In his own words: The Peppermill’s Stephen Ascuaga

Northern Nevada Business Weekly: Tell us about the duties of your new job at the Peppermill?

Stephen Ascuaga: Business Development is a broad term but that’s what really makes the opportunity interesting. The best way to describe it may be that I am working “on the business” not “in the business.” The three main areas that I will be focusing on are the following:

Assist in identifying, creating, and executing business opportunities for all seven properties under the Peppermill Casinos Inc. umbrella. (Peppermill Inc. owns and operates the Peppermill Reno, Western Village Casino and Inn in Sparks, Nevada, three hotel/casinos in Wendover, Nevada and two smaller properties in Las Vegas and Henderson.)

Complement the current Peppermill team’s efforts in continually improving the operations and customer experience.

Build upon the years of community relations the Peppermill has established in northern Nevada.

NNBW: Is it strange to be working at a property other than John Ascuaga’s Nugget, which your family owned for so long?

Ascuaga: I don’t know if I would call it strange. The decision my Dad (John Ascuaga) and family made to sell the family business after almost 60 years was a very thought-out process and it came with a real mix of emotions. The thing that has been very comfortable in my transition is many of the business philosophies I have been raised with, are very prevalent at the Peppermill.

The ownership is very hands-on, very approachable and the success of the Peppermill is a direct result of building an exceptional team. No one is more valuable than the person next to them and that is how we ran our business. To run an operation of this size, it really takes everyone rowing in the same direction.

My Dad always emphasized the importance of getting on the floor and managing with your eyes. There is a value of meetings and looking at generated reports, but it still comes down to getting out of your office and interacting with your guests and co-workers.

NNBW: If you hadn’t gone back into gaming is there any other industry you would’ve gone into?

Ascuaga: This was something I wrestled with and had numerous conversations about with my wife and family and friends. While I wasn’t 100 percent I would be getting back into gaming, I did know that I loved the tourism/hospitality side of things. I’ve always liked the people aspect of our business, and there is a certain level of satisfaction of being part of something that so many people enjoy. We are in the entertainment business, so when people use our services they are choosing us to have a good time. How fun is that?

So from that perspective, I had a pretty good feeling I would be staying involved in some aspect of tourism and hospitality.

NNBW: Are there certain goals you have in your position and is there a timetable on completing them?

Ascuaga: There are definite goals I have. Some are more specific and short term and others are part of a larger, longer term picture. One of the projects I have been getting involved with is the starting of a charter air program called Peppermill Reno Flyaway. This will hopefully build off of a very successful charter program model that the Peppermill Wendover has built over the years. This is a huge financial commitment on behalf of the Peppermill but it is impressive in the sense that it controls your own destiny as a property. We have done a number of flights so far and the load factors have been strong and the guest experience has been very favorable.

Longer term I think the Peppermill is poised to capitalize on a lot of the new business relocating to the Reno/Sparks market. The investment in Peppermill’s convention and meeting space and overall resort experience puts us at a competitive advantage and I am looking forward to being part of that. While there have been struggles in the northern Nevada gaming market, there is also an evolution that is taking place. I feel the Reno/Sparks/Tahoe market really has a great story to tell. And while we have always relied heavily on the Bay Area/Sacramento market, I feel there is a big opportunity with the recent announcement of direct air service to New York City and the addition of some international flights out of Mexico and the UK.

I think the farther away our guests come from the more appealing this destination is for a true vacation/getaway experience. Lake Tahoe is in our back yard, as well as the great outdoor offerings, specifically ski and golf, and the huge investments made in those sectors. There is Old West history. The natural beauty of areas like Pyramid Lake and the Nevada high desert. The cultural tourism of Basques and the Native American tribes, national and internationally recognized events like Burning Man, Hot August Night and Artown. We really are a unique destination. We just have to figure out a way to put a bow around it and get our story out more effectively. And I do realize that is not an easy task and one that many of us are working on. I’m very passionate in regards to the tourism potential for our region.

NNBW: When did your family decide this was the right time to sell The Nugget?

Ascuaga: Over the decades there had been various inquiries by interested buyers. As a sole family owned casino, we were watching the gaming landscape change drastically. Native American gaming, Internet gaming and the fact most successful properties had multiple casinos outside of the market were all factors. There was also the challenge that traditional financing for gaming in northern Nevada was becoming very difficult to secure.

