Coquille Casino’s First Tribal, Female CEO: ‘Be Bold, Fearless’

In April, Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe named Margaret Simpson (l.) CEO of the Mill Casino-Hotel near Coos Bay. The first female tribal member to hold the position, Simpson learned from the ground up—starting at age 14.

Coquille Casino’s First Tribal, Female CEO: ‘Be Bold, Fearless’

On April 9, Margaret Simpson became CEO of the Mill Casino-Hotel & RV Park near Coos Bay, Oregon—the first female tribal member of Oregon’s Coquille Indian Tribe to be named to the post.

When the appointment was announced, a board member said, “We didn’t give you this job—you earned it.”

It’s been a long time coming for Simpson, who made all the stops along the way. “My foundation was built at the Mill,” she told GGB News. “I started my career at the age of 14.

“Through high school, I worked in marketing, food and beverage and the hotel. I spent years working at my tribe’s health center, where I became intimately aware of the needs of my people. I interfaced, built relationships and worked with the many departments of the tribe as whole.”

In 2015, she returned to the casino as executive assistant to the general manager. “I was provided opportunities through stretch assignments that touched many areas of gaming operations, including launching the sports betting amenity,” Simpson recalls. “After a year, I became a part of the team that launched the Tribal Employment and Development Department.” She held that post for four years until 2021, when the board of directors promoted her to casino general manager.

Tribal members are increasingly assuming the top roles in their own corporations. In Simpson’s view, it’s a welcome trend, and “a crucial step in self-governance.”

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 was a start, giving tribes “the ability to offer gaming as a means of attaining self-sufficiency,” she said. “Tribal members in key roles throughout the gaming operation are another way to achieve that level of autonomy.

“Coupled with college education and externship partnership programs, this now allows our tribal development programs to flourish with practical, hands-on, experience up to and now including the CEO position.”

Leading In A Changed Industry

Last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, members of the Coquille Tribe responded to the crisis “as a team,” Simpson said.

They evaluated every internal and external facet of the gaming operation, “based on need, cost benefit, our commitment to exceptional service to our guests and safety,” according to Simpson. “We made tough decisions that allowed us to ensure the safety of our guests and team members while remaining competitive.”

The Mill closed its doors in late March but reopened May 18, just in time to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Some essential changes—in health and safety protocols and ongoing limited operations—will be around for a long time. At the Mill Casino, it’s wrought a sea change in attitude.

“The pandemic has changed gaming forever,” said Simpson. “We’ve gained valuable insight into what it is that we cherish. We evaluated how we value our assets and our team and what our guests value. We see change as a daily opportunity, and it’s something that we champion to stay ahead of the curve.”

Having an RV park next door creates an interesting sort of synergy, all aimed at bringing guests into the casino. “We see every guest of the Mill Casino as a casino guest, whether they arrive as an RV guest, a hotel guest, a casino invitee, a meeting attendee or a 20-year local who comes in for their first experience. They’re all potential casino enthusiasts.”

In November 2019, the Mill introduced retail sports betting—the second Oregon tribal casino to do so. Currently, wagers are placed at kiosks, but the tribe is planning to expand that.

The Oregon Lottery offers online sports betting, “so that complicates the situation,” said Simpson. “Considering that the federal process still allows governors that operate lotteries to voice their opinions on tribal gaming—even though they’re the large competitor of tribes—creates a challenging landscape here in Oregon. We’re strongly focused on protecting tribal gaming in Oregon and will continue to seek ways to advance opportunities for tribes.”

Career Advice for Women

The CEO has some words of advice for young women who want to follow a similar career path, in tribal enterprises or in business in general.

“Be bold and fearless, but always be humble,” she said. “Ask a million questions until you’re confident in the answers. Listen to your elders. And never shy away from doing the hard work. Great achievements are worked for, never doled out, and hard work will always be required to retain them.”

At the same time, she advised, be prepared to grab onto new possibilities as they arise. “Always keep your mind and heart open to opportunity. Don’t limit yourself. Know that there will always be people who want to shoot the shining stars. Don’t let it get you down, and someday, you won’t even realize those people exist.

“Find your supporters and be wide-open to their insight and guidance,” she said. “Nobody gets anywhere alone.”

The Mill Casino has big plans under Simpson’s leadership. “We’re constantly evaluating our property and offering, whether it’s additional entertainment offerings and settings, online wagering and technologies, unique dining options, enhanced and diverse lodging amenities and new and exciting gaming options from every corner of the globe. We will always be enhancing our property.

“I’m proud, grateful, and honored,” she said of her new role. “I am humbled to be tasked with both embracing the history and culture of my tribe and weaving that culture into a successful regional 21st century tribal gaming operation.”