Dress codes, time clocks, 8-hour workdays, overtime, vacation schedules, employee surveys, action plans… these were just some of the highlights of the new Boyd Gaming Policy Manual. Being a newly acquired company, Dania’s employees were expected to abide by these policies. While all this may seem logical for normal businesses today, realize that pari-mutuels (tracks and frontons) were anything but “normal.” Especially Jai-Alai frontons.
For example, an average of 20 pelotas (Jai-Alai balls) would need repair after a single performance. The speed of the ball hitting the granite wall would cause the cover to tear after about 20 minutes of use. All frontons have a pelota maker who would hand sew new covers on the balls each night. Most times, he would come in late in the evening and possibly work all night, depending on the number of balls needing repair. He had no set hours. He was just required to make sure we had enough good balls for play the next day. There are only a few of these artisans in the world. Management relied on the pelota maker to stay in business. He did not punch a time clock. He worked when he needed to work, regardless of how long it took. He was under contract to perform this work and overtime was unheard of.
Boyd’s HR Department was astonished and said this had to change. Apparently, we could be violating U.S. employment laws. This, also, applied to the cesta maker, who had about 15 to 30 cestas to repair each night. No one could predict how many cestas break each performance. The ball maker and cesta maker worked at their own pace, always getting the job done. But, this became an issue that was difficult to explain to our Las Vegas casino owners.
Chris Gibase, one of the original Boyd VPs that welcomed us to the new corporation, was currently overseeing Dania Jai-Alai from Las Vegas. We all liked Gibase. He just seemed like one of those down to earth guys. He was easy to talk to and knew the gaming business. But, we soon found out that he was moving on to other corporate priorities and someone else would be in charge of Dania.
Within a few weeks, John came into my office and told me that a guy named Jack Bernsmeier would be arriving tomorrow and wanted to take us to lunch. Bernsmeier, another Boyd Executive Vice President, supervised Delta Downs horse track and some Boyd properties in Louisiana. Being the only pari-mutuel, they owned, I guess they figured Dania would be a good fit for him. But, horse racing and Jai-Alai are very different.
I was looking forward to meeting the new Boyd exec, thinking I would find something we had in common, and hoping he could help our now stagnant Jai-Alai/future casino operation. I was wrong on both counts!
Jack Bernsmeier was a tall, low key, middle-aged gentleman with wavy black hair. As I sat at that initial lunch meeting, accompanied by Knox, CFO Clint Morris, and the new Dania HR guy, Dave Winslow, I began to talk about football. “No, I don’t follow football,” he said. I went to baseball, basketball, golf… “Nope, not my thing,” he answered. Jai-Alai is a sport!! Yet, he cares nothing about sports? “I like to windsurf,” he said.
Windsurf? I played everything from ping-pong to racquetball, but never windsurfed. I knew nothing about windsurfing, nor did I care. Is windsurfing a sport? Well, maybe. But, there goes my thought of making a connection with Jack Bernsmeier.
I tried to figure out how this guy became an Executive VP of a growing casino company. What was his background? Apparently, he was a past executive with Holiday Inn before being hired by Body Gaming. Since owning hotels, I guess they valued his management experience with a big hotel chain. But, now to oversee Jai-Alai, with professional players, a unique sport that he has never seen? Oh, my!
During that entire lunch, I did notice that he seemed to direct most of his comments toward Winslow. It did seem odd because John was Dania’s GM, had more knowledge than anyone else about Dania Jai-Alai, and was still in charge. It almost seemed like Bernsmeier and Winslow were a team, with John, Clint, and I on the other side. This did not bode well for our future, if, indeed, this was Boyd Gaming’s plan.
After some late afternoon meetings with Winslow and Knox, Bernsmeier departed. I later asked John his impressions. “Seemed like a nice enough guy,” John said. “Plans on visiting us about once a month. Did ask me to send him a personnel list.”
Then, it began. Winslow, under the guise of his HR duties, started questioning John about the necessity of certain personnel. “Do we really need a switchboard operator at the front desk?” he asked him. John would tell him that this was the front office entrance, where visitors and guests entered the fronton.
Also, John was adamantly opposed to callers reaching a recorded message. No matter our financial situation, Steve Snyder and John saw the importance of this personal contact at the entrance. “Yes, we need a switchboard person,” he repeatedly told him.
When Bernsmeier returned the following month, I was called upstairs to a meeting. Again, it was John, Clint, Winslow and myself. He began questioning the structure of the game. “Why does the ball only bounce once,” he asked. “Maybe it would be more exciting to fans if we let it bounce twice?” This sport is hundreds of years old, steeped in the Basque tradition. Having the pelota bounce twice and still be in play was not only illogical, it was blasphemy. The players would think that was insane, as would the public. But, Jack Bernsmeier, a complete outsider, wanted to “improve” the sport.
He, also, questioned the uniforms, which were the traditional white pants, faja (sash) and colored jerseys (dictated by the state pari-mutuel laws). He wanted to put the players in shorts, or tight spandex pants, make them sexier. I have nothing against making our players look sexier. Most of our players are very good looking Spanish and French Basque athletes, with great physiques. But, some would not look too good in shorts or spandex. And, they would be the first to tell you that. They, also, respected the traditions of the sport.
It was apparent that Jack thought that these changes would turn things around. The sport was in trouble and he had ideas that might change things. His suggestions gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. We didn’t want to come off as negative, but John and I both tried to explain why these were NOT good ideas. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning.
Later on, John began some private meetings with Bernsmeier and Winslow. It seemed the new strategy was to trim expenses at Dania while they waited for the casino project to resume. They began questioning him on the need for department heads, like our Concessions Manager and Chief of Security, and other staff. Why couldn’t we run the Dania Jai-Alai without them? John strongly resisted; said they were essential to an efficient, smooth operation. Some had been with Dania for 20 to 30 years. They were loyal, dedicated staff and John was fighting for their jobs. I did not know if I, also, was on the chopping block. It seemed that Bernsmeier and Winslow had their own agenda. It was basically body count. And they didn’t care who survived.
I saw the stress in John’s face as he returned to his office. I could tell this was tough. Since he had owned a small percentage of stock during his tenure with Dania, he had made some money in the buyout. Did he really need this aggravation? But, we all knew he lived and breathed Dania Jai-Alai. He loved his job. He was excited about the Boyd Gaming acquisition and our future. He was truly torn.
Thursday evening, when I left, they were still meeting. Friday morning, when I drove into the executive parking lot, something felt different. There were almost no cars in staff parking. John’s car was not there.
I took the elevator to our second-floor offices and saw a distressed look on the face of John’s secretary, Beth. “Beth, where’s John?” She burst into tears. “John left… and he’s never coming back!”