NNBW: Did you and your brother or sister ever think the Nugget would be a lifelong venture much like it was for your parents?

Ascuaga: Tying into my earlier comments, so much has changed in the world of legalized gaming. I don’t think I would say we thought of it as a lifelong venture but it was a very unique time and I’m very proud of what my Dad built and the opportunity we were all given to be part of its success. In addition to our family, there were truly thousands of people over the years that helped build something very special.

NNBW: What have your parents and siblings been up to these days?

Ascuaga: My brother, John, lives in the area and is involved with a number of businesses including a group of car washes he and his business partner operate. I have a sister, Camille, who lives in Boston with her family and works in the health care industry. Michonne has stayed active sitting on various boards and helping establish the Washoe County School District Foundation. She has been enjoying taking a little time off and decompressing a bit but at the same time is starting to look at various opportunities. My Dad turned 90 this year and is still rolling strong. He makes it into Reno a couple days a week. He and my Mom live out on the ranch we were raised on in Douglas County and they are doing great.

NNBW: Are the jobs similar or different at the two properties?

Ascuaga: There are more similarities than differences to what I did at the Nugget and what I am doing for the Peppermill. I would say this is much less of an operational position, and more of a strategic/business opportunity role. They have a great team assembled that is very good at running their various departments. I don’t want to get in their way; I just want to complement the efforts. It really has been enjoyable because similar to the business environment I was raised in, decisions can be made quickly and directions can be changed rapidly.

NNBW: Any advice for anyone who wants to get in the industry?

Ascuaga: I would say roll up your sleeves and jump in. Be open to getting into any area that is available and perhaps can push you out of your comfort zone. Our industry is so diverse that the more you can soak up the more valuable you become. Especially as you are breaking into the business, I would encourage people to work across various departments. Not only does it expand your skill set but it makes you appreciate what your co-workers are doing every day.

NNBW: You worked practically your entire career for your family. What was your first job?

Ascuaga: As kids we all worked on the family ranch for our first jobs. Whether it was after school, on weekends or summer breaks, I always had a job opportunity. I think being raised on the ranch was one of the most positive influences for me personally. I don’t want to misrepresent that we were out working the fields from sunrise to sundown, but there was definitely a work ethic passed on to me and my siblings. Out of all of the various jobs I had at the Nugget I would probably say my days as a bellman were some of the most memorable. You got to interact with the guest; it is a position that really sets the tone for that person’s visit, and there is something about earning a tip that was just a lot of fun.

NNBW: What are your hobbies?

Ascuaga: I really like anything that gets me outside. Even though I was born and raised in the area, I still like exploring the area’s back roads with my family and dogs. I love to ski and golf and I enjoy working the barbecue. I had a year off after the Nugget transition so my cooking skills really improved. At least I think they did.

NNBW: What was your last sporting event or concert?

Ascuaga: It was probably a UNR women’s basketball game with my wife and daughters. We try to catch the Wolf Pack football and basketball games and hope to see a baseball game or two before the season wraps up.

NNBW: What did you want to be as a kid?

Ascuaga: Like most kids it changed constantly. At one point I wanted to be veterinarian or anything to do with animals. There was also a stage when I wanted to be a stuntman. Probably pretty fortunate I didn’t answer that calling.

NNBW: If you had enough money right now, would you retire? Why or why not?

Ascuaga: No I really wouldn’t see retiring as an option. I’m just not wired that way. There are a lot of great things to get involved with and for me personally I like being part of a team effort. I like the variety of what I am doing and the people I work with. Even as I get older, I am looking forward to staying connected and part of something that makes you want to get up every morning and get going. I know a lot of people that enjoy their retirement, but I also see the importance of staying engaged.

NNBW: Why did you choose a career in Northern Nevada?

Ascuaga: I was born and raised in the area. I went from elementary through high school in Douglas County. Being raised in the Carson Valley was very special. It was really leaving the area that made me appreciate northern Nevada and what it had to offer. Between the great outdoor opportunities, the four seasons, and the proximity to other offerings like the Bay Area and the coast, it really made me want to return home.


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