Joining Caesar’s Entertainment was a risk; General Counsel Tim Donovan explains why it paid off.
By J.R. Ball
Wrangling the legal department in an expansive gaming empire with $8.83 billion in annual revenue takes someone with thick skin, steadfast resolve, and impeccable mental fortitude.
Basically, it takes a modern-day cowboy.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what Caesar’s Entertainment Corp—parent company of the legendary Caesar’s Palace—has found in Executive Vice President (EVP) and General Counsel Tim Donovan.
Donovan, who joined Caesar’s in 2009, is of working class stock. Born and raised in the hardnosed South End of Columbus, Ohio, Donovan spent enough time mucking stables and leading trail rides in his youth to adopt a fondness for all things equine. His sentiment is perhaps best summed in a quote he borrows from Winston Churchill, in that, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”
Donovan’s time in the saddle has attracted accolades, including Corporate Counsel magazine’s honor as having one of the Best Legal Departments for 2013. And his time away from the saddle has served to furlough his passion for riding.
While speaking from his office in Cesar’s Palace, Donovan waxes poetic about these magnificent animals and the symbolism they represent. Over the phone, his smirk is nearly audible. He takes a long sip of water from what is presumably a plastic bottle—although one could be forgiven for imagining it to be a dusty canteen—and simply states that, “Being on the back of a horse makes me forget about the stresses of daily life.
An Open Range of Opportunities
Daily life as EVP, Chief Counsel and Compliance Officer means taking decisive action over a wide range of legal and business decisions for a company, whose flagship property alone is larger than some of the frontier towns Donovan’s moral forbearers presided over.
“Take a place like Caesars Palace,” Donovan said. “We have 13,000 employees on property— housekeepers, bartenders, wait staff, dealers. It’s a mini-city. Layer onto that our customers, and on any given day you’re dealing with the full spectrum of humanity, from sophisticated executives to the blue-collar workers. You see every aspect of human life.”
In joining Caesar’s, Donovan was stepping into an industry that was completely unfamiliar; one with a steep learning curve.
“I had no gaming experience and had only been to Vegas once before,” he said. Previously Donovan had occupied the EVP and General Counsel offices with Republic Services Inc., a Waste Management subsidiary, and Tenneco, a publicly traded auto parts manufacturer.
“This is by far the most challenging and rewarding role I’ve had,” he said. “For those outside the gaming industry, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the scope of regulatory impacts on day-to-day operations.”
The oversight of the regulators Donovan speaks of, some 16 different organizations, extends far beyond the casino floor.
“From approvals needed to finance your balance sheet to a variety of transactional requirements,” he said, “we take our responsibilities, as well as responsible gaming, very seriously.”
A Maverick Approach
Keeping issues corralled before they become contentious points of litigation is only part of the job for Donovan. Ensuring that his team, comprised of 25 lawyers and 30 paralegals, is agile enough to tackle a wide gamut of responsibilities reigns supreme.
“When I arrived at Caesars, it was a fairly dysfunctional department,” he admitted. “There was almost no collaboration between the lawyers and their staffs, as well as no centralized vision, goals or strategy. It was really just a collection of lawyers practicing law as they deemed fit.”
And so Donovan saddled up to the challenge, conducting offsite meetings with his entire stable of lawyers. Over a two-and-a-half-day period, his team employed a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis approach to addressing what was broken and where collectively they wanted to make progress.
“There was a great deal of push back, even during this meeting,” Donovan said. “It was clear the group didn’t see themselves as business partners to the organization, which is a dangerous thing of a Law Department. You’re the gatekeepers of what’s right and wrong. If you’re not viewed as having solutions, your clients stop calling you. That’s when real problems occur.”Change, as is often the case, can be met with resistance. For a group of lawyers, who Donovan calls “skeptical people by nature,” the process of getting teamwide buy-in was no joy ride.
Donovan held his ground, expressing to his team that, “some people would not be able to make this transition to a more functional state with us.”
In fact, some did not. But many stayed on. And new lawyers joined the fold—people who believed in Donovan’s vision of positioning the Legal Department as an indelible facet of business operations.
“When I was at Tenneco, I also wore the hat of a businesspersons,” he said. “I had P&L [profit and loss] responsibilities for different facilities in Asia and South America. That experience equipped me with a business philosophy and toolkit to employ a greater business-centric approach in the legal arena.”
Donovan’s toolkit includes a rolling three-year strategy plan for his team, which is reviewed and updated annually, as well as a budget for individual lawyers within the group that runs into the total for the Law Department.
“Today, it’s a much happier group,” he said. “Everyone has ownership of their goals, as well as annual objectives and performance reviews.”
The New Frontier
Donovan’s efforts have been positively received not only by his staff but also from within the industry. The aforementioned Corporate Counsel award, which Donovan cites as “a great honor,” was something he was aware of even in his private practice days.
“I’ll probably look back over the course of my career,” he said, “and see that as the high achievement.”
Donovan is quick to point out, however, that the true honor and satisfaction comes from what the award represents: the culmination of effort on the team level, that once seemed implausible.
“I think that award, which we never would have received without everyone pulling together and seeing the value of what we we’re trying to do as a group,” Donovan said, “perfectly represents how we’ve changed as an organization.”
Humbly spoken by a man who attributes his success to others. And to think, some say they don’t make cowboys anymore.
J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.
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