Home Leading in the Footsteps of Tradition: An Interview With Lynn Malerba

Leading in the Footsteps of Tradition: An Interview With Lynn Malerba

As the first elected tribal council chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut, Lynn Malerba is leading her people during the most tumultuous and challenging economy since the tribe was federally recognized some 16 years ago. I met with Lynn over lunch in February at Todd English’s Tuscany restaurant at Mohegan Sun to talk with her about her October election, her feelings about being the first woman to lead Mohegan’s tribal council, and her plans for the tribe and their enterprises.

The Mohegan Tribe received formal recognition from the federal government in March 1994. Recognition occurred 300 to 500 years after the Mohegan Tribe, as it is known today, was actually formed. According to their literature, the tribe’s residency in the region dates back to Creation, which to this and many other Native American tribes, occurred about 10,000 years ago. It is the Mohegan Tribe’s belief that Creation occurred on the back of a turtle known as Grandfather Turtle. Each of the 13 sections of the turtle’s back represents one full face of the moon, which marks the natural cycle of one calendar year. The number 13 is present again and again in the Mohegan culture, and it is also present in the architecture of their flagship property, the Mohegan Sun, in their spiritual activities, and in Chairwoman Malerba’s goals for the tribe’s future.

Growing Up Mohegan
Born Marilynn “Lynn” Roberge, Malerba is no stranger to the communities surrounding the Mohegan reservation, the state or the federal government, for that matter. She grew up on Mohegan Hill, an area not far from the home that she occupies today with her husband of 29 years, Paul Malerba. She is the mother of two grown daughters, Elizabeth and Angela, and like most mothers, she is more proud of their accomplishments than she is of her own. Malerba’s maternal grandfather was the tribal chief in the 1930s and 1940s, and her family has been entrenched in tribal service ever since she can remember. Malerba’s mother served on the tribal council, as did her sister. The tribal museum, which according to Malerba is the oldest tribally owned and operated museum in the country, is filled with artifacts from her parents and grandparents. Even her father’s bow and arrow is one of the treasured displays. The climate-controlled environment and electronically catalogued artifacts make the museum on par with the country’s best.

Growing up, Malerba attended first grade at Mohegan School, a school that was not tribally owned but was named as such because of its proximity to the reservation and the number of tribal children in attendance. According to Malerba, “In the 1970s, the school administration decided that they would attempt to bus all of the Indian children miles away from Mohegan School to ensure racial diversity.” A parent committee was formed that successfully blocked that attempt. To Malerba, the potential bussing was simply confirmation that others viewed the Mohegan children as unique and special, an affirmation with which she agreed. After all, her grandfather had been the tribal chief, and respect and awe of her heritage had been ingrained in her upbringing.

On the topic of school, the chairwoman was very proud to share with me the tribe’s philosophy on education. “We have been given a wonderful opportunity to be able to support the educational ambitions of our tribal members through the revenues that result from our resort developments,” she said. “We fully fund college degree programs for our tribal members and also support their employment goals through internships at the resorts that we make available to our tribal college students. Our members get the hands-on training that they need and want, and many have been successful in securing successful and impressive careers outside of our tribally-owned businesses.”

Following the Tradition
The Mohegan’s tribal chairwoman—again, it is chairwoman, not chairman or chairperson—credits her mother, Loretta Roberge, with instilling in her a deep sense of pride in her heritage, as well as the desire to serve her people. Besides being a tribal “Nonner,” which means an experienced woman of respect and admiration, Malerba’s mother participated in the tribe’s 1994 successful petition for federal recognition. “It was a very exciting time for us,” commented Malerba, “and the fact that strong women pushed to win our federal recognition taught all of us the power that could result from their direction and leadership.”

This same confidence and pride is embodied in the attitudes of the general Mohegan population. “We are one of the few tribes to say it’s OK to have our local high school students call themselves Indians,” Malerba said. “After all, we are Indians, and we were at the school too.”

