The House Always Wins

Sounds of electronic bells, buzzes, pings, and zaps fill the air as Don H. Barden strides along the Fitzgeralds’ casino floor. The cacophony is music to his ears as he surveys his surroundings, packed with guests — something Barden likes to see.

Amid row after row of slot machines promising the luck of the Irish and brilliant flashing lights that create an almost kaleidoscopic effect, he encounters a manager and gets an update on casino activity before moving on.

“I hope I can get to the driving range before I have to fly out of here,” Barden says as he lights a stogie. His tone, however, suggests he knows he’ll be far too busy to tee off. Barden has business to take care of. He’s just emerged from a planning meeting in one of the Las Vegas hotel-casino’s conference rooms, discussing expansion for the company’s Black Hawk, Colorado, operation with engineers and city officials. The proposed project will take 22 months to complete — at an estimated cost of $11 million — and includes expanding the 18,000 square-foot casino by an additional 12,800 square feet, and possibly building a 300-room hotel and 50,000-square-foot convention center (the property currently offers no lodging or convention areas). When completed, Barden expects these expansions to result in a 20% revenue growth at Fitz Black Hawk.

Over the past three decades, Barden has built a multimillion-dollar real estate portfolio, a cable business that ranked among the nation’s largest black-owned businesses, and, more recently, created a gaming powerhouse. Barden is the first and only African American to own a casino in the gaming capital of America: Las Vegas. This puts him in three of the top five U.S. markets — he owns establishments in Tunica, Mississippi, and Gary, Indiana. The strength of these operations earned Barden Companies Inc. (No. 6 on the BE INDUSTRIAL /SERVICE 100 list with $347 million in sales) a 6.44% increase in sales despite a brutal business climate in which established firms, as well as upstart companies, have been decimated. Because of its solid financial performance and ground-breaking thrust, Barden Companies has been selected the 2003 BE Company of the Year.

Growth is the name of the game for Barden, and last year it was partly achieved thanks to the inherent economic resiliency of the gaming industry — even when times are tough, consumers will spend money to be entertained. Though gaming’s overall growth has slowed somewhat post Sept. 11, the local markets (basically anywhere in the U.S. that allows gambling outside of Atlantic City and Las Vegas) have been holding steady as casino-goers, jittery about flying, simply drive to nearby locations. “During difficult and not-so-difficult times, people like to be entertained,” maintains Robert R. Russell, a senior gaming analyst for Fraser Trebilcock Davis & Dunlap P.C., a Detroit-based firm that specializes in gaming law.

This virtually recession-proof industry has encouraged several states to consider legalizing gambling as a means of eliminating budget shortfalls. These moves will further stoke the industry’s growth potential. Currently, commercial casino gaming is authorized in 11