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May 22, 2019

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Q&A: Larry D. Woolf, CEO of the Navegante Group

Woolf

Christopher DeVargas

Navegante Group CEO Larry D. Woolf heads the company founded by his father.

Like most gaming executives, Navegante Group CEO Larry D. Woolf started his education on the front lines, working as a valet-parking attendant, baggage handler and doorman in Atlantic City. He worked his way through the ranks and became a credit and marketing host at MGM Grand, taking over as CEO for Navegante, a casino management and consulting company his father, Larry J. Woolf, founded.

Woolf’s father had decades of management experience, including working as Kirk Kerkorian’s right-hand man when he opened MGM Grand. The company’s portfolio includes casinos in Canada, Carson City and the Plaza and its downtown Las Vegas sister properties.

The company recently found itself involved in a political fight more than 2,500 miles away. In January, a partnership that included Navegante was selected by New York Gov. David Patterson to operate gaming at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y., only to be rejected in March by state licensing authorities. It was revealed in October that state senators manipulated the choice of who would develop New York City’s first casino. Woolf said although there’s been negative press about the deal, it has not adversely affected Navegante’s growing business.

Your father started Navegante Group in 1995 after serving as chairman, president and CEO at MGM Grand. How did it all get started?

After his extremely short-lived retirement, Navegante was formed to identify development, management and consulting opportunities. Soon after, Navegante received a request to submit a bid to the Ontario provincial government to develop and operate an interim casino in Niagara Falls, Canada. The bidding field was full of qualified companies, many of which were publicly traded gaming companies with great resumes and financial backing — 27 of them if I remember correctly. In short, we were selected, I think in August, as interim operator, which included the development and management of what became Casino Niagara. Two hundred million-plus dollars and four or five months later, we opened the facility on time and on budget. During that period, we received more than 100,000 employment applications, interviewed face to face more than 30,000 applicants and hired and trained around 3,500 employees.

You’ve also had a long history in gaming. Was it a conscious decision to follow in your father’s footsteps?

I never really considered my career as following in my father’s footsteps, but rather doing what my career path led me to. I started in an entry-level job at Caesars Atlantic City around 30 years ago and worked my way through the ranks on my own. When Navegante was formed, I was asked to be part of the team, which I gladly accepted. As my father is known for surrounding himself with competent people, I was proud when he asked me to be part of the team.

How has the business grown and evolved over the years?

Navegante has completed 50 major projects worldwide. We’re not a one-hit wonder. During our term in Niagara Falls, we continued to receive a variety of opportunities many of which we took on. For example, we successfully assisted several Canadian first nations in acquiring gaming licenses for destination casinos. During the same time we successfully obtained the rights through responding to a request for proposal to develop six casinos in and around Toronto. After that, we took on several large-scale consulting projects for companies like the Venetian, Park Place Entertainment, Crown Casinos and Tab Corp. in Australia, to developing a small chain of retail stores and the formation of an executive recruiting division focusing on the gaming industry.

Where does Navegante manage casinos?

Navegante currently manages five casinos throughout Nevada, including the Sahara, Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, and the Red Lion hotel casino, Gold County hotel casino and High Desert Inn in Elko.

How many properties are you working with that are under development?

One in Panama City, Panama, and a few more that I’d rather not mention at this time. Most recently, we assisted in the development and opening of Casino New Brunswick in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; the River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, Okla.; and Boot Hill Casino in Dodge City, Kan.

You work with casinos in several different markets. What challenge exists in each of them?

The challenges we see are the same economic challenges all operators are currently facing like competition, flat gaming markets, consumer spending.

At one point your company was involved with the Aqueduct Racino in New York City. What was your involvement there?

Upon Aqueduct Entertainment Group being awarded the license to operate the Aqueduct Racino, Navegante would have been the casino operator.

With few companies building or expanding because of the recession, how has that affected or changed your business?

In many cases it’s improved our business, and in other cases has allowed us to utilize our operational skills to better compete in the markets we are in. In one of our properties, we’re finishing up a large makeover of the casino floor, added a restaurant and bar and refurbished our rooms ... At another we’ve improved the slot mix and installed a new slot system, and the property is performing better than it has in years.

Where do you see the next big gambling marketing emerging?

Asia is the emerging giant. Vietnam, Japan and possibly Taiwan will be expanding gaming and opening to gaming. The success of Singapore and Macau will motivate many of these governments to allow the expansion and addition of gaming.

What is your outlook on the gambling industry for the next few years?

Flat is the best way to put it.

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