Long before the tribe’s October election was confirmed, Malerba had been a dedicated servant to the tribe. From 1997 until 2005, she was employed as director, then executive director of the tribe’s health and human services department. Her qualifications to hold these roles stemmed from her education as a registered nurse and her work experience, which also included an executive role in the cardiac and pulmonary intensive care units of Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in southeastern Connecticut. “All my life I wanted to be a nurse. It was something that I had really planned for,” Malerba said. “But in 1997, when the tribe asked me to become the director of our health and human services department, I had to put aside my plans and let my heart speak. I knew that it was telling me that the right decision for me and for the tribe was to accept the position. So I did.”

As we talked about the circumstances surrounding her October 2009 decision to accept the lead role in the Mohegan tribal council, Malerba lamented that it was the most challenging operating environment that most U.S., as well as global, companies had navigated through in recent years. “I was, of course, very honored to be selected by the people and then asked by council to serve as chair. I was also quite cognizant that I would be the tribe’s first chairwoman,” Malerba said. “This is a very coveted position, but at the same time, I knew that I was going to be taking the helm during the worst recession in history.”

“How smart of a decision is that?” she joked.

I asked if she felt that she was ready for the challenge, and Malerba responded: “I was ready. As a critical care nurse you have to be ready for anything. That’s my training, and I was ready to be a force in our government.”

In addition to her education in health care, Malerba also holds a master’s degree in public policy, which further supported her political ambitions. “I had served on council as vice chairwoman, so I was confident that I could do the job,” she noted. “Most importantly, I felt accepted by the people and that this was something that they were asking me to do.”

Plans for the Tribe

Lynn Malerba sits with Mitchell Etess, CEO of the Mogean Sun
When talking about her platform as tribal chairwoman, Malerba becomes even more passionate. She has three primary goals for her tenure: protect tribal culture, repurchase tribal grounds and retire debt. Protecting Mohegan culture, which includes many initiatives, also involves restoring their native language. Along the way, many tribal parents had stopped teaching the Mohegan language to their children for fear of retribution from local schoolteachers. Because of this, fluency in the language diminished until only 600 spoken words remained. “We are working with a linguist to restore our language,” Malerba said. “The last time it was spoken fluently was in the early 20th century.”

Another robust example of protecting tribal culture is resident in the Tantaquidgeon Museum. “Our museum,” Malerba noted, “is finally of a high enough quality that it will protect our artifacts for generations to come.”

In everything that she does, Malerba wants to ensure that “13 generations back and 13 generations into the future, the Mohegan culture, way and quality of life is protected.” She and the tribe know that they are fortunate to have Mohegan Sun and the revenues that result from it. “When we settled this land so long ago, we knew that it was good land and that it supported our fishing and hunting well,” she said. “Who knew that it would continue to be such great land and support us as it does now through the resort?”

The second of Malerba’s primary goals is the repurchase of tribal lands. “We’ve been very active in the repurchase of our tribal land, which at one point was reduced to an eighth of an acre” she commented. “We now have about 400 acres, and according to our land claim settlement with the state of Connecticut, we can acquire up to 700 acres to be taken into trust for us.”

The land under the Mohegan’s museum and church are both now held in trust. “We’ve worked very hard to reclaim and restore our land,” Malerba noted, “and we are very careful in the process of restoration not to disturb the land any further.”

With respect to her third goal—retire debt—Malerba can see the light at the end of the tunnel. “Like most tribes,” she said, “we entered into development agreements with long-term debt attached. I’m proud to say that it’s being methodically reduced each year, and while we still have a way to go, we will continue to nick away at it.”

