It's shortly after 10 a.m. in a corridor adjacent to the gaming floor at FireKeepers Casino Hotel. A few associates shuffle by en route to their assignments, but they don't pass before being warmly greeted by the casino's new president.
"Good morning, guys. How are we doing today?" he asks, swiveling his head while at full stride to make sure he hears the answer.
And as soon as Brian Decorah, the successor to the casino's first president, R. Bruce McKee, hits the main floor, dressed to the nines in a pinstripe suit and a carefully manicured beard, he lights up, eager to get to the front line of the 236,000-square-foot facility bordering I-94 in Emmett Township.
Once there, he's constantly greeting customers of the casino — asking about their visit and how their day is going and inquiring about what he can do to make it better. He does the same for about a dozen casino employees when they cross paths, seemingly knowing many of them on a first-name basis, though he admits he has to glance at name tags from time to time.
There are about 1,700 team members, he said, and he tries to know them all.
"It’s hard to know everybody, but I do take the time to try and understand what each person is about, where they come from," Decorah said, seated comfortably at the desk of his spacious corner office across from Jim Wise, the casino's vice president of marketing. "I go to every single new hire orientation and welcome them all. I want them to know the expectations and why it’s different to work for FireKeepers."
With more than two decades in the gaming industry, this isn't a reflex, but a way of life for Decorah.
It's a life he learned while working at several Wisconsin casinos in the early 1990s. He'd been juggling undergraduate classes at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but he was finding himself too immature for the college experience. He said he was asked to take some time away from school, a product of pulling lousy grades and misplaced priorities. He doesn't dwell too long on this memory, his overwhelmingly positive outlook not allowing him to do so.
For Decorah, the casino life came calling in a flurry. And it wasn't a glamorous life, at first. He worked as a dock boy at a Wisconsin marine resort under mentor Irv Tessmer, and he later found himself doing security work at another Wisconsin casino.
His first major job was as the advertising manager and entertainment director of the Rainbow Casino, now Ho-Chunk Gaming Nekoosa, in Nekoosa, Wisc., where he spent several years refining his abilities. He developed a taste for interacting with guests and working long shifts and consuming every bit of information about the industry — and thus far, he's never looked back.
"When the opportunity came up to work in a casino, that’s when the light went off for me from two points of view," he said. "Once I started, it’s something that gets into your blood and you’re a casino guy. Once you’re a casino guy — Jim (Wise) and I are not gonna run car dealerships — this is what we do. If this ends for us, we’re gonna be living on the street together.
"This is our career and this is what we’ve chosen to do."
His career led him to FireKeepers in 2013 when he was named the casino's senior vice president and assistant general manager. In June, the casino announced a succession plan elevating Decorah to CEO in preparation for McKee's retirement in December.
Less than a week into the new year, Decorah was tapped as the casino's next president, a move met with critical acclaim among the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, the casino's managing tribe.
“He has a keen eye for an optimal guest experience and expects to treat others as they would treat him," said Homer A. Mandoka, Tribal Council Chairman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, in a media release this week. "He is skilled at earning respect from team members and I am confident he will lead us with vision and a dedication to successful operating results.”
Decorah said he learned much from McKee and his tenure at FireKeepers. Despite their differences in managing styles, Decorah said they "saw eye-to-eye on 95 percent of the things we did here," and the other 5 percent left room for growth in both men.
"The way that Bruce and I manage and lead is a little bit different," Decorah said. "When I say that, they're both effective. I couldn't lead the way Bruce did and I'm not sure Bruce would be comfortable leading the way I do. He's a New Jersey guy, worked in the Trump organization for a long time. From that East Coast standpoint, things are a little bit more direct.
"I guess you would say that's the old school method of leading and you would consider me to be the new school."
Among his staff, he's already garnering respect for his hands-on approach.
Michael McFarlen, the casino's vice president of food and beverage, lauded Decorah for the interest he's taken in his staff and their projects, specifically singling out the ongoing renovation to Cafe 24/7, one of the restaurants housed in the casino. McFarlen said the fact that Decorah gets excited about a food and beverage renovation is infectious to the rest of the executive team.
"The impact of him taking over has been significant," McFarlen said. "The team cohesion and the team building, he’s really embraced community outreach, team building, you know, a pursuit of passion and creativity. He’s really championed a lot of the things you don’t get out of a job."
The leadership role still is settling in for Decorah, six months since becoming CEO and about a week after being named president. He said he tried to describe it this past year to a group of second-graders at his son's pee-wee football game at Bailey Park. The answer, of course, was about his team.
"I wondered how a second-grader is going to understand what a CEO does for a casino," Decorah recalled this week. "I said, ‘Well, I make sure that our team is taken care of and they have what they need to get the job done.’ That really is what we do from a leadership perspective.
"We give goals and we provide vision and we make some tough decisions, but at the end of the day, we make sure our team is taken care of as the employer of choice and they have what they need to get the job done."