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Place a Bet on Gaming

From Las Vegas to Minnesota, casinos offer a growth niche for CPAs with a background in auditing and a bent for excitement.

June 2007
from Journal of Accountancy

For CPA, Joseph Eve, building a niche practice in the gaming industry took a little serendipity, a lot of hard work and patience and a good marketing plan. Tribal gaming is governmental, so Eve’s small tax practice in Billings, MT., with its side business in local government, provided a good foundation. By the early 1990s, Eve understood the niche’s growth potential and the need for trained and talented auditors to protect the tribes, the casino customers and the investors in this fast-paced, cash-based business.

Through a growing relationship with the Chippewa Cree tribe, the Fond du Lac tribe and other Native American governments, Eve found himself “essentially dragged into the casino business with them” — and never looked back. Not one to let fate deal his hand, Eve made a conscious decision to focus on the gaming industry, hired marketing expert Timothy O’Dell, added three partners and started shifting his firm’s business mix. He transformed his revenue base from about 40 percent traditional accounting and 60 percent government — with only a couple of casinos — to 85 percent gaming.

Auditing a gaming enterprise requires high levels of trust and lots of personal relationships, even more so than traditional accounting engagements, Eve says. The firm spent three or four years creating awareness through the traditional marketing channels of networking and speaking at trade shows, and at the same time worked hard at developing the essential expertise. “This is a niche where one audit failure will take you out of it forever,” Eve says. “False moves get around Indian country within days.”

Eventually, the investment paid off. Today the firm audits about 60 of the 290 tribal casinos around the country. There’s room for growth, too. Big Four firms in the gaming industry more often audit the books at publicly traded and nationally known casinos, while midsize firms often handle tribal casino engagements. Eve’s firm hopes to grow from $10 million in revenue in this “highly fragmented niche” to $100 million over the next 10 years.

Double Down

The gaming niche goes far beyond Indian country, of course. There’s opportunity in this computer-oriented, late-night, high-risk industry whether you’re a partner in a small firm or a recent CPA graduate with a talent for data mining or a penchant for excitement. From Las Vegas to Minnesota, casinos large and small are looking for qualified accountants to keep an eye on the bundles of cash and millions of unrecorded transactions being handled by managers and CFOs with extraordinarily high rates of turnover.

When Tony McDuffy passed the CPA exam in Tennessee in 1981, for example, he was offered a job at FASB — but opted instead for the one at Holiday Corp., which at the time was parent of Holiday Inn and Harrah’s casinos. Today he is Harrah’s senior vice president, controller and chief accounting officer. Cash plays just a small role in his day; he handles reporting for internal and external users, full-charge accounting for the corporate group, payroll and disbursements, property reporting and tax.

“I’ve heard my job described as operating a bank in a circus — and that has proven to be true in that we have customers who make deposits and withdrawals, but in slot machines instead of ATMs,” McDuffy says. But at the same time, gaming has come of age and become a real discipline and a serious business — moving “from a collection of small kingdoms run by local management to a nationwide network with cross-property relationships with customers,” McDuffy says. Harrah’s revenues were roughly $9.7 billion in 2006. “It’s very cash-intensive and marked by solid returns,” he notes.

With all that cash, it’s no surprise that casinos are highly regulated, with unique twists in reporting requirements from state to state. Special training is necessary; McDuffy took a 10-day intensive course at the University of Nevada, but conferences are available throughout the year through the Tribal Gaming Association, the Institute of Internal Auditors and other universities. He is now on a task force writing a new edition of the AICPA’s Casino Audit Guide, which will be published next year. It will touch on new elements in this ever-changing environment, such as loyalty programs and rewards points, which only airlines offered back when the first edition was written 20 years ago.

To McDuffy, the real excitement is not in the ringing bells and whistles on the floor, but in the ever-changing business going on in the executive suite. He has participated in “a number of once-in-a-lifetime transactions” — two spin-offs, property sales and acquisitions, IPOs and debt issuances, and now the switch from a public company to a private one. “I enjoy sitting around and debating accounting theory and how it will manifest itself in financial statements — to have had the opportunity to participate in that series of transactions has been an incredible experience,” he says.