The Mohegan Sun Product
Mohegan Sun, the flagship of the tribe’s two current gaming properties, was completed in 1996 at a construction cost of $270 million. Since then, the tribe added more than $1 billion in additions and renovations and increased the property footprint to more than 3.1 million square feet. Mohegan Sun has more than 8,000 employees, and the $250 million in goods and services that it purchases locally each year support approximately 1,500 other businesses in Connecticut. The resort, as it stands today, boasts three separate casinos within the superstructure: Casino of the Wind, Casino of the Earth and Casino of the Sky. But amazingly, it is not only the sheer size of the resort that brings awe. It is also the delightfully fresh, invigorating and original architecture and finishes that makes visitors aware that they have entered a unique and structurally meaningful destination. “There is symbolism of the Mohegan culture embodied in every area of the resort,” Malerba explained. “The birch bark seen in the resort walls gives the impression of the wigwam and the long house, which were room dwellings used by our ancestors.”

She continued, “We believe that water is the source of all life, so you’ll also see that water is integrated throughout Mohegan Sun and represents a major design component.”

Mohegan Sun is not only one of the most successful casino resorts in the country, but its retail component is both grand in scale and wide ranging in terms of products and pricing models. “The average retailer at Mohegan Sun is typically the busiest in their retail chain,” Malerba said, adding that “our arena features amazing performances from the likes of Kid Rock to Tony Bennett.”

The Mohegan Sun Arena, which was named fourth best venue of its size in the world by Billboard Magazine in its 2009 year-end rankings, also ranked fifth best venue over the past decade. According to Malerba, the arena is also the fourth busiest arena in the United States and the sixth busiest in the world. The dining options at the resort run the gambit from fast food to fine dining, and I counted at least 39 venues during my stay at the resort, including well-known brands such as Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Bobby Flay’s Bar American and three Michael Jordan outposts. “The structure of our food outlets represents a combination of licensed, owned and leased operations,” Malerba noted, “which so far has worked quite well for us.”

The tribe’s first venture away from reservation lands is the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, the tribe’s racino located in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., headed by President and CEO Robert Soper, a Mohegan tribal member. “We funded that development through a combination of cash flow from operations, a bank credit facility and some publically traded debt,” Malerba explained.

According to her, tribal council and the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority (MTGA) management team have clear evidence that Pocono Downs has expanded the awareness of their brand, resulting in positive repercussions at Pocono Downs that are felt all the way to Mohegan Sun. “We recognize that Pocono Downs is an asset to our brand and our image, and to enhance that product, we are in planning discussions regarding a hotel,” Malerba said. “We were also recently granted regulatory approval to offer table games at Pocono Downs, and we believe this development will make for a very exciting addition to our product offering.”

As expected, Malerba credits her MTGA management team for many of the profitable decisions that have been made for the tribe’s enterprises over the years. “The tribe hired the management for MTGA—Mitchell Etess is the chief executive officer, Jeff Hartmann is chief operating officer, and Leo Chupaska is chief financial officer,” she said. “Each of these men have done a wonderful job at building relationships with the tribe and bringing relationships to the tribe that enhance and support our vision. In this position, it’s my job to be the face of the Mohegan people and represent the tribe to our customers, employees, the neighboring communities, the state and federal governments, Wall Street, and the world. I have a vision for the tribe, and MTGA works collaboratively with me and tribal council to support that vision through our enterprises.”

She continued: “Sometimes individuals, entrepreneurs, even employees, will reach out directly to me because they have an idea or a concept for a product or for a change in one of our existing products. If the idea has merit then it’s discussed further. But more often it’s our MTGA executive team that identifies or develops an opportunity, and then they devise and present a plan to me based on their analysis of the opportunity. Our executive team has a strong relationship with the tribe, and we have great respect for the work that they do on our behalf.”

I was curious to hear Malerba’s perspective on future developments for Pocono Downs and Mohegan Sun, as well as any other project on the horizon. “First, we are very pleased that our expansion plans at Pocono Downs are well under way,” she shared. “When table games are added and the hotel is complete, the property will be even more competitive in the marketplace. Regarding the hotel, we want to be smart in the way that we pay for it.”

Thinking about Mohegan Sun, I wondered if, given the significant expansions that have already occurred at the resort over the years, the tribe finally viewed the property as complete. “The master plan for Mohegan Sun includes some exciting components,” Malerba noted, “and when the time is right to announce those inclusive plans, we think that people will be pretty amazed at what we’ve come up with. While it’s hard to imagine, Mohegan Sun will simply be even more amazing than it is today.”

