On March 31, after 43 years in the gaming industry, Caesars Entertainment exec Steve Callender retired, seemingly with little prelude. But his exit wasn’t really that abrupt.
“My boss knew about this in November. It’s not as sudden as you think,” said Callender, former eastern regional president of Caesars Entertainment.
Still, the decision took some soul-searching. “My family sacrificed a lot for me,” Callender told GGB News. “My wife, Kathy, had wanted me to leave for a while.”
After undergoing back surgery in September, Callender knew it was time to devote himself to his family, including three children and six grandchildren who live in the Atlantic City area. He also wanted to go to more Phillies games and play more golf. “My wife is a golfer,” he said, “and we like to compete.” In retirement, the couple will also spend time at the vacation home they’ve owned for 15 years in Palm Bay, Florida.
From Day One
A resident of Brigantine, New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City, Callender grew up less than 60 miles away, in the town of Pennsauken. He graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and in 1978, became a day-one craps dealer at Atlantic City’s first casino—and the first U.S. casino outside Nevada—Resorts International.
“I had just graduated from college, and 10,000 people had applied for 500 jobs,” he said after his retirement was announced. “I was lucky enough to be selected, and they taught me how to deal. It was the first craps game I’d ever seen—and I was dealing it.”
That the gaming industry is a meritocracy can be proven by Callender’s career. He learned the business from the bottom up, and rose from dealer to vice president of casino operations at Resorts. “I worked for Merv Griffin at Resorts; that was fun,” he said. “It was also exciting to be at Bally’s Park Place when they bought Caesars.”
After a stint at the Atlantic City Hilton, he served as senior vice president of table operations at Bally’s, then returned to his old stomping grounds at Resorts, a post he held for another four years. He moved to Tropicana in 2010, after billionaire investor Carl Icahn picked up the bankrupt property for just $200 million, and was promoted to general manager in 2012. At the time, the Trop was at a low ebb.
“They were just out of bankruptcy. Morale was terrible. They were not performing. We turned these things around,” Callender said.
And how. By 2018, when Icahn sold Tropicana Entertainment to Eldorado Resorts, its assets including six casino properties were in “very good shape… top-notch assets.” said Union Gaming Research analyst John DeCree. Reuters described the Atlantic City Boardwalk property as Tropicana’s “crown jewel,” just behind market-leading Borgata in gaming revenue.
Callender guided the transition of Tropicana to Eldorado, and did it again in 2020, when Eldorado absorbed Caesars Entertainment. “Eldorado took it up to another level,” he said. “I went from a guy who ran one casino to running multiple casinos. It challenged me to do more.” He oversaw the introduction of online gaming in 2013, and sports betting in 2018, welcoming the first guests (l.) to the Tropicana’s 5,000-square-foot William Hill sportsbook. And of course, he presided over the property in 2020, with all its challenges.
Of Atlantic City’s nine casinos, only two reported an uptick in gaming revenues last year, Golden Nugget and Resorts, both on the strength of online operations. While Tropicana posted reduced revenues, Callender sounded a positive note. In January, in his role as president of the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ), he said he was confident business will be back. “It’s going to take a couple months … but there is incredible pent-up demand. Many of our older customers have gotten their shots and they’re coming back. People will continue to come.”
Now 66, Callender said he has no regrets about his career path, his decision to remain in Atlantic City, or his decision to call it a day. During his career, he had the opportunity to become a casino manager in Bettendorf, Iowa, but turned it down. He also turned down an offer to become a vice president at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “My roots are in South Jersey,” Callender said. “I was in the major leagues here.”
Without false modesty, Callender acknowledged that it isn’t easy to do what he did. “Most people don’t do it. I worked the floor. I’m in front of guests and team members. It’s a hard job.”
Still A Force
In retirement, he plans to stay active in the community, especially with the United Way and with the American Red Cross. He also sits on the boards of the Atlantic City Executive Council, Atlantic City Restart & Recovery and the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism. He’s the current president of the 200 Club of Atlantic & Cape May Counties, a non-profit that provides financial support for the families of first responders who die in the line of duty. Needless to add, Callender has a finger on the pulse of Atlantic City, and speaks to Mayor Marty Small Sr. frequently.
“People in Philadelphia and Baltimore know I have a lot of experience,” he said, “and they won’t hesitate to ask for advice.”
For the time being, Caesars Entertainment President and Chief Operating Officer Anthony Carano and Chief Marketing Officer Josh Jones will assume Callender’s duties, leading the general managers at Tropicana, Caesars and Harrah’s in Atlantic City, Horseshoe Baltimore and Harrah’s Philadelphia.
“Steve Callender is a true gaming trailblazer,” Carano said of the departing executive. “Not many of us can say we were there at the start of something and helped steer it into a powerhouse industry over a four-decades-long career. Steve’s passion for our business and its people made him a tremendous leader in both our company and the industry. Steve will be greatly missed. As this new direction leads him away from us at Caesars Entertainment, we thank him for his incredible commitment.”
Meanwhile, Callender reports that he enjoyed his first week of retirement.
“I got to spend Easter with my family,” he said.