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Howard Stutz

Nevadan at work: Trade group representative helps competing companies to coexist

15 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In his role as executive director of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, Marcus Prater is developing skills that could make him the next secretary-general of the United Nations.

The members of his trade group are usually at war with each other in the courtroom. For example, slot machine giants International Game Technology and Bally Technologies have nearly a dozen patent-infringement lawsuits filed against each other.

Prater keeps the representatives of the slot makers, table game providers, technology companies and gaming equipment suppliers talking and focused on common concerns.

"Clearly there is some Switzerland role-playing that I have to do," said Prater, a former newspaper sports writer and editor who spent almost 14 years in marketing and communications roles for both a casino operator and slot machine manufacturers.

"It's entertaining to watch two lawyers from Bally and IGT in the same meeting taking gentle shots at each other," Prater said. "But there is cooperation, and AGEM has always been a group of companies cooperating on issues."

Before joining the manufacturers association in March, Prater spent nine years with Bally Technologies as the slot maker's marketing and communications chief. The company went through a financial roller coaster ride.

By the time he went home to Idaho in December to take care of some family matters, Bally was on an upswing and Prater was looking for a new challenge.

Prater had been Bally's representative on the association's board since its inception and he had approached some of the current board members about moving into the vacant executive director's position. The job is the association's only paid position. The organization is funded by membership dues and shared profits from the annual Global Gaming Expo trade show.

Prater's goal was to lift the association to a new level of responsibility. But he had to first convince members he could be a voice for the industry, not just one company.

Question: Was there some apprehension from some of your former gaming equipment rivals?

Answer: When I approached the board and planted the seed, I did think there would be some push-back that I bleed Bally red too fiercely. But it never came up. I had lunch with a couple of big wheels from IGT a couple of months after I started. Sitting there, with my Bally background, listening to them spill some IGT secrets was both entertaining and quite odd. But it showed they clearly trusted that I was now wearing a new hat.

Question: Why was the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers formed?

Answer: (Casino) operators in Nevada started rattling around about taxing participation games. The suppliers realized that they had no common voice in the way the Nevada Resort Association represented the operators. That was back in 1999. AGEM was not formed to fight operators by any stretch, but it brought fierce competitors to the table. We were officially formed in 2000 and we changed our charter to go into other areas.

Question: Is there any lasting friction between manufacturers and casino operators?

Answer: That was a one-time event a long time ago. But what it did was bring companies like Bally, IGT, WMS (Industries) and Aristocrat (Technologies) together. It helped break down some walls for the organization to be formed. We're not in the business of combating operators. We're just trying to further the interests of suppliers.

Question: What issues concern the association now?

Answer: There are legislative issues in Nevada and elsewhere. AGEM tackles regulatory matters, problem gaming issues and trade show issues. The organization has been fairly Nevada-centric, but we have been trying to broaden the reach throughout this country and the world.

Question: How strong will the association's presence be during the upcoming Nevada legislative session?

Answer: We have a lobbying presence. I think we've done a pretty good job educating individual and collective legislators. The reality is our members can't compete with operators in sheer numbers of employees and tax base. But we're big in terms of the technology jobs we offer, the engineering jobs, and we're also an exporter. We have a story to tell that is important.

Question: What do you bring to the executive director's position?

Answer: I'm very dialed into the gaming industry in Nevada, in the United States and globally. I want the organization to be more proactive. Where I spot trends and issues, I bring them to the members for their vote or consensus. Rather than having something sneak up on us, I want to be out in front.

We look at expansion opportunities for our members. Maryland is a good example. There is a ballot referendum that could bring 15,000 slot machines to the state. We spotted that trend and got behind it as a group.

Question: Does your public relations background help?

Answer: I think AGEM has suffered from an identity crisis. I've tried to get back to basics and let people know about the group from the ground up. My first six months has been basic PR work, such as who AGEM is and what we stand for.

Question: What are your goals for membership expansion?

Answer: We've added 23 new members since March. We now have 53 total members. I want to broaden the membership base. We've added members from Austria, Bulgaria and the (United Kingdom). The idea is to bring some fresh thoughts in to the organization.

Question: How did you make the transition from sports writing to gaming?

Answer: I grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, with Ray Neilsen (now the chairman of Ameristar Casinos.) We were friends and when Ameristar was starting out and went public in 1993, he convinced me to leave Casper, (Wyo.), and take a chance on gaming. I was with Ameristar in the early days and it was a great crash course on gaming and the corporate structure.

Question: Do you miss journalism?

Answer: I started out working for the Twin Falls Times doing high school sports reporting when I was a sophomore in high school. I spent 14, 15 years in newspapers. My brother (Mike Prater) is the sports editor of the Idaho Statesman.

My dad was the radio play-by-play voice for the College of Southern Idaho. The Prater family is dialed into sports journalism.