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Dances With Roulette Tables

On a rainy day in the 1970s, Ray Halbritter, an ironworker and a member of the Oneida Indian Nation’s wolf …

On a rainy day in the 1970s, Ray Halbritter, an ironworker and a member of the Oneida Indian Nation’s wolf clan, was welding track for the Washington, DC, Metro when he had a sudden realization. “I looked at the guy next to me, who must have been in his 50s, but looked 80, and thought, ‘If I don’t do something different I’m going to be there someday,” recounts Halbritter, who decided then and there to head home to forge a new future for himself and his people.

At the time, Verona, NY-based Oneida Indian Nation was an impoverished Native American tribe, relegated to 32 acres of land and embroiled in a desperate battle to maintain its culture and regain ancestral territory. Tribal land claims had led to friction with surrounding communities, which sparked armed confrontations with local authorities. Halbritter soon assumed a pivotal role. In short order, he was acting as spokesperson for the tribe, guiding the Oneidas toward self sufficiency, and studying business and law.

In 1990, armed with degrees from Syracuse University and Harvard Law School, he was named CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises. Since then, the Oneidas have succeeded in reclaiming 4,000 acres of land and launching Turning Stone-New York State’s only casino and its fifth-largest tourist attraction-as well as continuing to operate sideline businesses in manufacturing, agriculture, retail/wholesale services, and Internet services.

The casino, which operates under a Supreme Court ruling that enables sovereign nations to determine their own regulatory requirements for gaming, is just the beginning, says Halbritter. Last September, Oneida Nation opened a 285-room, $50 million hotel. “You need amenities to attract high rollers and widen the area you draw people from,” he explains. “We’re building a championship golf course and plan to have a convention and showroom within a year. We’re thinking about developing a living Native American Village from the late 1700s. We’re trying to create a destination resort.”

Although hampered by a state law that prohibits the casino from having slot machines, as well as its own decision not to serve alcohol, Turning Stone is among the nation’s most successful casinos. It lured nearly 3 million visitors in 1997 and currently accounts for more than 80 percent of Oneida Nation revenues. “They’ve had phenomenal success,” says Jason Ader, a gambling industry analyst with Bear Stearns & Co., who estimates that the property pulls in an average of $75 to $100 per visitor for annual revenues topping $250 million. “Being the only player in the New York market gives them a tremendous competitive advantage, despite the fact that they don’t have slots.”

But Halbritter isn’t banking Oneida‘s future exclusively on gaming. “We want to prepare for a time when we might not have the advantages we enjoy now because of our sovereign status,” he says. “I’d like Oneida to become a diversified and stable business conglomerate, capable of surviving until the seventh generation.”

It’s a goal that neatly fits the balance Halbritter must achieve between following free market principles and adhering to ancient tribal values. “In our culture, we’re supposed to keep in mind the effect whatever decisions we make now will have on the seventh generation to the future,” he explains. “At the same time, I want to maximize revenue.” He is held accountable for meeting those twin objectives not by a board of directors and shareholders, but by clan representatives and some 1,000 nation members.

Reshaping Oneida into a profit center, he has had to stand firm on issues such as filling key posts with non-tribe members and dispersing profits. “We’re not going to give a position to a person because they’re native,” he asserts. “We’d be doing ourselves a disservice, and doing a disservice to our people and to the individual. Natives do get preference if they meet minimum qualifications for the job, but then they have to actually work or they get fired.”

It’s a stance that boosted the bottom line, but wreaked havoc for Halbritter politically. “This is not easy stuff to do,” he acknowledges. “But the rules have to be the same for everybody-my own son had to be fired.”

A self-described realist, Halbritter also had to weather criticism for his commitment to plow gaming profits into community programs and back into Oneida‘s business ventures rather than dole them out to tribe members. “We put a lot of money into education programs, into housing, but we’re not giving away anything for free,’ he adds.”That’s not easy to do when you have a large group of people who haven’t had much for very many years, but we have held the line and people are beginning to accept that philosophy.”

Is Halbritter a capitalist? “I’d say I’m a realist,” he shrugs. “We’re in the system; we’ve got to make it work.”


RAY HALBRITTER

Chief Executive

Oneida Indian Nation

Age: 47

Birthplace: Syracuse, NY

Family: Separated; three sons, Arthur Ray, III, Aaron, and Forrest; three daughters: Buffy, Taylor, and Awehoda. Education: BS, Business Administration, Syracuse University; JD, Harvard Law School.

Native name: Gaion Gilode, “an arrow standing.”

First Job: Dishwasher at $1.60 an hour. First Paycheck: $23.85

Golf Handicap: 15. “I work too hard to get any better.”

Car: 1995 Ford pick-up

Greatest influence: His mother. “Whenever I have a problem, I talk to her.”

About Jennifer Pellet

As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.