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Over from Down Under, former lawyer helps Bally Technologies thrive

Gavin Isaacs has seen far more of the United States than his native Australia.

With roughly 85 percent of Australia’s population inhabiting about 1 percent of the total country, travel in the land Down Under is somewhat easier.

"You’re effectively talking about a portion of the country that is about the size of the coast line from South Carolina to the tip of Florida," said Isaacs, 43, chief operating officer for Bally Technologies Inc.

Isaacs spent 12 years as a corporate lawyer in Sydney, Australia, before a headhunter asked him whether he had any desire to join the slot machine industry in 1999. Within a month, he became the head of the legal department for Australian gaming equipment giant Aristocrat Leisure Ltd. The company is one of the country’s top 50 publicly traded companies.

As the head of the games side for Bally Technologies since September 2006, Isaacs spends a lot of time visiting the slot maker’s customers throughout the United States and Canada.

"I’ve learned America pretty quickly," said Isaacs, whose speech still carries a pronounced Australian accent. "I’ve been traveling to places in this country most people have never heard of."

Isaacs joined Bally Technologies after serving as the president of the American division for Aristocrat for three years. The company ran into trouble soon after moving into the American market in 2001. Isaacs, who had been running Aristocrat’s European division, was dispatched by the corporate offices to right the listing ship.

"We had a lot of fun fixing it," said Isaacs, who has lived in the United States since March 2003. "We put together a great team with a great focus."

When Aristocrat changed direction, Isaacs decided to leave when his contract expired. Aristocrat wanted him to return to Australia, but Isaacs wanted to stay in the United States and began exploring his options.

Bally Technologies, which was going through a financial turnaround under CEO Richard Haddrill, quickly moved to the forefront.

Question: What brought you to Bally Technologies?

Answer: I really liked the position Bally was getting into and I really liked (Haddrill) and the people here. I would love to live back in Australia or Europe. For gaming, the best place to be is in the U.S. This is really the center of gaming.

Question: Have falling casino revenues affected the slot machine industry?

Answer: There are good opportunities for Bally. Our systems side has done a great job putting good product out there. We’re doing an unbelievable job in systems. The challenge for the games business is to focus on the customer. At this time, the most sensible way to grow business is to invest in your product. Players still want to play, and they want to play the newest and most popular games.

If you don’t do it, you’ll lose customers. So in many ways, it’s a good time to invest in your property and product. Putting in the newest and latest products on the floor, which players want to play and drives revenue makes a lot of sense.

Question: Are casinos buying new games?

Answer: We talk as if it’s all gloom and doom and no one is buying. Some of the big guys aren’t buying and some of them are. The American Indian casinos are still buying. On the East Coast and in Pennsylvania, with all those expansions, people are buying. The new product is still going out and there’s still a good demand for it.

Question: Are Las Vegas casinos investing in new games?

Answer: Unfortunately, in Las Vegas it’s a lot tougher. It would be great if people would invest in their floors. It’s a transition time in Las Vegas, with casinos going from one extreme to another. We don’t know if (video) poker was the driving force it once was. We’re not sure if it is still the right model.

Question: How are Bally’s prospects for server-based gaming?

Answer: We’re pretty dominant in the systems field. We’re running 31 ethernet gaming floors today. Through systems, you can do a lot with server-based games. In our view, it’s an evolution instead of a revolution. You can use your existing infrastructure and bring in server-based elements, such as marketing, across the floors. We will give casinos the tools they can use for casino marketing.

Question: How quickly does the technology change?

Answer: Nothing moves really that quickly in gaming. Compared to a BlackBerry, we’re about five years behind in gaming. The important part for us is to stay out in front of the curve.

Question: How much are you traveling?

Answer: I’ve been on the road almost every week over the last four months. We’re very customer-focused and we love getting out there to visit our customers. About 80 percent of my travel is in North America. I make two trips to Macau a year and one trip to our office in India. I’ve worked out travel pretty efficiently but it still hurts. We don’t have a corporate jet. Our corporate jet is Southwest.

Question: Where does Las Vegas stand in the gaming community?

Answer: Gaming has grown beyond Las Vegas, such as Southern California and some parts of the East Coast. The casinos in Connecticut are huge. You go to the Midwest and riverboats and you find players who used to come to Las Vegas for the weekend. But now, they stay there.

Still, Las Vegas is very important to the image of gaming. We absolutely want to see a healthy industry in Las Vegas and I think there always will be. It’s a place that will rebound quickly.

Question: How does a lawyer end up in gaming?

Answer: It was fate. I was working at a law firm with 160 partners. We had a partners meeting one day and I had made a few comments that didn’t go down well. In the hierarchy, I was too young to be telling the older partners certain things. Then the headhunter called and wanted to know if I wanted to get out of law. I haven’t looked back.

Question: Do you gamble?

Answer: I’m a nut for roulette. I do enjoy playing slots and I play different types of slots. I’ll play different games. I play other company’s games to learn about them. I like to play our games to see how they play in large environments. It keeps you abreast of what’s going on in the market.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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