Gaming Laboratories International: Always at Work

At any given time, somewhere in the world a Gaming Laboratories International employee is at work testing or certifying a new technology, responding to a regulator or supplier’s question, or sending out an urgent letter. This July marks GLI’s 20th anniversary, and the independent gaming-equipment test lab has come a long way—along with the rest of the industry—in the past two decades. What started as a two-person lab in a small office in New Jersey has grown into a company with more than 500 employees operating 13 test labs on six continents—with someone, somewhere always busy working for you.

Test Lab Trailblazers
Back in 1987, GLI president and co-founder James Maida worked in one of the only two testing labs in the country. “In the late ’80s, gaming devices and systems weren’t tested in a federal way, and working at the New Jersey lab, I wondered how states were going to approach testing and the certification of gaming equipment as the market expanded,” Maida recalled. “In 1987, the only states that allowed casino gaming were Nevada and New Jersey, and each had its own lab.”

Maida soon realized that with the inevitable expansion of casino gaming, there would soon be a need for more testing labs, prompting him to form JRM Enterprises with the intentions of creating his own lab. “I realized back in 1987 how counterproductive it would be for every state and every entity that regulated gaming to have its own testing lab, mostly because it would require everybody to send one machine to every place, and suppliers would have to deal with 300 test labs rather than a single one,” he explained. “During my time at the New Jersey lab, I got to know a gentleman by the name of Paul Magno (later GLI’s co-founder and VP), who also worked in the lab, and we thought that we could bring it together as one.”

Though the idea’s simplicity seems to belie its genius today, at the time, it was a novel concept; there were no independent labs anywhere in the world. But as gaming expanded, it became evident that new state gaming jurisdictions didn’t understand how slot machines worked—and needed answers fast. That’s when Maida and Magno knew they were onto something big. By July 1989, Gaming Laboratories International was officially incorporated. Its first client was the state of South Dakota, which hired GLI to work on its video lottery. According to Maida, this led to work in Deadwood, the state of Louisiana’s electronic bingo operations, and then the Minnesota tribes—all in the course of about 10 months. In a stroke of serendipity for the up-and-coming new company, states turned to gaming to raise revenue during the ’90–’91 recession. By 1995, riverboat gaming was legalized in Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi and elsewhere; and video lotteries throughout Canada, West Virginia and Oregon were coming online. GLI was the go-to lab for testing and approval.

And the expansion didn’t stop there. With the passing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988, new tribal casinos were popping up across the county, too. “Pretty much right after we founded GLI, we saw gaming expand from two or three jurisdictions to about a hundred,” Maida said.

Setting the Global Standard
In 1994, GLI was asked to come to Australia as the country moved from government test labs to a more nationalized system, and soon thereafter it expanded to South Africa, another jurisdiction where gaming was exploding. “We were one of the first American companies to go into South Africa after apartheid,” Maida noted. “We worked very closely with the new government and the new gaming commissioner to bring the American way to South Africa’s gaming regulation. Today, South Africa is run very well, and I think it’s a reflection of the work they did plus our testing.”

By 1998, GLI had entered the European market with headquarters in the Netherlands, and in 2002 expanded its European reach by opening Italian and Austrian offices. Next, it set its sights on Asia, and opened an office there in 2004. And Maida is proud to report that each of GLI’s international offices is much more than just a phone operator and some empty rooms. “We don’t just open an office where we have somebody answering phones—in this day and age you can say you have an office anywhere, and people do—our offices are really labs,” he said. “We are committed to each government in which our full-blown working labs operate. Today we have three working labs in Australia. We have one in Argentina, we have one in Mexico, we have three in the United States, we have three in Europe—that’s 11. One in South Africa is 12, and Macau, 13.”

In each of these 13 locations, GLI employs real live staff, real live testing and real live certification; each is a real live independent testing lab established to meet real live needs. “We locate our labs where there is a real need from regulators and also factor in where it will be convenient for suppliers to bring us equipment,” Magno explained. In other words, GLI is far from willy-nilly in its decisions to expand into yet another corner of the globe—and far from taking its expansions for granted, whether it’s a just-opened jurisdiction or the ever-evolving casino landscape.

“The world-wide growth of the gaming industry has surprised me over the last 20 years,” Magno said. “We always expected it to grow, but it now encompasses so many more areas and jurisdictions than I would have ever expected. And really, it’s transformed into a whole entertainment package with concerts, retail shopping, clubs, restaurants and more.”

