Every CEO we’ve spoken to has had their own unique journey. Matt Davey tells us in this edition about starting out with a gambling regulator, while MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle discussed being a bus boy in last year’s US CEO Special; Kindred Group CEO Henrik Tjärnström won a small lottery jackpot as a child and DraftKings CEO Jason Robins participated in over 100 fantasy leagues growing up. Even then, however, when Per Jaldung says “that, in a nutshell, is how I went from the police to the casino boardroom,” it's a story that takes some beating on the originality front. The Casino Cosmopol CEO tells all from Sweden via Zoom, with a bustling casino as his virtual background to remind us of better times.
Starting out in Gothenburg, Jaldung first came into contact with casinos at the age of 17 during an exchange year in Chicago, though his early career saw him follow in his father’s footsteps by attending police college. With his father the head of the Gothenburg Police Department, he had initially decided he would never go down the same path. Yet, leaving school, Jaldung did just that, learning plenty on a job he enjoyed and that fulfilled his curious nature.
After his years on the beat, Jaldung progressed to more advanced investigations and intelligence work at the National Swedish Police Department, which he likens to the Swedish version of the FBI. It was actually a law program at Uppsala University that reignited feelings the 17-year-old Jaldung experienced when seeing the glamorous casino signs in Chicago. As he studied the new Swedish casino act that was to be passed in 1999, Jaldung unknowingly made his first significant step towards a career in the boardroom.
“That was probably where my interest in the casino industry really started, because there had not really been casinos in Sweden prior to that,” Jaldung, now 53, tells Gambling Insider. “I wrote a paper on this and when I returned to the police force, the Commissioner appointed me to be the contact person to the country's casino company (Casino Cosmopol) and the gaming board. In 2002, I left the police and was appointed head of security and surveillance at one of the casinos in 2001. I held that position for about three years, during which we started to build the casino, staffed it and opened it. I was then promoted to general manager at the Gothenburg casino and worked in operations there for about three years, as well. In 2008, I was promoted to Casino Cosmopol CEO. So for 12 years now I’ve been the CEO. Up until last year, we had four casinos; unfortunately, the pandemic forced us to close one of them permanently and we have three temporarily closed that we hope to re-open soon.”
When discussing his early influences, it’s of note that Jaldung’s father was not alone. Being married to an American, Jaldung’s late father-in-law was a huge casino fan. Together, they visited US casinos annually and, although he himself was never much of a player, Jaldung fondly remembers the exciting environment. He found himself further inspired down the casino path a few years later, when working in law enforcement. He particularly recalls raiding illegal casinos in Sweden, once even physically carrying out a “really crappy” roulette table that substituted diamonds with improvised bolts.
“It’s a long time since organised crime was visibly involved in Las Vegas operations. In many casinos, there has been a shady start in this industry, there’s no doubt about that. But today, it’s corporate business and is highly regulated”
“When you open a casino, it’s especially critical, because everyone wants to test you,” he remarks. “It was the same for us. We had a lot of foreign players and experienced casino people who come to test you. It’s an interesting time the first few weeks, with inexperienced staff. You’re still breaking in all the equipment so you’re vulnerable. I remember working 24 hours a day for weeks at the beginning. Of course we had incidents. We had some cheating, some fraud. But you gain experience dealing with such threats. We also had great trainers, in our case from Holland Casino, with around 100 people who helped us with both security and gaming; we got so much knowhow from Holland Casino when we set up Casino Cosmopol in Sweden.
“They helped us keep things in order so we wouldn’t take too big of a hit as we learned the industry. There had never been casinos in Sweden so we had to train all the dealers, all the cash-desk operators, everybody. There are certainly a lot of risks running a land-based casino. But if you look back that was 20 years ago, and what we have now you can’t even compare, with all the systems and professionalism we offer today, and of course all the security and safety we have in place.”
The incidents Jaldung describes conjure up images of the typical Hollywood scenario: thieves or conmen visiting a casino with only one goal in mind – to swindle the house. Ocean’s Eleven and Casino immediately come to mind and, when we bring these classic movies into conversation, Jaldung raises broader points about the industry. While he isn’t sure a film based on Sweden’s casino market would be a thrilling hit, he is naturally an admirer of the all-star casted Ocean’s Eleven, and the 1995 Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone blockbuster Casino.
One thing Jaldung laments, however, is how – despite their age – these movies still influence the way stakeholders see casinos today. “They think that’s how it is in casinos,” Jaldung explains. “It’s a long time since organised crime was visibly involved in Las Vegas operations. In many casinos, there’s been a shady start in this industry, there’s no doubt about that. But today, it’s corporate business and is highly regulated when it comes to responsible gambling, anti-money laundering, and all kinds of fraud. It’s a different world. But some people watch these movies and think that’s how it is, and that’s not true.”
For Jaldung, dispelling these myths is a personal mission – especially in his role as chairman of the European Casino Association (ECA), one he took on in 2015. Much of his everyday work involves laying out the facts of the modern-era industry. He says: “There’s no lack of risks when it comes to starting a casino. We’ve been robbed, we’ve had fires, we’ve had floods. But ultimately everybody was safe. I think these risks go back to the fact casinos are open 24/7 and attract a lot of people. Inside the casino, we have to ensure people are safe. In fact, I would say actually being inside the casino nowadays is one of the safest places in the city.”
