on gambling in the UK, including everything from betting on horses to slot machines, bingo or the lottery.

For the past five years Salford University's Centre for the Study of Gambling has been doing a brisk trade in postgraduate management certificates in the subject. Professor Peter Collins, who runs the centre and will teach on the course in Slovenia, is disappointed that the government backed down from its original plan to expand casino centres, but believes there is still a demand for management training.

"Around 500 people have studied on our postgraduate course, and we have undergraduate students who study the subject alongside economics," he says, adding that no one should be surprised that companies which manage everything from slot machines to large entertainment complexes should want to do it as professionally as possible.

But what about the old fashioned image of the casino business, run from behind the scenes by members of the local mob? According to Eadington, the reality is very different. "In places such as Cambodia or Macau in China some of that may linger, but in most markets, the dominant companies are very corporate and clean." Gambling, he says, is highly regulated and subject to the same rules of business as any industry. "You can go to jail for cooking the books in the telecoms industry; look at WorldCom."

The newer breed of gaming industry managers are more likely to have the skills of a management consultant than a poker player; and some might argue that there are similarities. Vicenc Mati, 36, worked his way through managing health clubs and theme parks to internet companies before ending up as group marketing director for the Spanish gambling group CIRSA. Twenty-five years ago it was a small company, run by one entrepreneur; now it has 10,000 employees.

"The gambling industry has been driven in Spain by entrepreneurs who may have started out on their own 30 years ago. But now companies like ours are building a complex management structure. A good MBA can help us deal with innovation, and how to harness IT to transform the way people work." Mati is halfway through a global executive MBA with IESE Business School in Barcelona, partly funded by CIRSA, which invests heavily in management education through its own corporate university arrangement with another Spanish university.

Mati acknowledges that gambling has an image problem, but denies it is unethical. "You should work ethically whatever business you are in. We must promote responsible gambling. In this business we are essentially selling a social experience to people."

So how would an MBA for the gambling industry teach business ethics and instil a sense of corporate social responsibility in its students? Collins says that modules on topics such as the psychology of gambling would teach managers to understand and spot problem gamblers. "Ask yourself how you would bring up your children in relation to gambling. You might conclude that it was similar to alcohol. Banning it completely may not be wise but the ethics of moderation certainly apply."

He points out that issues such as regulation and taxation in different counties would also be an integral part of any specialist MBA. "I'm in no doubt that there are a lot of issues to be addressed," he says. Spotting a problem gambler and having the guts to bar him from your casino might be two rather different skills, but Collins says that research shows the people who run the business don't want to see customers spiral into unmanageable debt.

"Problem gamblers are often a terrible nuisance in casinos. If you take a prudent view, you want people to spend some of their disposable income with your business on a regular basis. You don't want to ruin them."

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