‘The only female in that boardroom’: Helen MacMillan shares her journey to the top ranks of the gaming industry

Helen MacMillan

With construction underway at the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in south Ottawa, for general manager Helen MacMillan, the new resort will bring much more than just the brand’s iconic red guitar to the city. 

The $350-million project will take over and expand the existing Rideau Carleton Casino, with the finished site including a six-storey, 150-room hotel, 24-7 gaming floor, and 1,800-seat live theatre, as well as restaurants, bars, gift shops and lounge areas. 

First announced in 2017, the project has been repeatedly stalled by pandemic-related closures, supply chain disruptions and labour shortages. Earlier this month, the company finally held its official groundbreaking ceremony. A completion deadline has been set for the spring of 2025. 

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In an interview with OBJ, MacMillan, who signed on to the project in 2019, said it’s thrilling to see the work underway. 

“I’ve had prior casino resort experience, but I have not had a build of this magnitude,” she said. “I’m still kind of shocked that it’s happening because it’s taken so long. But to see that progress, it’s exciting for sure.”

For MacMillan, bringing the Hard Rock brand to Ottawa means creating the best guest experience possible. It was the standard of service that drew her to the project in the first place, she said. 

“When I got the call from a recruiter to ask me if I’d be interested in a position at Hard Rock Ottawa, I really had to think about it,” said MacMillan, who was running her own consulting firm at the time. “I went to Hard Rock International’s head office and met (CEO) Jon Lucas and we had a great conversation about how the people that work with you and your guests should be the focus.

“Hard Rock’s very much about attention to detail and quality of service and product. It was a completely different experience than I’ve ever had at a casino anywhere.”

The Ottawa Hard Rock resort will also play a major role in the company’s efforts to increase the number of women within its leadership structure. 

“The casino industry has traditionally been dominated by men,” said MacMillan. In fact, only 22 per cent of director and vice-president roles are held by women industry-wide, statistics show. 

Ottawa will be the first Hard Rock location outside the U.S. to implement the company’s Women in Leadership program. 

More than 1,000 women throughout Hard Rock’s U.S. properties have participated in the program, which launched in 2016 and pairs experienced female mentors with women breaking into the industry. 

“I’m really excited to bring this to Ottawa,” said MacMillan. “Women in leadership is a different subject than men in leadership. It’s about focusing on how a female becomes successful when you’re surrounded by male colleagues.”

MacMillan, who entered the casino industry in 2003, understands the value of mentorship from other women in a male-dominated field. 

“Especially earlier in my career, being at the senior executive or senior management level, I was often the only female in that boardroom,” she said. “There was another female leader at that time who was very much about promoting women within the industry. So having another female counterpart was a very important support for me.”

MacMillan started her career in marketing for Casino Nova Scotia. When that casino was purchased by a larger company, she moved out to Vancouver and became executive director of marketing for all 14 of the company’s casinos in that city. A few years later, she moved into operations and returned to Nova Scotia as regional vice-president. 

In 2018, Helen was named one of the Top 10 Women in Gaming by Global Gaming Business, Las Vegas, but she admits it wasn’t a straight path to the top. During those early years, she faced a number of challenges as the only woman in the room. 

“You tend to either find people who can be your champion, or find ways to make an impact on the people around the table,” she said. “I did find a male colleague who supported me, who had that awareness and wherewithal to interject when people weren’t allowing me a voice. That was helpful, but it’s also unfortunate and frustrating at times.”

As more women enter the industry, it’s an issue that’s slowly started to improve, she said. For example, it’s less common to see women’s ideas dismissed out of hand, just to be celebrated when reiterated a few minutes later by a male colleague, she said. 

“I don’t really see that kind of thing happening as it had in the past.”  

Still, men retain the majority of leadership roles, which is why MacMillan remains passionate about supporting and promoting women within the industry. 

She is Canada’s representative on the board of directors for Global Gaming Women, as well as co-chair of the education committee, where she provides mentorship, education and scholarships for women in the gaming industry. She is also a contributor to the Women’s Business Network in Ottawa.

Last November, she was honoured with the Patricia Becker Pay It Forward Award on behalf of Global Gaming Women (GGW), which recognizes women who demonstrate a commitment to the advancement of women in gaming. 

The Hard Rock mentorship program is just the next step, MacMillan said. Part of the focus will be on helping women build their confidence. 

“Confidence is the foundation,” she said. “Helping people understand how to get into a leadership role, how to become a leader and what makes a good leader. How to be compassionate, show empathy and walk the walk.”

It’s lessons like these that helped MacMillan in her early career days. 

“A colleague of mine said to me, you know your stuff, you know the industry, you have trust, respect and integrity,” said MacMillan. “He said to me, you really have to understand that that’s powerful and you have to figure out how to leverage that.”

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