Q&A: Laura Penney | CEO, Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel

The Native American woman's rise through the ranks of the tribally owned Idaho resort has been enlightening and empowering, and she shares lessons learned from her 30-plus-year relationship

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Since October 2019, Laura Penney has served as CEO for Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Worley, Idaho. But her 30-plus year association with the casino dates back to its opening in 1993 when she began promoting bingo. Since those early days, Penney says she has become more "grounded, confident and balanced." Penney also has grown professionally. Being a Native American woman and leader of tribally owned business, Penney has a unique seat among the C-suite landscape. She discusses her background, her role, who has influenced her and how she is influencing the growth of the casino in a wide-ranging interview with The First Call's Stuart Hall.

The First Call: What are key elements to leadership or to being a good leader?
Laura Penney: Understand your values. Be a good listener.  I believe in servant leadership.  

TFC: What are keys to your success?
LP: I attribute my success towards perseverance, following my values and empowering my team.  

TFC: What does being a Native American leading a tribally owned business enterprise of such magnitude mean to you and the Tribe?
LP: I have a heavy responsibility to provide a profitable, credible, fun, safe environment for our employees and customers to enjoy. My ancestors have sacrificed their lives, land and livelihood to provide for our next generations to come. Ironically, we as Native Americans are still fighting for the same basic needs our ancestors fought for — our existence, land, water, language, culture, healthcare and education.

Gaming has proven to be an effective tool to provide jobs, revenue for social programs, land reacquisition and investing in our generations to come.

TFC: Also, how has the landscape changed for women of your stature? You’re now in a position for other women to look up to, but who were those women for you?
LP: There are not many Native American women CEOs. But the number seems to be gradually increasing. I think that we are becoming more educated, experienced and recognized. I am pleased that our Tribe recognizes these attributes. We have three Coeur d’Alene Tribal women CEOs managing our healthcare facilities, casino and resort, and development corporation.  

I have had great examples of leadership, strength, perseverance and tenacity throughout my life. My mother and grandmother were amazing examples of resilience, empathy and courage. My grandmother taught me to respect myself, culture and faith.  I’ve had a mentor since I was in grade school, she has a Doctorate in Education. She always told me I was going to be someone. She often checked in on me during college. She still checks in on me, to offer encouragement and support. My Tribe has had two lady Idaho State House of Representatives.

I have accomplished friends that have seen my potential before I did. They encouraged me to reach for my dreams, prepare myself for success, and never give up. 

TFC: What obstacles, if any, did you have to overcome to become CEO of Coeur d’Alene? Did being a woman make it more difficult?
LP: First, I had to deal with my insecurities and hone in on my intentions. I do believe there was a stigma, that I was too nice and I did not have experience outside of our Tribe. I had to work hard to prove myself, to build credibility and respect. In Tribal Gaming there are few women who are CEOs. Often times, I walk into a room and I am usually the only woman, or the only Native American. I embrace my status and understand my responsibility to break down those barriers and represent at the highest level.

I applied three other times before I got the position as CEO for Coeur d’Alene casino and resort.

TFC: What nuggets of wisdom can you share with others who are working their way through the ranks?
LP: Do not give up. When knocked down, get back up, brush yourself off, reassess and get back on track. Make yourself valuable, put in the work. Find out what the problems or issues are and be part of the solution. Find your support and mentors.

TFC: Coeur d’Alene was the first casino to open after COVID. Being first is never easy, so what was the tipping point to say “Yes, we’re ready,” What did you learn about business and/or yourself through the pandemic?
LP: There was great uncertainty, direction or clarity as to what to do, during those times. Our Tribe embraced its values: take care of the elders, youth and community. We established a task force comprised of tribal leaders, casino executives, health experts, educator executives and law enforcement. We studied and monitored our local data on cases and deaths. We learned about best-practice protocols to safeguard our casino. We worked closely with our health experts to establish strong, clear protocols to safeguard our employees and customers. We communicated, coordinated and collaborated an opening date and process. I am proud to say that we were successful in our opening and not responsible for any outbreaks. 

I became CEO right before COVID hit, and I knew that coming into the position I would have to build credibility and respect. I knew that I needed to eliminate silos within our team and work together toward efficiency and profitability. Ironically, COVID helped accomplish these goals. COVID knocked down the silos and forced the casino and resort team to work together. We all learned, that “All things should lead to the gaming floor.” That is where we are most profitable. There were instances where we had to shut down hotel wings, because we did not have enough staff to clean. We had to reduce hours or shut down restaurants. The biggest lesson I learned was to embrace your values. They will lead you toward what is best for the business, Tribe and self. 

TFC: If you could, what would you say to younger you who is just starting out?
LP: Be patient, kind and value yourself. Keep the faith and embrace your dreams. You can do whatever you put your mind to. 

TFC: What was your path to the golf industry?
LP: My father played in Native golf tournaments and he always seemed like he had fun. He had Native golf friends all over the region. My father, Ernie Stensgar, was Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman, and Dave Matheson was our CdA casino/resort CEO. They were instrumental in building our Circling Raven Golf Club 20 years ago. I am an avid golfer and I’ve been golfing for about 15 years now. I used to watch our CFO leave early to play with other executives. I had heard that the golf course was a good place to conduct business and get to know people. And once I started, I was hooked. I love the game, camaraderie and the beautiful outdoors.

Circling Raven Golf Club has been a joy to market, advertise, publicize and, most importantly, play.

TFC: What are the favorite golf courses you have played?
LP: Wee-ko-pa Golf, Pauite Golf Resort courses,  Indian Wells Golf Resort,  Half Moon Bay Golf Links, and of course Circling Raven Golf Club!

TFC: What is your handicap index?
LP: I am 23.  I was an 18 before I became CEO. 

TFC: Which golf courses do you belong to?
LP: I belong wholeheartedly to Circling Raven Golf Club, but I do play in a women’s nine-hole league at Coeur d’ Alene Public Golf Course. 

TFC: What’s the last book your read?
LP: My brother-in-law turned me on to Max Brooks, "Devolution." We’re all Bigfoot fans. 

TFC: What is the last movie you saw?
LP: "Killers of the Flower Moon."  It was a long powerful, infuriating, sad story that needed to be told.  There are many atrocities in Native Country.  We are resilient, strong people. 

TFC: What’s on my playlist?
LP: I love all genres of music.  It depends what my mood is.  I like country, R&B, Pacific Island reggae, crooner, classical, powwow jams and just recently Mongolian Folk Metal Band:  The HU.

TFC: What are your hobbies?
LP: When I’m not at work, you can find me with my husband, grandkids, enjoying golf, hiking or relaxing at home.