By Mary Minor Davis –
‘It’s a Big Deal’
Woman in Charge at Sol Casinos
In 2007, Kimberly Van Amburg walked into her first management meeting as the newly appointed assistant attorney general for gaming for the Pascua Yaqui tribe. There were about 40 people in the room – but only two women.
“There was me and the executive assistant who was taking the meeting minutes,” she recalled.
Seven years later, Amburg is sitting in the CEO chair for Sol Casinos, the first woman in the tribe’s history to do so. As the head of both Casino del Sol Resort and Casino of the Sun, her role is to oversee the strategic direction of the properties.
Appointed interim in the job last July, she was offered the position permanently in December 2014. “They didn’t even post the position,” she said. “That shows a tremendous amount of confidence in my ability.”
While an exact number is not known, the number of women running tribal gaming enterprises in the country is “very small,” a fact that is not lost on Amburg. “This is a big deal,” she said.
Amburg didn’t have aspirations of CEO leadership when she earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arizona. After college, she found the news field wasn’t quite the right fit so she worked in the Tucson hospitality industry for several years. She had always wanted to earn a law degree, which she completed at the UA in 1999. There she met her husband. Soon after she went to work for a law firm, they were expecting their first child.
“The lifestyle of an attorney in a big law firm is not family friendly,” she said. “I ended up looking around and a friend recommended me for the assistant attorney general position.”
Amburg, now 48 and the mother of two boys, appears relaxed and comfortable behind a modest desk in her office at Casino del Sol, exuding a quiet confidence that shows no sense of trepidation about the responsibility she has assumed: to generate the maximum amount of revenue that can be returned to the tribal community. Her low-key manner mirrors those of other leaders she respects, including former CEO Wendell Long, whom she considers a mentor.
“I admire people who do not do a lot of bouncing up and down and pointing at themselves, people who are just getting things done with a minimal amount of congratulating themselves, but rather give credit to others. Wendell was a good role model and mentor who emulated this,” she said.
“Kim is the perfect fit for Sol Casinos, adding great strength to the team,” Long told Indian Country News Network. “She’s a smart woman who knows the business, and her legal training will be an asset in solving the complex challenges of running a major casino. She’ll definitely take things to the next level.”
One of her first orders of business was to stabilize the casino enterprises. As the third CEO in as many years, she worked to create a sense of security for the more than 1,300 employees who have seen leadership come and go since 2013.
“The understanding that this is what we’re going to have for a while has been positive,” she said. “I’m a known quantity, so the fact that our team members know what to expect with me has been a good thing already. It’s removed a lot of uncertainty from the work environment.”
Amburg’s other key focus has been on the gaming operations themselves, with improvements designed to maximize the revenue potential of the properties and provide a greater level of customer service, particularly to the high-limit customers.
She says she’s put the “right people in the right job,” including promoting Paul Feltman from former executive director of finance to CFO, and bringing back Steve Neely as chief marketing officer of the casino resort, a position he held from 2009 to 2012. In addition, she hired a new director of gaming operations, Jack McGinty.
“We have a chance to be competitive in a way that other resorts in the area can’t,” she said. “We can offer discounts and packages that others can’t to attract people into the gaming facilities,” reducing dependency on making the revenue off the accommodations.
“Although we do make money on the rooms, we don’t have to as other properties do. Those two amenities have given us a great opportunity to be more creative in what we offer our guests.”
Looking ahead, Amburg recently launched an employee development and succession plan.
Approximately 59 percent of the employee base at Sol Casinos comes from the tribe – which she notes is higher than in other tribal gaming enterprises – but not high enough for her. She’d like to see that number be 60 percent or greater.
She recently launched two development programs, one to give tribal supervisors and managers training for the next opportunity that becomes available. That program is being run by Rogelio “Roy” Valencia, director of tribal development. The second Amburg herself is spearheading specifically for managers and directors. It is an 18-month program designed to prepare these individuals for an executive management position.
“We have incredible stories of employees who have started out as servers or in other entry jobs and just blossomed through the right management and opportunities. I want to develop more supervisors, managers and leaders for the organization.”