Beyond their two existing properties, the tribe has announced other projects, which include their intentions to develop a property in western Massachusetts, Mohegan Sun Palmer, if gaming is legalized in the commonwealth. This resort is expected to include a hotel and spa, a casino with slots and table games, and retail, entertainment and meeting space. Other opportunities, according to Malerba, include potential deals where the MTGA will serve as the management company for two separate tribes that want to venture into gaming. “The progress on these two management agreements is stalled right now at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA),” Malerba noted, “but we are very hopeful that eventually we will be able to help these tribes out.”

The chairwoman confirms her confidence in the abilities and expertise of her management team. “We know how to manage a casino,” she said. “We’re very good at it, and we recognize the opportunity that a management agreement would provide to us.”

Lessons Learned
As our interview concluded, Malerba shared her views and impressions about the difficult financial situations that other tribes have found themselves in as of late due to the recession. “It has been a very challenging year for many tribes across the country,” she said. “These are difficult times, and we want all tribes to succeed, near and far. In Connecticut there are two gaming tribes, and we want both of us to be successful. We are tribal cousins, and we live nearby. Each year Mohegan Sun remits 25 percent of our slot revenues to the state of Connecticut and we voluntarily support our local communities. If one tribe fails, it would be devastating to our region. Our neighbors, our communities and our states depend on us, and we have responsibilities to them. It’s unfortunate when a tribe find themselves in a financially compromising position, which is why it is so important to develop trust-based relationships with your financial partners. These relationships are of critical importance to our success, and in times of trouble, we want to make sure that relationships are on our side.”

Finally, I asked Malerba to share her thoughts with respect to those tribes that are still hoping to enter the gaming arena. She commented: “Number one, you need to know your capabilities. When you know them, trust them. Most people know what’s right—and what’s right is in their hearts. They should trust in that voice that comes from within. Don’t do something that goes against that voice. Next, it’s important for tribes new to gaming to know some of the statistics. An important one is that just 25 percent of gaming tribes create 75 percent of tribal gaming revenues. Gaming is not a panacea. It does work, but you need the right location, the right management team, and you need to be smart about how you structure your project. Just as it’s important to learn about the potential opportunities that gaming can provide, each tribe also needs to explore the hidden assets that they have.”

Malerba would encourage a tribe in the West, for example, to consider wind and sun as business opportunities, not just gaming. “There are many opportunities for tribes to be successful. My message to these tribes is that each needs to look within to uncover those assets that can support their tribal vision.”

Before we said goodbye, Malerba provided yet another glimpse into the reality of her life as tribal chairwoman. She told me she would be racing to yet another meeting, one already pushed back due to the length of our conversation. And then, hopefully, before it was too late, she would pick up a birthday present for a family member at one of the resort’s retail stores. Malerba was booked back-to-back-to-back with tribal council and management meetings, yet her energy did not wane. “I have to get going,” she noted as she packed up. “After all, I’m carrying on our tradition.”

Author’s Note
On the morning of March 4, 2010, less than two weeks after my interview with Malerba, the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut announced that their seven-member Council of Elders had appointed her as their tribal chief—a role that had not been occupied by a woman in more than 300 years. According to Malerba, she did not know that she was being considered for the position, which is a lifetime appointment. Malerba compares her tribal chairwoman role to that of tribal chief as such: “As chairwoman, I am responsible for the entire tribe. As chief, I also have that responsibility, and in addition, I am the representative for the entire tribal family, providing continuity and stability, linking past, present and future. It’s an incredible honor and responsibility.”

To accept this appointment, Malerba will resign her position as tribal chairwoman in August 2010 due to a rule adopted by the Council of Elders that excludes the tribal chief from holding an elected office. The tribe will hold a special election to fill the council seat left vacant by Malerba, and once filled, tribal council will elect a new chair.

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