By Keren Moros Photos by Eduardo Schneider
When Steve Bonner answered a classified ad looking for a night job installing slot machines in Colorado, he figured it was a temporary fix that could pay the bills while he looked for a “real job.”
But within a few months, he gained a leadership position and never looked back. That was 25 years ago. Now, he’s still in the casino business as the president of Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.
The casino is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its $150 million expansion that brought restaurants, a parking garage, more games and a concert pavilion. It’s a far cry from the casino that Bonner first stepped into 15 years ago after he received an offer to run the casino from a former boss, Jim Allen, who is CEO of Seminole Gaming.
Back then, there were 700 of the same kind of slot machines and no restaurants. Bonner recalls seeing security standing at the door with “their chests puffed up” instead of being friendly.
“There wasn’t even drywall,” he says. “They had curtains. If you moved the curtains, you would see insulation, electrical wires and a metal wall.”
But Bonner saw the property’s potential.
“So there were all these so-called negatives, but the numbers were really good,” he says. “So I sit there and was like, ‘If they’re doing these numbers with all this noise and negativity, what’s the potential of the place?’ And I saw that potential as a chance to say, ‘Wow, we can do something really cool here.’”
Among the “cool” features Bonner spearheaded were the promotions held throughout the years, including Mini Cooper giveaways, a giveaway of a watch once owned by disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and a trip to space (care of Virgin Galactic). His favorite was an oil well giveaway. An oil well was placed in the middle of the casino and “Dallas” star Larry Hagman made an appearance.
Though promotions are still an important piece of the business, Bonner knows that the casino is a great product that sells itself. He’s quick to point out that the reason for the success is its 1,800 employees.
“You build the philosophy around your people,” he says. “You challenge them. You treat them with respect and honesty and integrity, and they give it back. They give it back with the guests. They give it back with each other and with us. They take a lot of pride in being here.”
Besides picnics, holiday parties and bonuses, staff members have their own dining room with its own kitchen and culinary team. The casino also gives back to the staff with a fund that helps those who need a hand.
“We can’t fix everything, but we can provide you with an environment where you’re appreciated, where you’re acknowledged,” Bonner says. “And you don’t have to worry that if something goes wrong in your life that somebody’s going to get rid of you, berate you or downgrade you in any way.”
The staff members, in turn, represent the casino and give back to the community, part of Bonner’s belief that the casino should be “a good citizen.” Over the years, the casino has supported city of Coconut Creek organizations such as SOS Children’s Villages, Food for the Poor and Junior Achievement. The staff and children from SOS recently celebrated their Thanksgiving dinner there, and the casino also hosted a dinner for veterans.
As a corporate citizen, the casino has an important relationship with the city, which is near Fort Lauderdale. For example, the parking garage was built to green standards with solar panels and a water filtration system, aligning with the city’s core value of environmental responsibility. It’s these community relationships, along with the renovation, that Bonner hopes make the casino a point of pride for locals.
“We don’t have to have everybody enjoy gaming,” Bonner says. “We want to be something for everyone, though, and that’s why we built great restaurants and the entertainment piece of it.”
That entertainment has included celebrity appearances by the likes of Sophia Loren, Don Rickles and Regis Philbin, and Chazz Palminteri. Fine dining choices include NYY Steak and Sorrisi; casual dining includes Fresh Harvest, Nectar and Sunset Grill. The latter two feature live entertainment, as does the Legends Lounge at NYY Steak.
“We take care of every guest every time,” Bonner says. “They’re here to enjoy themselves—to take away whatever it is that they’re coming in for. We try really hard to provide that. My basic philosophy is ‘Always happy, never satisfied.’ We always want to do better. As good as we are, as good as we can be, we know we can do better. There’s always another step we can take. Whether it’s with the city, picking up trash on the highway, going over to SOS or just taking care of a guest here at the property.”
Moving forward, Bonner is excited to continue to grow with Coconut Creek and see the evolution of the casino.
“There’s always a new challenge,” he says. “There’s always a new restaurant or additional space. We just added a nonsmoking area. Maybe we’ll add a nonsmoking casino at one point. The sky’s the limit. It really is. … We will evaluate opportunities as they come up for growth. But we don’t need to go to that level to be excited about what we’ve got.”
For today, though, Bonner says he couldn’t ask for more, noting how appreciative he is of his job.
“The tribe has given me this opportunity. I’m very thankful every day for the people and the team who support not only me but the goals of the organization. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Beyond the daily grind of running a business, Bonner knows he’s selling a thrill to those who go to the casino for gaming as well as those who stop at a restaurant after work. Recently, a few guests approached him and thanked him for a cruise that they won at the casino a few years ago.
“[When you hear that], then you know you were successful not just in the standpoint of the money but you made a memorable experience, which is really the business we’re in,” Bonner says. “Creating memorable, positive experiences.” ♦