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Casino manager Ron Patel was recently voted Citizen of the Year by his peers – and is an example to everyone in the industry for good reason
Gaming often gets a bad name, particularly in the press, so it’s up to the members of that industry to prove doubters and critics wrong by example. Ron Patel, General Manager of the Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne County, in Northern California’s foothills, was voted by his peers their Citizen of the Year – and it’s not just good corporate responsibility practices, Ron goes a step further within his community to really engage with people and make a difference.
The casino Ron manages comprises three floors, with the 70,000 square-foot gaming floor in the middle. It boasts 1200 slots, 24 table games, an entertainment lounge, 24-hour specialty coffee bar, and 3 restaurants.
Unusually in a casino, the lower floor is the ‘family’ floor. In Native American culture, the family is a very important element, so the offering includes a 24-lane bowling centre, a sports bar and grill, a 70-machine amusement arcade and a fast food outlet.
The top floor is taken up with administration offices, surveillance, and a fine dining experience called “Seven Sisters”.
Casino International: Ron, how did you end up as General Manager of such an operation, and becoming the area’s Citizen of the Year?
Ron Patel: We all make plans, goals and objectives in our lives and what I’ve learned over the years is that’s although this is good to have. you also need to allow for the unplanned routes that we find ourselves on.
I started out in this business in 1973 when I first joined the Rank Organization with Top Rank Clubs, and thought at that time this would be my career; I’m destined to work with one company (as you did at that time) for the rest of my working days. However, after 15 years with Rank in the U.K., I decided that this was a little too narrow for me, and that I wanted to branch out. By the end of the eighties I had reached a senior executive position and Rank were looking to move overseas. They sent me to look at various countries, including Ireland, Denmark and North America. At that time we thought Canada was a place where casinos were about to start. It seemed a good idea to get a foothold in Canada ready for when casinos would take off there. So in 1989 I transferred with Rank to Canada to take up the position of President of their subsidiary company based in Toronto, together with my wife and two young children, who were five and nine at that time. We thought Canada was going to be our new home and we had no thoughts of moving to the U.S. at that time.
It turned out after a couple of years in Canada casinos weren’t going to happen there so Rank asked me to transfer back to the UK. As we had already made a big move and commitment to North America I wanted to look at other options before doing that. So looking over the border into the U.S., Native American Gaming was just about starting. I thought, this looked like a good opportunity and certainly very different to anything I’d done previously. It was a different environment. The U.S. was not in Rank’s plans at all, so I left them and joined a management company that was working with several Indian Tribes. For the first few years I worked with the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, and thereafter with Tribes in Washington, Arizona and California.
In late 2000 I got offered a position on a six-month contract to set up and open Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne County.This will have been the first resort project I have seen all the way from the beginning and hopefully to the end. We are now starting work on a 150 Room hotel and conference centre; there is a golf course in the plans, and within the next 5 years will be a full destination resort.
It’s been a great journey as I’ve learned a lot about the different cultures of Canada and North America, and certainly the Native American culture. I feel as though I am a good fit into this culture. We have moved on average every two to three years, but we’re coming up now to having lived 11 years here in California and we plan to retire here.
CI: How much of the casino’s community ethics are tribe-driven and how much comes from you?
RP: When I first started here one of the tribe’s goals (the tribe is The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians) was that they wanted the casino business to be part of the community. So part of my job, as well as establishing the casino and getting it up and running, was to make sure that the casino was very much a part of the local community. This was also a job where for the first time my wife and I had moved without our children, as they had left home and gone to college. Being here for a length of time allowed me to really get involved with the community, and I found that they were very family orientated and giving. Every week there’s a benefit, an event or a fundraiser for a family or an organisation in need. People are very caring. The casino peaked at 800 employees – or team members as we call them – so the tribe went suddenly from having only a handful of employees to being the largest employer in the county. This gave me the opportunity to get involved in a lot of local organisations, firstly the Chamber of Commerce of which I have been on the board for eight years. I’m also on the board of two local theatre companies. And I’ve been on boards and committees for different organisations like Meals on Wheels, Sierra Senior Services, the local Hospital Foundation Board, and Habitat for Humanity. My wife Anne, and I have been involved with many organizations. That’s been a very rewarding and fulfilling part of my job and it has helped me build a respect for the casino business as well for the success of the tribe.
CI: What do you think has been your most rewarding achievement as Manager of the Black Oak Casino?
RP: As co-chair of the major fundraiser for the County’s Meals-on-Wheels program for the last five years I think this has probably been the highlight as far as I am concerned of giving back to the community. Meals-on-Wheels were in danger of closing at one time so we put together a major fundraiser starting in 2006 which has now become one of the largest fund raisers in the county, involving over 50 volunteers and local businesses. Held at the local Railtown State Historic Park, we have raised a total of over $300,000 dollars in the past 5 years – that’s a real feel-good achievement. As a team of volunteers and local businesses everyone has helped to raise that money. I would consider this my greatest community achievement.
CI: What does the Citizen of the Year award mean to you?
RP: The award can be seen as recognition and also as a ‘thank you’ from the community. We’ve been welcomed here. In other places we have lived, we were never there for long enough to really get involved, but now we feel we are a good fit for this community. This feels like a pat on the back , acknowledging the efforts I have made and that it is appreciated.