Aristocrat CEO Special: Mitchell Bowen - Testing times

By Carl Friedmann

Mitchell Bowen, CEO, global land-based (gaming) business at Aristocrat, describes the company’s culture of resilience and how it’s been the source of efforts to remain flexible.

Can you give us a little bit of your background: how you got involved in the gaming industry, when you started at Aristocrat and your growth within the company.

I joined Aristocrat as a graduate recruit, after a short stint in the pharmaceutical industry. Aristocrat is the sort of business that can offer a career and not just a job because of our size, growth and our culture. We tend to take a long-term view and we invest in people’s development. I’ve worked in the US and in Australia, and held a range of roles including in product management, marketing, sales and general management. Today, I’m the CEO of our global land-based or regulated business, and I also lead the transformation function for the Group.

Can you give an indication of Aristocrat’s trajectory going into 2020 based on strategies implemented and 2019 results?

Clearly we’re in uncertain times, but we are seeing some encouraging signs coming through where customers have reopened and visitation and sentiment is probably better than we would have expected it to be at this point. We came into this period operationally and financially in great shape to best serve our customers. We know that recovery will take some time, and there will be bumps along the road, but we have a lot of confidence in the resilience of the industry. We also believe strongly in our people and ability to help customers adapt and rebound.

From the beginning of the crisis, we’ve been very clear on our priorities and these have remained consistent throughout. Our top priority, which we summarise as ‘people first’, is protecting the health and wellbeing of our people, customers and suppliers

How soon did you recognise the seriousness of the pandemic, especially in terms of how it would affect land-based operations?

We had been putting in place responses to the virus since late in the 2019 calendar year, particularly with respect to our operations in Macau and the Asia Pacific region, so we were monitoring it for some months before venue closures in western markets started. We were able to pivot virtually all of our land operations to working from home in a safe, supported manner within a couple of weeks of the first closure.

How has Aristocrat been able to adapt through months of unpredictability and property closures, especially in Q2?

From the beginning of the crisis, we’ve been very clear on our priorities and these have remained consistent throughout. Our top priority, which we summarise as ‘people first’, is protecting the health and wellbeing of our people, customers and suppliers. This isn’t only physical wellbeing, but also mental, emotional, financial and all the other facets of wellness. We’ve brought forward a whole suite of initiatives on a global level, but we’re also seeing fantastic local and regional initiatives that add to this and also reinforce our culture. There have been so many impressive and moving examples of ‘people first’ in action across our business, which have been a silver lining to a very tough time.

We’ve also been very clear that we are protecting our strategic advantages in product, partnering customers in new and innovative ways and doing whatever is needed to ensure the land business is fit to fight as demand returns. This means we’ve chosen not to cut product development investment, and to ramp up our customer focus. While we’ve reduced cost and maximised liquidity and flexibility, we’ve done it in a very deliberate way that protects what differentiates our business and really positions us for a bright future.

In terms of your operations, what themes of floor configuration and modification are you seeing now that casinos are opening up again, and what is Aristocrat’s response to those needs? How are you engaging with customers and clients?

We developed a customer program specifically in response to COVID-19 impacts called Aristocrat Assist, which we launched in key markets. It contains a variety of offerings to support our customers’ recovery, from marketing to exceptional service support and innovative commercial options. Every customer is different in terms of their needs and vision. Our takeaway is that we have to remain laser-focused on building strategic partnerships with our customers, and continue to be flexible and responsive.

Every customer is different in terms of their needs and vision. Our takeaway is that we have to remain laser-focused on building strategic partnerships with our customers, and continue to be flexible and responsive

Can you detail Aristocrat’s management cohesion during this unprecedented time to ensure employee retention, HRM and peace of mind?

We’ve been very clear on our priorities and these have remained consistent. Taking a holistic approach to ‘people first’ and doing all we can to protect people’s jobs and wellbeing has been key. Being the only major supplier to emphatically say that we’re not going to cut investment in product, customer engagement, key talent and core capabilities has also helped. We have strived to be transparent about the challenges and the choices we’re making, and we’ve empowered local leadership teams to make decisions as close to our teams as possible. We’ve also increased the cadence of communication and are frequently asking staff for their feedback. We’ve brought forward a number of global and local initiatives based on that feedback, so it’s very much a dynamic dialogue and we’re all learning and responding together in real time to these unique challenges.

Despite the negative impact of the pandemic, where are you seeing exciting new opportunities?

We’re seeing some pretty encouraging early signs in terms of visitation and sentiment where customers have re-opened. From an Aristocrat perspective, we have a lot of confidence in the industry, and in our ability to invest and play a strong role in the recovery. Even without COVID-19, our land customers have been looking for ways to provide more unique and differentiating player experiences. As an example, we’re seeing growing enthusiasm for themed areas within venues that create exciting destinations. Our Lightning Link Lounges and Buffalo Bars are great demonstrations of this, and we think there will be more demand and opportunities for innovations like this in future.

It has also been encouraging to see the resilience of our people throughout. They’ve done an exceptional job in maintaining productivity while navigating a lot of changes to the way we do things. In more normal operating circumstances, some of the changes may have taken months or years to introduce, and I think another opportunity that’s come to light through the pandemic is understanding what we’re collectively capable of. It’s certainly making us think more expansively about the ways we can improve what we do going forward.

Based on the severe impact of this year and the necessary responses to it, how is 2021 shaping up and what optimism can you impart?

We will continue to focus on what we can control, and do all we can to keep our people safe and highly engaged. We will keep investing in outstanding product portfolios, adapted to the emerging needs of customers, and we will partner with customers more closely and strategically than ever. While the path forward may be unpredictable, we have a lot of optimism about the future and that shows in the choices and commitments we’re making at this time. Aristocrat came into this period operationally and financially in great shape. We have every intention of coming out of this period the same way; focused on our customers, and furthering our mission to “bring joy to life through the power of play”.

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