Dan Savage, The Black Diamond Executive

Behind the shaded plastic lenses of his Oakley ski goggles, Dan Savage’s cool blue eyes stare intently at the 12,000-foot peak below him. The constant thrust of the 205/212 helicopter’s rotor blades melodically follows the allegro beat of his heart. As the helicopter descends toward the peak, Savage adjusts his gear pack and secures his parabolic K2 skis. Poles gripped tightly in hand, he is ready to make the jump into the steep, soft, white triple-black-diamond menace below.

Savage is an extreme skier, with heli skiing as his passion. It is in his blood, in his DNA. And if he wasn’t currently the vice president of marketing for Bally Technologies, he would likely be a helicopter ski guide in the Canadian Bugaboos instead of a paying customer. There are many things in Savage’s life that some would call extreme, and not just his taste for high altitudes and cold weather. Take, for example, his transition from living in one of the coldest, snowiest places on the continent—Minnesota—where he worked for the widely diversified company 3M to his new home in the middle of a scorching hot desert destination city, Las Vegas. While each location is the extreme opposite of the other, Savage doesn’t flinch at the changes. Instead, like a true leader, he quickly adapts and focuses on the positive.

I met with Savage during the National Indian Gaming Association’s annual tradeshow and conference this past April in Phoenix to learn more about his transition from the large, publicly traded company 3M to the relatively smaller environment at Bally, how his true passion in life—extreme skiing—has helped shape many of his unique insights about gaming, and what he hopes our industry can accomplish in the near future.

CR: When you accepted your position as vice president of marketing for Bally last year, you left a diversified Fortune 100 company—3M—and jumped to a relatively smaller industry-specific company. Tell me about your past professional experiences at 3M and how they’ve helped you prepare for your work with Bally.

Dan Savage: I’ve been in the high-tech industry most of my professional career. Whether it was in biomedical, where I first started, or with Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., or with 3M in St. Paul, Minn., a whole world of innovation opened up. I chose high-tech because I’m an early adopter of technology. I love gadgets, and Bally is all about technology. Currently my role is to lead the corporate marketing and the marketing team. I’ve had a lot of junior and middle manager roles in marketing, so I can understand the people who work for me and what they do on a day-to-day basis. I think because I come from that background, it helps me in my current role and it’s in my DNA.

I’ve also had the opportunity to learn and mentor from some of the best in two world-class Fortune 100 companies (3M and Kodak), and I bring that experience to the Bally team. What I experienced with 3M and Kodak was five times more valuable than my university experiences; they are real businesses with real processes and real results. Taking those experiences from multi-billion dollar companies to a company like Bally, which is a billion-dollar company, gives me a different perspective. Most of the people working here have never seen what $20 billion companies do and what they’re like. There are stages that these huge companies go through, and there are breaking points all along the way. If you experience it in a big company, you can see the obstacles and challenges ahead for smaller companies and identify the failure modes earlier and be of more value in the process.

I think bringing that background to Bally is huge for me. Fresh eyes and new blood is usually a good thing for the industry, and I thank Bally for welcoming it. I can typically see the finish line clearer because I’ve had the experience of seeing other people do it, and I’ve been on the teams that have accomplished it. I think that really helps me be a better leader in marketing, and I think my experience at 3M has helped hone my business management and profit-loss skills.

CR: Speaking of 3M, can you tell us what it was like working for the mother of the Post-it® note and why you decided to leave?

DS: At 3M, if you’re at the corporate office—which I was in Minnesota—and if you’re good at what you do, every couple years you earn a new and usually different assignment. I was in Minnesota for six years and had three different jobs. 3M provides its employees with incredible training, great, talented people to work with, and then if you’re any good, it will take you from one division and put you in a totally different one. That way they can judge if you have the generic skills across many industries and leadership challenges. It takes a different skill set and strategy to lead a startup business versus a business where you’re the market leader.