The Right Stuff
Of course, such rapid expansion doesn’t come without some growing pains, and Maida admits that it has been a challenge to learn new skills over the years—though he is quick to ask “Who doesn’t like a good challenge?” Personally, he says that many of his own challenges have come though his evolving role in the company. “When you start out as an entrepreneur, it’s much easier to delegate tasks and handle the flow of business,” he explained. “But as you get larger, your entrepreneurial skills have to shift into managerial skills … I’ve had to grow. I’ve had to rely on people. I’ve had to delegate.”

One of Magno’s biggest challenges over the last 20 years, meanwhile, has been in the HR department. “Because we want only the best people working for us and our clients, it’s been a challenge to hire the right personnel to keep up with the technology, the rules and the work demand,” Magno said. “And that challenge has expanded around the world as we have grown.”

To meet that challenge, GLI handpicks recruits from four-year technical schools, job fairs and technology companies, as well as networks within the industry. The company also has an extensive in-house training program and employs an internal system to maintain testing integrity. And while it might be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, the due diligence GLI takes with hiring and training its employees is part of the reason it is the only independent testing lab to hold both U.S. and international accreditation for compliance with ISO 17025 and 17020 standards for competence in testing and inspecting. Engineers are assessed every six months, their quality of work is constantly evaluated, and they have milestones to reach for advancement. “It’s a very organized and structured environment,” Magno said.

But just because GLI takes an organized and structured stance on its HR functions, it doesn’t mean there’s no love. “We care about the bottom line, but we’re not so focused on it that we don’t see the value in each employee we have,” Maida said. “We encourage our employees to help each other and learn from each other. We all share in successes and we all share when it’s not so successful. There’s bonuses when we do well, and when we don’t do well, there aren’t. Loyalty and dedication is key.”

With turnover at less than 10 percent, it’s obvious that most GLI employees are extremely loyal and unwaveringly dedicated.  “We’re very quiet and we’re very structured,” said Maida. “We’re very lean. We try to get up every day and make the right decisions. We never cut corners, because if we did we wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”

Testing You Can Trust
Looking back on the last 20 years of his professional career, what resonates deepest with Maida is how much customers trust in the integrity of GLI standards. “When I look back, I’m extremely proud that people trust GLI,” he said. “Suppliers and regulators know they get exactly what they need from us.”
In fact, in many cases GLI even provides more than what its customers expect. When operators, suppliers and regulators all needed a place to test the plug-and-play capabilities of equipment, GLI was the first to make it happen, opening the GLI Interoperability Center. When regulators needed a signature verification device that could handle certain new technologies, the company didn’t wait for Kobetron to develop it; instead, it engineered GLI Verify. And when GLI customers said, “I’d really like to know when my approval letter is coming so I can plan accordingly,” the company decided to send e-mail notifications as well as paper notices and added a special area to its website—GLI Access—that allows users to view reports online. Next came Point.Click.Transfer, which allows users to transfer approval letters to different jurisdiction with the touch of a mouse, saving customers thousands of dollars in shipping costs.

This insightful, proactive approach to the changing industry is just one of the many reasons GLI customers are some of the most loyal in the industry today, and GLI works to maintain this edge every day, in every way it can. “We have development teams run by Ian Hughes and Bill Treger that meet with customers, both suppliers and regulators, on a quarterly basis,” Maida said. “During those meetings we ask our customers a very simple question:  ‘I wish GLI would … (blank).’ And they tell us like it is.”

Every two weeks the GLI senior management team also hosts a conference call with Maida and Magno to discuss customer feedback. “We want to know what the customers are saying,” Maida explained. “We talk about their concerns, and we form a team to tackle their concerns.”

And even though GLI employs more than 500 people, Maida makes a point to make the “corporate barrier” as low as possible; one of his top priorities is to speak directly with GLI customers all over the world. “I have a lot of people on a daily basis from the industry that call me, and I enjoy taking those calls,” he said. “I think where I am now, I get the best of both worlds.”

Even GLI’s Senior Director of Worldwide Marketing Christie Eickelman can attest to that. “There’s not a moat around his office,” she said. “There’s a bridge.”

It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere
While GLI is not the same company it was five, 10 or even 20 years ago, many things still remain the same. You will still see James Maida chatting with those regulators from Minnesota and South Dakota he met 15 years ago at the NIGA show. You will still see the same dedication Paul Magno had 10 years ago when he hires a new engineer for a new location. Because at GLI, there has always been and will always be someone there with a friendly face to meet your needs, no matter what time of day, no matter where in the world. There is always someone at GLI at work for you—anniversary celebration or not. After all, as Maida said, “Twenty is a landmark—it’s a milestone. We’ll mark it down and it’s important; but we have a lot left to do in the space. We are always looking forward. We don’t look back.”

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