New president planning to shine fresh light on longtime Strip casino

Ron Thacker believes his new position heading the Tropicana, one of the Strip’s most storied resorts, is part of a larger rebirth for him.

In 2006, his children were grown and his wife of more than 25 years lost her fight with cancer. That left Thacker facing an uncertain future without his wife, whom he called his best friend, by his side.

After completing a stint at the Cosmopolitan and then Fontainebleau, Thacker resigned from the Strip casino business in August with no real plan for his future.

“I wanted to change something in my life,” the third generation casino worker said. “I was thinking about going to California, one of the Indian casinos. I was talking to (Tropicana Entertainment COO) Bobby (Yee), and I told him I was going to one of the tribes down there, and he told me he might have an opportunity for me here at the Tropicana.”

After a lunch with Yee — the two had worked together at Casino Windsor in Ontario 10 years ago — the 55-year-old Thacker felt he had found a place where he could finally see himself finishing his career.

With a new girlfriend, also an industry veteran, and a new outlook, the Western High School graduate says he is ready to tackle the challenges facing the former “Tiffany of the Strip.”

Question: What is the single biggest challenge facing you at the Tropicana?

Answer: The big challenge is trying to manage in today’s economy. These are circumstances I don’t believe anyone has had to deal with. Try to be creative, try to make the property profitable. It takes thinking outside the box. Our team is going to concentrate heavily on finding unique and different opportunities to survive this economy downfall. There is no place that sets precedents on how to deal with an economy like this in the gaming business.

Question: What was the appeal of the Tropicana position considering the recent turmoil at the property connected to the bankruptcy and the previous owner?

Answer: The historical value of the Tropicana. It’s an original property here, just like the Flamingo was. Built in 1957, it has a lot of history.

When I was a kid I used to sneak down here and swim in the pools. Coming back in here, I hadn’t been in here for a very long time. Just to see the nostalgic value of it. And the employees. There are so many employees that have been here over 25 years it is unbelievable. And the morale is excellent.

I did a little fact-finding before I accepted the job. I came in just like I was a customer, talked to porters, valet attendants, ate in the coffee shop a couple times before anybody knew who I was. I was just truly amazed at the pride the employees here have.

Question: With new, multibillion-dollar properties along the Strip, is there a value for the Tropicana being one of the last old casinos from the original days of Vegas casino growth?

Answer: I think there is and I plan on exploiting the nostalgic factor. Obviously, if we could afford to rebuild everything from scratch, it would be another Encore. But we won’t be able to do that for a while, so we’re going to make this property looking good again.

We’re going to put some money back into the property with the infrastructure itself. Bring it up to the standards our customers expect and our employees expect. That’s the number one push for this year. The process has already started. I think if you walk into this place six months from now you will see a vibrant change in energy we currently don’t have at this point.

Question: When did you break into the casino business?

Answer: Eight days after high school, I was in the Marine Corps and I loved it. My father, Jimmy Thacker, was in the Marines. I just wanted to follow in his footsteps. I was three years active and five years inactive.

I probably would have stayed in the Marines, I was doing real well. I made sergeant in 21/2 years, but I was married and had two kids. I had a good job lined up in Vegas as a break-in dealer at the Golden Nugget in 1975 through my family. My grandfather and dad were in the gaming business. This was right after Steve Wynn had bought it.

Question: How did you break into management positions?

Answer: In 1978, I went into the casino manager’s office at the Flamingo Hilton (Las Vegas) and I asked him if I could be a floor supervisor. He looked at me like I was crazy. I was making twice the amount of a floor supervisor as a dealer. He said, ‘Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “Because I’m looking at what I can make 10 years down the road, not what I can make today.”

So it was a bold move, having a wife and two kids and taking a cut in pay to get into the management side of it, but it paid off.

Question: When did you break into the executive ranks?

Answer: I had a three-year contract at Casino Windsor and I was going to let it expire. Bobby Yee was the president, and I went and told him I was going to take my wife and go back to Vegas at the end of the contract. He told me not to do that and made me senior vice president of the hotel. I took over other entities other than gaming. I took over facilities, engineering, the parking garage and the outside of the facility. That gave me a lot of experience on the hotel portion. I returned to the Flamingo Las Vegas as senior vice president of gaming in 2002.

Question: Why did you leave the Flamingo?

Answer: After 18 months at the Flamingo, I decided I wanted to semiretire. Take some time off while I was still healthy. My wife and I were empty nesters so we did a little traveling. I knew I wanted to go back to work, but I just wanted to take some time off. It’s ironic how things happen in your life. I was married for 25 years to a great person, my best friend.

We took that time off, did a lot of traveling, and then an opportunity came in from the Cosmopolitan, so I worked for them for three years. But after a year, my wife became ill with cancer. I took a year off work until she passed away in 2006. I went back to work at the Cosmopolitan in August that year.

Question: What is your family’s history in the casino industry?

Answer: My grandfather, Oscar Thacker, opened Caesars Palace as a shift manager. He was real good friends with Sam Boyd and helped him open the California Club, now the California Hotel. My dad worked at the Dunes for many years. My grandmother was the first woman pit manager in the state of Nevada at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. My children didn’t follow. It’s weird that they work in casinos but not the gaming part. My son is an engineer at South Point and my youngest son is a valet lead at South Point.

Question: What brought your family to Las Vegas as a kid?

Answer: My mom came out here to get a divorce from my biological father. A friend of hers was moving from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Nellis Air Force Base, so my mom hitched a ride. She got a divorce and remarriage in the same day. Only in Las Vegas. My father, Jimmy Thacker, adopted us. I had a great life growing up here. It was a small town back then.

Contact Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly or 702-477-3893.

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