AWARD WINNER! Maverick CEO Persson: Destined for Gaming

GGB News Reporter David Ross won first place in the Magazine: Profiles category of the annual awards program from the San Diego Press Club. Congratulations to David! Here’s his piece on Maverick CEO Eric Persson (l.), which was first published October 13, 2019.

AWARD WINNER! Maverick CEO Persson: Destined for Gaming

Maverick Gaming CEO Eric Persson is not shy about his ambitions.

His Nevada-based company burst on the scene two years ago and began buying up small to medium-size casinos, and soon will be operating in three states. “We think of our company as having an enterprise value of around $1 billion today, and are working towards becoming a $5 billion enterprise value over next five years,” he told GGB News in an exclusive interview.

Persson founded Maverick Gaming with Justin Beltram, with whom he had worked at the Las Vegas Sands Corp. when he was corporate senior vice president of global slot operations and marketing and Beltram was corporate VP of slots. “We were executives together,” said Persson. “He had great experience. The opportunity to purchase a property became available. I told Justin I wanted to be a casino owner, and in December of 2017 I found a casino with him. I put in $4 million and funded the balance from a private investment company.”

Persson appears to have the attributes of a hard-charging, acquisition-minded empire builder, so the name Maverick Gaming seems apt, conjuring images of the Old West gambler played by James Garner in the 1960s TV show, or for a later generation, the call sign for Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Top Gun.

Persson actually named the company after his six-year-old son. Maverick, who will turn seven on October 27, is being raised in the gaming industry and hangs out with his father frequently at the casino. Already, Persson fully expects to hand over the company to him when he’s older.

Maverick Gaming’s business model and philosophy differ considerably from other gaming companies, said Persson. “I think a lot of different things separate us. It starts with the management. We have extremely experienced senior leaders running all our divisions. For example, Tim Merrill, who was senior vice president of operations for Sands China, runs Maverick Gaming in Washington. We have managers in markets they wouldn’t be in normally. From a structure standpoint, we’re set up with the top managers, all having equity positions.”

Other top managers include CFO Tom Granite, who was managing director of Jefferies Capital Gaming Division, and Dennis Dougherty, chief analytics officer, who was corporate vice president of analytics at Las Vegas Sands.

“These people left very senior roles to work for me,” said Persson. “We’re privately held. It’s just me and the people I’ve been working with.”

Maverick is engaged in the purchase and consolidation of the last section of the gaming industry to undergo consolidation. “We are buying properties that are $2 million to $3 million EBITA” (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization), said Persson.

Although Persson may seem like a new force in gaming, he actually came to his new role as an owner after 19 years in the business, most recently as president and general manager of Aruze Gaming. Before that, he filled executive positions at the Venetian Resort, the Palazzo, Harrah’s Las Vegas, the Orleans and Gold Coast Casinos, Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino, Harrah’s Prairie Band, and the Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs racinos in New York.

“The truth is, I knew I was going to be I gaming since the first grade,” he said. “While from the outside it may be a surprise and shock, for me it’s been a long time coming. I made sure I had the experience first. I worked for five billionaires and learned from all of them. We’re prepared to maximize this position.”

Asked the most valuable lessons he learned from those billionaires, Persson first cited Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of Sands, known among his employees as “SGA.”

“SGA has the ability to influence the actions of every team member at Sands, whether they be a butler in Macau, a facilities manager in Singapore or a host in Vegas,” said Persson. “Any decision a manager makes, the thought of ‘What does SGA want?’ is first and foremost in their mind. I’ve seen him remove thousands of square feet of marble right before a new property opening because someone substituted their judgement for his. I’ve seen him have the courage to turn off—and ultimately reconsider based on more information—comps when he believed they were too rampant. His ability to impose his will on the world may be second to none.”

Another mentor is Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. “Michael Gaughan is the best operator I’ve worked with and I’m lucky I started with him,” said Persson. “He never gets confused on who his customer is, and the value proposition he serves. It may seem like a simple thing, but many operators get confused sometimes. Paid parking, for example, or pricing your F&B in a manner that prices out your customers—not Michael, not ever.

“He sent me to dealer school, I learned the cage. I could balance a cashier bank today. Soft count, hard count, you name it. He gave me the gift of taking the time to actually learn the business and every job that drives it. It’s because of him I’m able to say, ‘It’s not about getting a big job, it’s about having the substance to be able to keep it.’”