We moved to Minnesota, and we were there for seven years. I spent five great years in the touchscreen division under an acquisition. From touch, I was promoted to a two-year Master Black Belt assignment in Six Sigma, which was in a totally unrelated industry—consumer goods. It had to do with everything from household cleaning materials to window films on cars and buildings that reduce the effect of the sun. My next move with 3M after my Six Sigma assignment was likely international, and my family and I had been through enough re-locations at that point and wanted to get closer to home. I’ve learned how important it is to know when the life balance thing works and when it doesn’t. We decided it wasn’t the right thing to move internationally; we wanted to get back to the west coast, and a good opportunity came up at Bally with professionals I knew and trusted based on past experiences.

CR: So how exactly did your job offer at Bally come up?

DS: Bally was actually one of my biggest customers when I worked in touch at 3M. I knew all of the major gaming equipment manufacturers and spent a lot of time on the back end as a supplier. In fact, one the biggest professional achievements I’ve had was working with an amazing team at 3M to achieve more than 90 percent market share for 3M’s touch products in the gaming industry. I had the privilege of being the business manager and leading 3M’s gaming team for five years. Coming back to the gaming industry was like an old hat—it was an easy fit and I missed it.

Gavin Isaacs, our COO, actually recruited me. I met him when he was the president of Aristocrat Americas. It’s a small industry—everybody’s worked for all our competitors. It’s a little bit different from what I’m used to, but the people are great, relationships are strong, and credibility is huge. If you screw up in this industry, everyone knows it and your reputation is dead. I’ve learned that recruiting from outside the industry is difficult, and we value different professional experiences as long as they bring value to the table.

CR: Coming back to the gaming space after a few years away as well as in a different capacity, do you look at it differently now?

DS: Definitely. I think the whole industry needs to evolve at a faster pace. We follow technology, but we can’t implement it as fast. We’ve got touch technology on screens but not on button decks. We need to intuitively develop games that take advantage of gestures that could be used on touch. Gaming is far behind many industries in many ways, but we have compliance, regulations and a lot of different restrictions, so it’s challenging. But regardless if you believe it or not, many technologies already adopted by the more commercial industries are very compelling and will eventually end up in gaming.

I also believe many more people would gamble and have fun if they weren’t as intimidated by it. I get worried about the young kids—Generations X and Y—and frankly, I think some of our competition and opportunity is the skill-based games that my kids play on the Xbox, Playstation 3 and the Wii. The random number generator is not as a compelling experience as skilled-based games. We have all the game platforms at my house and I play Playstation3, but when I walk into a casino right after that, I don’t get anywhere near that same adrenaline rush. Your heartbeat isn’t going to elevate, you’re not going to get as excited or as stressed out as you do with other gaming devices. We need to get closer to these types of experiences and our customers of tomorrow will expect it. At Bally, we’re trying to open up a new skill-based experience and trying to attract new players to the industry. We’re going to do this.

CR: Like with Bally’s Pong and Breakout games?

DS: We’ve developed Pong and Breakout as a good entry into skill-based gaming in a difficult Class III environment that requires compliance (compliance before commerce, we always say at Bally). We’re the leaders in this category. Forget about the titles, what we’re trying to do is bring a skill-based game into a regulated industry and attract newer, younger demographics, which is good for the industry as a whole. Continuously hitting the “bet” button for the Generation Y player is not going to do it long term. You’ll continue to get some players, but you won’t expand the market.

We think that building skill-based games is critical to expanding the industry, but we need to walk before we run and get some commercial success behind us along the way. We’re also going after community gaming, making it more social to make the demographics who are more interested in gambling much broader for the whole industry.

I think we, as an industry, also have a big role to play in making gambling less intimidating and more appealing for new players. I think if you go into any casino on any given day, you’re going to see a spouse—or a significant other—standing beside or behind the person who’s gambling. They’re our future gamblers, and today they are typically standing behind the chair watching the spouse gamble, and they’re not enjoying it. They’re not experiencing it. If we can ease the inexperienced into it, we could expand the amount of gamblers that are out there in a good, safe way.

CR: Do you think the casinos themselves and the dealers have a role to play in that?

DS: Absolutely. You find blackjack dealers with empty tables just waiting for people to play—it’s an intimidating type of behavior. I think some people feel like they’re not counting enough, or that if they sit down at a table they might screw up the guy’s hand next to them.

CR: Do you have any ideas about what might make players less intimidated?

