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Howard Stutz

Nevadan At Work: Ex-Georgetown Basketball Player Works His Way to Top of Barbary Coast

2 May 2005

When Barbary Coast General Manager Ronnie Highsmith talks about working his way up from the bottom, he truly means it.

Highsmith, who has been the small Strip casino's lead executive since last year, started out 16 years ago on the property's loading docks. After various position changes -- including a three-year stint at Coast's former riverboat casino in East St. Louis, Ill., -- Highsmith finally landed in the general manager's seat.

"I think we all have to set goals," Highsmith said. "But once you achieve one of those goals, there are other things to reach for. Is vice president and general manager the top of the goal list? No, so we have to keep working at it."

Highsmith was a standout college basketball player at Georgetown University under legendary coach John Thompson, making four trips to the NCAA Tournament. As a freshman, he was the backup center to former New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing.

After a tryout with the NBA's Washington Bullets ended his professional basketball dreams, Highsmith needed to change directions.

Thompson, who used to have a house in Las Vegas and is a longtime friend of Coast Casinos President Michael Gaughan, suggested a move to Las Vegas.

"Things didn't go as I would have liked with the NBA and because I was chasing that dream, I fell behind in the workplace," said Highsmith, who graduated from Georgetown with a degree in government.

"Georgetown prepares you well and coach Thompson suggested I come to Las Vegas," he said.

Highsmith started out on the loading docks at the Barbary Coast, but quickly moved into other positions in the restaurants, at one point splitting time between the Barbary Coast and Gold Coast.

He took the opportunity to be food and beverage manager at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis as an opportunity to expand his understanding of the hospitality industry.

Eventually, he returned to Las Vegas. He served as hotel operations director at the Suncoast for four years and then moved back to the Barbary Coast, a 196-room, 25,000-square-foot casino across from Bally's, Bellagio, Caesars Palace and next to the Flamingo.

Question: How does the small Barbary Coast compete with its much larger neighbors?

Answer: I don't think you can beat our location. It's phenomenal. We rely on foot traffic, and that's the difference in our business. People come here because they like the fact it's a small property. You don't need a road map to get to your room from the casino, and you don't have to walk two miles from the parking garage to the building.

Question: How does the Barbary Coast build its business?

Answer: The beauty of this property is that you get to know customers. We have a lot of repeat business. We host three slot tournaments a year, and you have the same people come back. It's kind of like "Cheers," where you get to know everyone's name and they know your name.

Question: What can the Barbary Coast do to build a younger audience?

Answer: Drai's (the nightclub and restaurant) brings in a much younger crowd that is very wealthy and spends money. We have a 26-year-old building and we can't change that. We have had a Victorian theme for the longest time and we're doing remodels of our rooms, giving them a regular feel with such items as plasma-screen televisions. What we're trying to change is the look and feel while still keeping our regular clients happy.

Question: Have operations changed at the Barbary Coast since Boyd Gaming Corp. bought Coast Casinos last year?

Answer: Yes and no. No in a sense because we still operate as a Coast property and yes, because you have two families, the Gaughans and the Boyds. All their operations run as a family-oriented business. One difference is we are a lot more competitive because of our size. We have 19 casinos in six states.

Question: How much is Michael Gaughan still involved in the Barbary Coast?

Answer: We try to communicate all the time. We focus on so many aspects, but every time he comes in, he can pick out something. You always feel you're a step behind him because he is so focused.

Question: Besides Michael Gaughan, who else has played a role in your career development?

Answer: Coach Thompson gave me a lot of good advice. He said you have to prove your worth on any job. You can't come out here expecting to be an executive right away because people don't know you. They don't know anything about you, so you have to start at the bottom. If you're willing to do that, the opportunities will come.

Question: How has rising from the loading docks to general manger's office played into your management style?

Answer: The nice thing about being general manager at a property like this is that you can meet with each and every employee. Coming from the loading dock, I never forgot where I came from. I like to eat in the employee dining room because that shows respect. If you show respect to the employees, they'll respect you.

Question: Was not having a lot of hands-on gaming experience when you became general manager an issue?

Answer: It was a challenge. I had to spend a lot of time on my own, and probably a little bit more money than I wanted to lose, learning those different games. I've learned the regulations, spent a lot of time reading, but I also like to spend time on the floor. You have to be down there because that's where the action is. You get to see the how it all works and all comes together.

Question: Do you still keep in touch with your Georgetown teammates?

Answer: We do call each other quite a bit and stay in contact. I hear from them when they're in Las Vegas.