CPA Nicole Kramer, meanwhile, got into the business literally from the ground up. A Connecticut native, she heard about the plans to build Mohegan Sun 11 years ago, just as she was about to graduate. She took her first job as one of three in-house accountants with the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, the parent organization that manages Mohegan Sun facilities in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and has never left. Working in that pre-opening phase gave her broad experience she would not likely have found in an accounting firm or even a small business. She’s handled financial accounting, general ledger, construction accounting, accounts payable and financial transactions to secure debt. Currently, in her position as finance manager, she’s working on corporate governance and Sarbanes-Oxley section 404 compliance. “It’s a great field and a great industry,” she says. “There’s a lot of excitement and it’s unique in the sense that you have a lot of different industries under one roof: gaming, lodging, entertainment, food and beverage, golf, even Pocono Downs harness racing.”

Beyond the basics of accounting that apply to every company, most of what Kramer knows she learned on the job and through the gaming industry — at the Gaming Expo and through AICPA guides and seminars. And while the action may be hottest on the casino floor at 2 am, Kramer, who has three children, has found the back office to be a family-friendly place with relatively stable work hours.

Bob Rudloff, CIO of MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, also got into gaming mostly through simple geography. Growing up in Atlantic City, he watched as the big casinos changed the skyline of the boardwalk and of the town behind it. He worked for Harrah’s and Trump for 17 years before being recruited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was building its internal audit practice industry. But he didn’t like the travel and missed being part of the casino team — and now is back, as vice president of internal audit at MGM Mirage.

“The best part is there is nothing routine about this job,” he says. Right now he’s involved in a seven-billion dollar construction project and with an overseas property in Macau; the company also is aggressively consolidating its three technology systems into one, “putting a new dimension on what internal audit does across the organization” as his team works closely with IT to identify risk and ensure the security of the systems that open the hotel room doors, run the slots and track the winnings.

Growth Is in the Cards

Whether it’s outside or in, auditors agree the gaming industry is, well, on a roll. Richard Fentner, director at Dopkins & Co. in Buffalo, N.Y., says his firm has specialized in not-for-profit clients for many years, and now gets about 40 percent of its business from the niche. Through that work, he was approached by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe to audit its bingo operations. When the tribe built a casino in 1999, the firm took on auditing that, too, as well as reviewing financial statements, internal controls and standard operating procedures, and working on special projects such as improving the cash count. “Here, in western New York, this niche is really starting to take off,” Fentner says, “and there’s potential for a lot more work.”

Indeed, it’s hardly just in New York that the demand for auditors and finance professionals in the gaming industry is growing. Virtually everyone with whom we spoke cited the difficulty in finding good staff as a key issue.

Dave Richards, CPA, president of the Institute of Internal Auditors, Altamonte Springs, Fla., calls gaming “a very big and important sector.” The IIA has a dedicated gaming industry group with its own newsletter and advisory board, holds an annual gaming conference that attracts 200 to 300 internal auditors, and has launched an Internal Audit Education Program to develop courses at several universities. Beyond the new casinos, the group has seen growth recently from outside the United States, most notably from Latin America.

“Gaming is a particularly sexy type of career track in terms of the amount of risk that’s involved, plus it’s exciting, and it offers young people a lot of opportunity to travel,” Richards says. “Certainly a CPA is a good background to leverage into that sector — and then you can build on the financial expertise into things like operational compliance, fraud and IT that are pervasive throughout the business.”

So whether you feel more comfortable auditing the books in the back office at noon or casing the casino floor at 4 am, if you like to travel or would rather never leave home, the gaming industry is a niche that has a niche for you.

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Cheryl Rosen is a freelance business journalist whose work has appeared in Business Ethics, Business Finance, CFO.com, InformationWeek and Optimize. Her views as expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or the Journal of Accountancy.