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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Bally Technologies exec, gaming's "most investigated, licensed person," retires

2 January 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Mark Lerner admits he didn’t know much about gaming when he moved to Las Vegas in 1980 to begin his legal career.

Now, 34 years later, he considers himself “the most investigated and licensed person on planet Earth” by casino regulators worldwide.

Lerner, 64, retired Tuesday as general counsel for Bally Technologies, Inc. after 17 years in the position. During his career, he played a part in many of the vast changes experienced by the gaming industry since the mid-1990s.

When he joined the slot machine manufacturer, then known as Alliance Gaming, the company was licensed in a few dozen jurisdictions. Today, Bally Technologies holds more than 300 licenses. Lerner is licensed in 214 of the jurisdictions. Roughly 80 percent of those markets have an annual renewal process.

Let’s just say he’s become pretty well-known to investigators because of his position as an officer in the publicly traded gaming equipment company.

“If you do the math, I’ve been investigated some 2,000 or 3,000 times,” Lerner said.

Have investigators ever found anything?

“Apparently not. I’m pretty boring,” he said.

Lerner’s career has been anything but quiet.

Bally, through research and development and acquisitions over the years, has become the casino industry’s second-leading provider of slot machines, casino management systems and gaming equipment.

The recently completed $1.3 billion purchase of SHFL Entertainment transformed Bally into one of the industry’s most diverse manufacturers, with seven reporting divisions and the potential for more than $1.3 billion in annual revenue.

Lerner decided to retire after the SHFL buyout. SHFL general counsel Katie Lever takes over for Lerner today.

When he joined Bally, the company was known for its spinning reel slot machines. Today, the reels are video-based, as are most of the machines’ components. Technology has changed the gaming industry, Lerner said.

“When I started, we owned a few dozen patents,” Lerner said. “Today, the company has about several hundred. Slot machines are technological marvels.”

Bally CEO Ramesh Srinivasan said Lerner’s “deep knowledge of gaming” was instrumental in the company’s growth.

“Few individuals possess Mark’s knowledge and passion for the gaming industry, and his contributions to Bally cannot be overstated,” Srinivasan said.

Lerner, who earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and his law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law, got his first taste of gaming law when he joined the Nevada attorney general’s office in 1983. He was assigned to the gaming division and spent four years representing the Gaming Control Board and Nevada Gaming Commission.

After stints with a statewide law firm and a casino operator, he joined the Bally predecessor. The company’s changing nature let Lerner become the longest-tenured general counsel at a gaming manufacturer.

“As a lawyer, you have to be a generalist,” he said. “You need to be an expert in gaming law, but you have to be an expert in other areas: employment law, labor law, commercial transactions and public governance. You have to learn the rules and regulations in many jurisdictions.”

When he joined the company, there were five people in the legal department. Today, Bally’s legal division is a small law firm with 20 employees, including eight lawyers.

Bally’s has been at the forefront of gaming industry technology changes.

The company was awarded Nevada’s first interactive gaming license in July 2012, and Lerner oversaw the licensing process. He participated in what was then a surreal moment at a Gaming Control Board hearing when he used an iPad to play a free game of Internet poker to demonstrate the company’s technology for regulators.

Bally’s interactive system is being used by the Golden Nugget - Atlantic City to offer online gaming in New Jersey.

“The gaming industry is eager for technology, but regulators need to take a different approach to the licensing of technology,” Lerner said. “Technology development moves fast.”

Lerner was one of the authors of a 2011 white paper from the American Gaming Association that detailed 10 broad-based nationwide regulatory reforms.

“License the people and the companies, but take a different approach to the licensing of technology,” he said.

Lerner plans to continue his legal career. He’s also considering writing a book on gaming regulation — a subject he has experienced firsthand.