Already, Jaldung’s career makes quite a tale – and we haven’t even reached his time as Casino Cosmopol CEO. That came in 2008, with the four-year period that followed representing the operator’s highest levels of visitation and revenue. It was at that time, though, that online gambling began to grow in popularity, with Jaldung freely admitting Sweden’s online casinos today are bigger than their land-based counterparts. The executive says it is simply undisputable that online competition has taken a piece of Casino Cosmopol’s business. Coupled with tougher regulation, which Jaldung agrees with from a moral and social perspective, the operator has seen repeated year-on-year falls since 2012.
“People are people and we will be there to serve them, entertain them, and provide a great place to play and have fun. There will always be room for this, no doubt”
The coronavirus pandemic, which Jaldung discusses in-depth later in our conversation, considerably accelerated this fall throughout 2020.. But, for the CEO, the decline of land-based casinos in Sweden started pre-pandemic, in parallel with wider society, as people began to shop more online, banks removed physical offices and gambling began following similar trends. Jaldung maintains the belief there will always be room for live entertainment, with modern casinos being more than mere gambling rooms. Restaurants, bars, music, shows, exhibitions, meetings, conferences and gaming can build a good future in his eyes. But he acknowledges a need to adjust to new trends, with competition from other types of entertainment accounted for.
Even in the US, where Gambling Insider points out some executives believe the online experience will never match that of land-based, Jaldung thinks online growth is underestimated, a fire for which the current pandemic provided an extra spark. As ECA chairman, of course, he's able to speak not only for Casino Cosmopol but European land-based casinos as a whole. Having joined the organisation in 2006, he has attended every general assembly since (with the pandemic ensuring there is real doubt this year’s assembly can go ahead in person). The association began its existence as a forum, with the modest aim of getting five to six countries together to discuss the industry’s challenges and opportunities. Now containing 30 member nations, including Switzerland, Monaco and Serbia from outside the European Union, the ECA is headquartered in Brussels.
In 2018, Jaldung was re-elected after his first three-year cycle as chairman: “It feels a little bit like the UN of casinos. We’re very diverse but we still have so much to talk about every time we meet. When I took over, we started off laying out the strategy and what we wanted to achieve. Every once in a while, an organisation like the ECA has to stop and reflect on everything that has been, and what we are going to keep doing, change or start doing. In 2015, we started focusing more on challenges that are common for us. One of them was combating illegal gambling in Europe. There was a lot at that time and still is, both online and land-based. We really had a lot of trouble with online offers, without all the safeguards and care for the money-laundering, and it really tilts the competition situation.”
Here, Jaldung believes the ECA has been successful in raising awareness among stakeholders and politicians. Yet, as he notes, in 2020 it was a task made insurmountably tougher by a global pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic came over us very quickly,” Jaldung reflects. “We were surprised by the speed it affected us. Some countries held out longer than others but almost every casino in Europe had closed by the end of March. Before we closed, we introduced a lot of measures to try to keep customers safe. We implemented distancing, we had screens, obviously all the hygiene things and hand gel and so on, but even with all these measures, some governments have felt casinos and societies need to close down. They’ve come to lockdowns of different degrees in different countries to keep the pressure off emergency rooms.”
On average, Jaldung tells us casinos in Europe were closed for 123 days during 2020, hugely impacting employment and revenue. Casinos are staff-intensive with multiple fixed costs, inevitably forcing a number of them to shut permanently during the pandemic. Most European casinos should stay closed for the month of February, according to Jaldung, while some are opening at a limited capacity, with restaurants restricted too. As many owners will have learned from experience, though, a reopening can almost immediately be followed up by another swift closure.
There’s no doubt in Jaldung’s mind that the pandemic has provided the biggest challenge of his career: “My personal guess would be some casinos will be able to open during Q2 this year. It seems like the spread of the virus is bigger during cold periods. If that’s because people meet more inside and spread it easier or if it doesn’t like warm weather, I don’t know. But we certainly saw a big dip in the virus during the summer: let’s hope we can open up before then.
“In 2002, I left the police and was appointed head of security and surveillance at one of the casinos in 2001. I held that position for about three years, during which we started to build the casino, staffed it and opened it”
“We will have to adapt our casinos and floor layouts, to make it easier to keep people safe. Maybe after the summer, we will come back more with the vaccine having an effect on the pandemic, and we can look forward to a fall where we can start getting back to normal. We hope; nobody knows but we hope. Nobody thought we would be closed now if you asked them last February.”
Although it’s virtually impossible to look beyond COVID-19 right now, Jaldung shares the view of other CEOs that Gambling Insider has interviewed when it comes to gaming’s long-term future. A much-discussed topic within gambling for some years now, Jaldung feels land-based casinos will diversify further into an entertainment centre and meeting spot, rather than being seen as a place to gamble. Food and beverage will be important but so too will be new types of games, with Jaldung keen to reference the Netflix hit series The Queen’s Gambit as the kind of trigger that can reignite a pastime with a rich history (in this case, chess).
“We once had an exhibition where we had gambling equipment that was a couple of thousand years old,” Jaldung says. “Humans have always had a natural need to entertain themselves together with other people. We can meet that demand in different ways. But we always have to make sure we stay on top of trends and sometimes lead trends, invite people to try things that were popular a long time ago in new forms. New types of card games, new dice games, maybe some new equipment. In this field, I think there’s a lot to explore.”
For Jaldung, if these adaptations are made, land-based casinos will survive both the pandemic and digitalisation. He concludes: “People are people and we will be there to serve them, entertain them, and provide a great place to play and have fun. There will always be room for this, of that I have no doubt.”