In a sense, Kenneth Manuel works at home. The Gila River Resorts & Casinos CEO grew up in the same community he now works.
Manuel was recently recognized as one of the 23 Most Influential Minority Business Leaders in the state by AZ Big Media. That’s a high honor for someone who started out in the casino business in 1994 on the ground floor as a slot attendant.
AZ Big Media calls his journey “an inspiring one.”
Manuel says diversity in business comes naturally
All casinos in Arizona are owned and operated by Native American tribes. Arizona online casinos using real money are not legal in the state, though social and sweepstakes casinos are legally available to Arizona players.
According to editor-in-chief Michael Gossie, AZ Big Media chose Manuel and the other 22 business leaders they highlighted “because of the impact they are having in changing the culture of Arizona’s business community.”
“[They’re] individuals who see diversity, equity and inclusion as an imperative, not as an initiative. Their leadership and efforts are strengthening both their companies and their communities.”
Manuel told AZ Big Media that diversity and respect go hand in hand.
“I think if you have a baseline principle of respect, then diversity is something that just almost comes naturally. And I practice what I preach. I want people to feel comfortable. … It is an honor to be included as one of the top diverse leaders in Arizona. I take pride in being a role model for people in my community to pave the way for others who aspire to be great leaders.”
Manuel works his way up the ladder
Manuel grew up in the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. “There were a lot of struggles,” he told the Phoenix Business Journal of those times. He also grew up in the gaming and hospitality industry, he said. He witnessed the boost it brought to his community. And he has worked with many of his team members “from day one.”
After his initial 1994 experience working as a slots attendant, he was promoted to slots supervisor, slots manager and then acting slots director. From there, promotions continued for the current CEO of Gila River Resorts.
- Management, Sheraton Grand at Gila River’s Wild Horse Pass
- Board president, Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc. Board of Directors
- Member, Casino Expansion Owners Team, 2007-2013, 2017-present
- Chairman, Expense Committee
- Member, Mentorship Committee
As board president, Manuel learned about all aspects of casino resorts.
“I became exposed to all of the different departments, all of the different areas of casino operations, and to the tribal government perspective as well.”
Along the way, Manuel’s management skills and leadership style so impressed tribal leaders that they selected him as assistant chief executive officer of the five-year Enterprise Pathways Mentorship Program. He himself had received preparation for executive leadership in the same program.
Manuel becomes first Gila River Indian Community native named CEO
His eventual appointment as CEO in 2017 made him the first member of the Gila River Indian Community to permanently assume the top spot. Now, he’s a current member of the Casino Expansion Owners Team, as well.
In that capacity, Manuel helps to oversee construction of Gila River’s three currently operational gaming properties: Lone Butte, Vee Quiva, and the recently renovated Wild Horse Pass – plus the upcoming Santan Mountain Casino set to open in late spring or early summer.
Growing up as a member of the community has proved useful to the CEO. For instance, it allows him to look at any moves on the Enterprise’s part from two angles: business and community. He did so when Gila River Hotels & Casinos partnered with the Arizona Cardinals in 2019. Partnerships with them and other sports teams now give the community’s youth opportunities not available when he was young, Manuel said.
Today, its participation in the gaming and hotel industry constitutes the largest revenue source for the Gila River Indian Community. That gives him a “vested interest in what we do on a daily basis,” Manuel said.
All of his training, on-the-ground experience, and also formal education (including a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management) has resulted in “unprecedented growth and development, which has contributed to the long-term sustainability and progress of the Gila River Indian Community,” the Enterprise said on Manuel’s leadership.
Manuel is ‘a big believer in team’
This isn’t the first time the media spotlight has shone on Kenneth Manuel. In 2020, Native Business Mag named him one of their Top 30 CEOs.
Manuel told the magazine that he credits his community and also co-workers for his success.
“I’m a big believer in team. There is a great sense of pride in the community.”
He also stressed to the Phoenix Business Journal the importance of a business leader – “no matter what business” – remaining grounded and cognizant of an enterprise’s vision, purpose, and mission.
“For me, it has been exciting to see how gaming has improved the way of life for our community. The revenues generated by the enterprise go to support programs such as housing, health care, education, social services.”
Overall, the Enterprise said Manuel has instilled a “culture of collaboration that empowers nearly 3,000 team members and motivates them to succeed.”