The best (wo)man for the job

Nov 30, 2004 4:09 AM


Renee West, the president and chief operating officer of Primm Valley Resorts, didn’t take the traditional route to her job, which has different challenges than those that confront other hotel operators. And she certainly doesn’t look like the head of any of the other resorts.

West, a 46-year-old head-turning blonde who wouldn’t look out of place in a Hard Rock billboard campaign, has had the desk where the buck stops in Primm since the fall of 2002. She had joined the Primm Resorts team as vice president of human resources a little over two years earlier.

In the recollection of several gaming industry watchers, she is the highest-ranking female casino executive in Nevada. Her route to the top was nothing if not untraditional.

First, she has spent about as much of her executive life outside of the gaming industry as she has inside. Second, the 1976 Rancho High graduate attended UNLV but did not graduate, nor did she graduate from any other university. Third, West spent some time working on newspapers, first at the Las Vegas Sun in its advertising department and then at the now-defunct Valley Times as a staff artist. Finally, she even left the state as her first husband moved around the country while climbing the corporate ladder at Automobile Association of America (AAA).

West did, of course, have some gaming industry experience when she was appointed vice president of human resources at Primm Resorts in July 2000, including stints with MGM Grand, Station Casinos and Caesars Tahoe. Primm Valley Resorts sprouts out of the desert 35 minutes south of Las Vegas on Interstate 15 and consists of Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino, Primm Valley Resort and Casino, Whiskey Pete’s Hotel and Casino, Primm Valley Golf Club, Primm Center and the Primm Valley Lotto Store.

Primm Valley Resorts, a wholly-owned subsidiary of MGM Mirage, has 2,800 employees and 2,700 rooms. It also has the kind of challenges no other resort president has to confront. In the area of security, for instance, there is no such thing as the Primm Police Department. "We are not next-door to a (police) substation, so my guys have to hold the fort" until the police arrive from Las Vegas whenever there is a criminal incident, West says.

There are other unique issues that stem from the Primm casinos’ remote location. "A major car crash, (or) losing phone service can bring your operation to a screeching halt," she says.

But the one concern that can keep her up at night is the competition from California’s casinos. West says she has to be aware of what California casinos offer and provide all those amenities and more. "They like the pace of our environment," as opposed to Las Vegas, West says, and Primm offers a lot of events to keep them coming back.

West’s overall philosophy to meet the challenge of tribal gaming is to establish a clear vision and align the whole organization behind that vision. "Everybody knows what they have to do to bring our strategy to life," she says. "The vast majority of our employees know that their job is connected to the casino floor."

The strategy is apparently paying off as every month this year has shown an increase in revenues over the same month in 2003.

West is also satisfied that she has reduced staff turnover from 100 percent annually to 40 percent, and now that a $20 million housing complex has opened on site, that rate should go down further.

While she can’t think of a single major disappointment in her two years on the job, she says some of her best decisions have come in the hiring areas. "I’m real proud of the team I’ve put together," West says.

While she has worked to reduce employee turnover and increase loyalty at the isolated cluster of resorts, she has no trouble being firm with the staff when discipline is required.

She says that being a woman was not an issue when she was promoted to the president and chief operating officer slot.

"People were more concerned about the fact that I had a human resources background rather than (about) my being a woman," she says. "My background is not so conventional. People are interested in how you tie all of this (varied work background) together. Presidents don’t (normally) come from human resource (departments)."

She also dismisses her eye-catching looks as a reason for her success, saying her rise to the top can be attributed to "my ability, my background, (and) my skills that have opened doors for me."

She adds that when she speaks on college campuses, she advises the women students to "pay attention to everything going on around you and treat relationships like gold and take risks. Don’t be afraid to take jobs you don’t feel like you’re ready for. If you only take jobs that you’re ready for, you’ve already (outgrown them)."