Biloxi — Treasure Bay’s general manager Susan Varnes is definitely a hands-on leader. Because she’s caught up in meetings all week, she spends most of her weekend time walking through the property to see and hear everything that’s going on throughout the gaming space, restaurants and hotel. In her position for three years, she still goes to every orientation to welcome new employees and holds mandatory town meetings.
“It means long hours, but I am absolutely hands on and involved in everything that happens here,” she said. “The great thing about Treasure Bay is that it’s family oriented and I want to keep that feeling here.”
She likes to read guest comment cards and insists that department heads respond to them, believing they should know what’s being said about their areas and employees. She feels it’s important to give each other pats on the back and do other motivational things.
“What we’ve seen happen here could be a case study in team building,” Varnes says. “The more communication we have with employees, the more interested they are and feel a part of the company. It’s exhausting and we must work to do it, but I can’t walk away from it.”
It’s a tough day when she holds four town meetings for employees, but she wants everyone to know how the casino did and what the goals and expectations are.
“The biggest challenge we face as a team is the hard work to move the boat to a safer location,” she said. “We’ve passed every challenge and met every single one, but we’re in limbo right now because of a lawsuit filed against the State Gaming Commission challenging the legality of gaming sites.”
Treasure Bay suffered extensive damage from a tropical storm two years ago, resulting in closure for several weeks. Varnes describes herself as a fixer who is learning that some things, such as this lawsuit, are out of her control and she must be patient. However, she says that doesn’t mean the casino has no options.
“We’re working on alternate sites that no one can challenge and on things to make it happen,” she said. “We’re keeping up the morale of the team because they know we could be closed down by storms and we want to stay very positive.”
One way Varnes and the management team do that is to tout the opportunities that will come with the condominium development taking place all around Treasure Bay, some of it within walking distance. The condos will bring more visitors and residents seeking entertainment and dining that Treasure Bay can provide.
“It’s development done with someone else’s money and we’re really optimistic about what’s coming in the next few months,” she said. “I’m hopeful for huge development.”
Varnes, who will celebrate her 40th birthday this year, says the lack of corporate bureaucracy at Treasure Bay suits her personality. That atmosphere, she feels, is one reason the property is successful.
“In a difficult market, we’ve done a good job of keeping up with the neighbors and showing big growth,” she said. “We have an energetic team and work well together. We can think of an idea in December and implement it in January. You can experience paralysis with too much analysis.”
Varnes is originally from a small town near Peoria, Ill., and graduated with honors from Robert Morris College. She left a career as a paralegal in 1992 when gaming first came to Illinois. At first she was a dealer but moved swiftly up the management ladder. She had never lived outside her home state when she moved to Vicksburg with the Isle of Capri in the newly created position of compliance manager. It was a perfect fit for her background in table games and as a paralegal. She also held that position for the Tunica and Biloxi Isle properties and the Isle of Capri Corporation. She left the position of corporate senior director of operations with the Isle to work with Treasure Bay.
In addition to serving as general manager of Treasure Bay’s Biloxi casino, Varnes is corporate vice president of operations. She is involved with strategic planning for all Treasure Bay properties, including Biloxi, Aruba, Bonaire and St. Croix.
“It took guts to take the opportunity to move to Mississippi and work in gaming,” she said. “It was a blank slate for me and I’m dedicated to what I do.”
Varnes feels she’s been successful because she took advantage of those opportunities and the latitude given to her, along with her drive and being in the right place at the right time.
Future plans at Treasure Bay call for a new hotel on the same side of the street with the casino after the boat is moved to a safer location.
Varnes will be watching the legislative session closely this year, hoping the greed factor doesn’t show itself in higher taxes for the gaming industry. “That would make it a lot harder to do business; some casinos might close and other companies would pull back on community involvement,” she said.
As a nurturing manager, she feels it’s extremely important for Treasure Bay to be compassionate and involved in the community. Casino employees do the legwork for the Heart Association’s annual softball tournament, have helped build two Habitat for Humanity houses, and participated in efforts for Hope Haven, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, United Way, Gulf Coast Women’s Shelter and Boys and Girls Clubs.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.