More than four decades ago, long before he guided a Native American tribe to annual revenues of more than $2 billion, James F. Allen held a full-time job as a dishwasher at a New Jersey pizzeria. He was 14.
Allen’s father had died, and he had to support the family. It’s that work ethic that Allen points to first when reflecting on the path to his current position, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International.
“I didn’t have a lot of options,” he said. “But I’m very fortunate. I happen to love work. … I was just a sponge looking for great opportunities.”
And it’s the results from his effort that have drawn industry praise and a lifetime achievement award from Casino Journal magazine, which Allen accepted in Las Vegas on July 13.
“He’s an MVP in our industry, no doubt about it,” Casino Journal Executive Editor Charles Anderer said. “With the Hard Rock he’s been so smart about how they have leveraged that brand, and they’ve done it perfectly.”
Allen’s high school had block scheduling, which meant that he could finish classes by noon and head to the pizzeria for his job. He was in the right place when the first casinos arrived in Atlantic City in 1978 and 1979, where he started working as a line cook at Bally’s Park Place.
Allen also credits the good fortune of being placed in an upward mobility training class at Bally’s. He moved up in the food and beverage side before joining the Trump Organization in 1985 and becoming part of a corporate senior management team for the three Trump casinos in Atlantic City. He also was part of the team that wrested prime boxing matches from Las Vegas, including the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks bout at Trump Plaza.
Allen eventually left to work for Sol Kerzner, developing the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island, Nassau, The Bahamas.
In 2001 he became the chief executive officer of Seminole Gaming. Allen led development of the tribe’s seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood and in Tampa, which both opened in 2004 with Class II gaming.
“I really wanted to do it 100 percent on my own,” he told guests at the awards luncheon. “What we’ve been able to do has been a lot of fun and has allowed me to expand my horizons, and it was the luckiest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Allen is especially proud of what he did with Class II gaming, persuading IGT and Bally Gaming to create Indian-legal versions of their Class III best-sellers. That brought in slot players itching for a taste of Las Vegas, who could play their favorite games. So what it if was technically bingo?
The better slots changed Indian gaming, and, with a better product, the tribes had more leverage to negotiate compacts with states, Allen said. “If I played a part in that, that’s something I cherish.”
Adds Anderer: “You can’t underestimate what they did with Class II slots.”
But what is likely Allen’s biggest move has relatively little to do with gambling. In 2006, the Seminoles acquired Hard Rock International from Rank Group, PLC, a British conglomerate. Then came a massive expansion: from 133 locations to 210.
“You’ve got to keep the Hard Rock entertainment brand strong but the gaming product has to be just as prestigious, and he has kept the product mix right,” Anderer said.
“They’ve played error-free baseball.”
As an aside, Allen notes that he has suffered two heart attacks during his career. Still, at the luncheon, with longtime architect partners Klai Juba Wald at his table, Allen said that “had they brought plans I would have worked on them during lunch. … I’ve always pushed the envelope way too far but it’s what I do and what I love.”
And he is grateful for the benefits a top casino executive accrues, as well:
“This business has created security for me that my father never had.”