DS: It would be interesting to see what would happen if table games became rated as they do for ski slopes, where you’ve got green runs (beginners/easiest), blue runs (intermediate), black diamond runs (difficult/advanced) and double black diamond runs (expert). I think we should have green poker tables and double black diamond poker tables. If we rated them, it would be like sending a message to the double black diamond players, don’t sit at a green table because you’re not going to enjoy it. And for the beginners, a green table would indicate it’s a safe place to sit without feeling stupid, which would allow them to have fun and learn at the same time without feeling intimidated. If we could bring the green tables down to $2, $1, or even a quarter, we could ease them into the game. Once they’ve mastered that, they can then move on to the blue tables. If I started skiing on the double black diamonds, I likely would have quit skiing a long time ago.

CR: What are your hopes for the future of the gaming industry?

DS: I would like to strengthen its appeal to people who don’t play today. Demographically, we have to expand the number of people we attract to the industry. We have to get the person who’s standing behind the chair watching their spouse play, to play. We have to get the young kids to play because they’re going to be gambling on the Internet down the road. This whole server-based thing is important because when I slide my player’s card in, I want the casino to know it’s me. I want them to know what I like to drink, what games I want to play and what sport events I want on the screen. Instead of having to go to this area of the floor to play my favorite game, I want to go to one product, slide my card in and have my favorite games come to me. It should be as personalized as you would personalize your desktop or your TV. I want the casino to remember my favorite TV channels and I don’t want to be bothered with the others. The technology’s all there; we just have to get it going.

I’d also like to help inexperienced gamblers feel more comfortable. I think we, as an industry, really need to identify games better. Right now people walk in and sit down, and they don’t know what they’re going to get until they put their money in. Then either they like it or they don’t. And if they don’t, they might walk away and maybe never play that game again or never go into another casino. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by letting this happen. Let’s go back to the skiing analogy. If we highlight the green games that are low volatility and highlight the double black diamonds games that are high volatility, they’ll know which one to sit at depending on their level of expertise. If we identify those better on the casino floor, people will have better experiences and better expectations when they walk in and out. It’s that consistent repetitive experience. No mystery, no surprises.

When you experience successes, you can get complacent. I believe the more competitive it gets between manufacturers, the healthier the industry will be and the better experience it will be for the player. It forces everyone to raise the bar. We need to catch the next demographic wave. Our players today are of the older generation. How do we attract new players? How do you diversify your portfolio? That’s the stuff we’re working on. That’s the stuff we’re going to change.

Little-known Facts about Dan Savage

  • Savage’s favorite casino games are roulette and craps. “I don’t do it for the money, obviously. It’s the social aspect of the games that I enjoy. Plus it’s a great stress reliever.”
  • When not doting on his wife of 14 years or his two children, Savage’s true passion in life is heli-skiing (helicopter skiing). “At least once a year, I’ll do the selfish thing and treat myself to a trip to Whistler or the Bugaboos.”
  • His first full-time job was as a restaurant bus boy. “I worked my way up and eventually became a manager. I really liked being in front of different clients. You had to treat each table differently. I really liked that people experience.”
  • Although he wasn’t the first to implement Six Sigma processes at Bally, Savage brings his Master Black Belt training to the table in every way he can. “Doug Mack has been using lean Six Sigma manufacturing at Bally for years. When I came on board, we collaborated a lot and have taken what we’ve done in manufacturing using that process and are applying it to other areas. I’m a champion of that in marketing. I’m a champion of that in sales and across strategic planning.” 
  • Savage is a Canadian born and bred. “Our whole family is Canadian. We’re not American passport holders. We’ll probably end up retiring in Victoria or the interior of British Columbia.”
  • Although life has been a blessing for Savage, he has experienced some major challenges, namely having to relocate, a lot. “When you do it the first time, you think you have open eyes, but you don’t. Every time I do it, it gets tougher; but I don’t regret any moves I’ve made. I’ve never looked back even though they have all been extremely tough challenges.”
  • When it comes to his greatest accomplishment, Savage places personal success above professional success. “I’ve been married 14 years and have a 10-year-old and an 8-year old. Just seeing my children and my marriage evolve is amazing.”

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