And then there’s Japanese billionaire and Wynn Resorts co-founder Kazuo Okada, whom Persson describes as “a true entrepreneur who believes in his instincts and has the will to make them reality. That will is shown in many ways. The existence of Okada Manila is a big example, and his refusal to give in on any fight he either looks for or finds him is another—whether it was Steve Wynn or a gaming regulator. Kazuo is at his best when there’s a fight—and so am I.”

Another of his “billionaires” is Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of global hospitality giant Delaware North.

“It’s amazing how he stays hungry,” said Persson. “I was AGM of their biggest property, Wheeling Island, and we had a budget review with him. We had increased simulcast handle 800 percent in a year—I guess we thought that was pretty good. When we showed Mr. Jacobs the improvement, his only response was something to the effect, ‘It was three times higher than that in 1970.’ It cemented in my brain that if you want to be a billionaire, it’s never enough.”

From Jeff Gural, chairman of American Racing & Entertainment, he learned another lesson.

“When I got to upstate New York to build and open two properties for him, it was a complete disaster,” he recalled. “In fact, there was literally no way they would have opened had me and my entire team not arrived—a fact that I don’t think he appreciated at that time.

“There were literally no team members and no plan. Luckily for him, I brought my entire management team with me. And get it open we did. Years later, after I had bought my first two casinos, he called me and congratulated me. He also acknowledged my team’s efforts and my efforts in saving that project. It’s something I appreciated hearing and something that stays in my mind for those moments when someone on my team deserves to hear my recognition.”

Persson says all these billionaires have privately held companies, except for Las Vegas Sands, where Adelson is still majority owner.

“Just like Maverick,” he said, adding, “All of these men are driven, have the ability to imagine the reality they want and then make that imagination real. None of them stood on the sidelines of life and watched it pass by. I won’t either.”

Though he may appear to be a CEO in a hurry, the reality is, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “I don’t think the pace is so fast. We’ve passed on as many things as we’ve purchased. We’re disciplined. We were able to consolidate fractured space in Washington. We think we have a path to $200 million EBITDA,” (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization).

On its website, Maverick describes itself as “Best in Class Regional Owner and Operator.” That class is small to medium-size casinos. “Our sweet spot is $2 million to $30 million EBITDA for each property,” said Persson.

Maverick recently entered the Colorado market with the purchase of CC Gaming, which owns Z Casino in Black Hawk; Grand Z Casino Hotel in Central City; Johnny Z’s Casino in Central City; and Z Stop Convenience Store and Gas in Golden and which controls 1,500 slots, 20 gaming tables and 119 hotel rooms.

That adds a third state to Maverick’s growing privately owned empire, which has four casinos in Nevada and is acquiring 20 card clubs in Washington. Although its entry into the Colorado market might seem to coincide with that state’s vote in November on sports betting, Persson says that has little to do with it.

“No. Sports betting is incremental opportunity. It’s not a panacea. We purchased in Colorado because it’s a limited market and the properties are near Denver. We have the largest number of machines and the largest number of tables in that market. Although we’re working hard in Washington for sports betting, we didn’t enter the Washington market for sports betting. If it goes through we will certainly partake and offer it to our customers But that’s not why we went into that market.”

Recently Persson told CDC Gaming Reports that he intends to become a “significant player” in the Colorado market. How significant?

“We’re limited to three licenses in the state and we have three,” he said. “We think there’s an opportunity to add hotel rooms and expand our operations and become a significant player in Blackhawk.”

When Maverick made its Washington State purchases, Persson noted his Shoalwater Bay Indian Nation heritage. Asked how this has affected his gaming career, he said, “It hasn’t played a big impact in my gaming career. But being a member is an important thing to me every day.”

Does he see himself partnering with a tribe in possible casino development?

“No,” he said. “We’re owners, not managers.”

The next markets Maverick is eyeing for expansion include Louisiana and Reno-Tahoe in Nevada. “In the next three months, we’ll have some announcements,” he said.

Does he ever intend to go public? “No,” Persson says. “Because I’m an owner. I’m not here to create my own form of currency, I’m not here to have shareholders I’m beholden to. That’s important to me, something I intend to give to my son one day. He’s growing up in the business. He was with me on my last day at work. He’s with me in Washington at least a few times every month. He’s the youngest person ever sworn in as a casino employee, and one day he’ll be the youngest person licensed.”

Given that Persson’s last job working for someone was at Aruze Gaming, an international company, it’s natural to wonder if he has ambitions outside the U.S. “If the right opportunity presented itself, we would be very interested,” he said.

Where does he see Maverick Gaming in five years? “We’ll be disappointed if we don’t have $5 billion value in the next five year if we execute the transactions we’re working on,” he said—or about two and a half times the company’s current value by 2024.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.