Project From Hell

I promise to write on project management and somehow I have very little inspiration to tell a fascinating story about project management. Because I work every day in project management it makes it tough to write about. I have a story from years ago when I worked building casinos for Native American tribes.

The world of Indian gaming is as crazy as it ever was right today with uncertain legal status, questionable financial backing, no planning, tight schedules, poor reputation, and huge financial stakes. Roll the clock back 15 years and I am a young engineer in my twenties with ambition and no real purpose in life. My employment status was uncertain at best. People I barely even know are asking me to build a casino and I seem to be behind schedule before I even agree to take on the work.

The project details are as follows; scope is defined as a casino and that is loosely defined as a building that houses slot machines. Schedule is 60 days from today we will be open and running with a time value of money of $10,000 per day in expected profits. Cost is as little as possible. The location to be determined. Project sponsor is the tribe and they have no experience and are counting on the project manager to handle everything. As the project manager I did not know whether to scream or cry. All I could say was that I bill by the hour.

The tribe has decided to build a casino and even that is not a total certainty with the council voting 5-2 in favor. I have been told to make it happen. The tribe has no money so they have no way of paying for my services. I need to find a financial backer and I need to find that person real soon. What exactly am I going to tell this investor? The tribe will need to enter into some agreements with myself, an investor, a contractor, suppliers and management companies. I think the tribe needs an attorney and I see no way to make that happen without some cash. Think outside the box. Change your frame of reference. Find the positives in every situation. Sell your ideas. A positive mental attitude will overcome all of my shortcomings.

I am alive today to write the story so you have to know that I made it happen. I should have run away and never looked back but I never taken the easy way in life.

I decided that I would go look at a casino and see what I needed to build. How do you get somebody to show you around and educate you about the casino business? Call up the casino and ask. As simple as that, I just asked for help. The world is full of amazing people that will share their knowledge with you for nothing more than a simple thank you. Remember to ask them if there are any lessons learned.

The casino should remain nameless because of some of the disparaging things I will say about them. I have no way to verify the facts and I will only share the stories because it gives perspective and allows you to better understand the hurdles. I was greeted warmly, taken in and shown around and told almost everything about the requirements of the business. Every question I asked was answered simply and very straightforward. I was shown every part of the casino. I was told fairly specific estimates of costs and income. The casino was built for $3.2 million and had 32 investors that put up $100,000 each. All of the investors were local. The tribe made a decision not to pay any of the investors and all lost everything they put up and have no legal recourse against the tribe; sovereign immunity. Financing is going to be much tougher than I thought. The design and construction is becoming clearer. My initial budget of a million is looking pretty light.

I have spent two days of my 60 day schedule on planning. I understand my scope quite a bit better and feel like I am ready to start working on the project. I am now married to this project day and night seven days a week.

I am lost in a really big world and I need some help. I simply just call the man I met yesterday and ask him if he knows anyone that might put up the money for my casino. Oh by the way, have you ever thought about relocating? What kind of salary would it take to interest you? Can I see your current contract? Why don’t you come visit me and see what I am trying to do and meet the tribal chairman…I hung up the phone and just wondered if I really had made that phone call.

My potential management team and investors were there the next day and they looked like they worked all night to get there. I am sitting down at the table negotiating with powerful men twice my age. The investment team has brought along an architect and they expect him to design the casino and the scope is much larger than I am comfortable with. I am not willing to saddle the tribe with debt. The project is starting to get out of my control. The investor controls the money and is starting to call too many of the shots. The tribe wants to follow the investor and is not listening to me.

I catch a significant break when the investor and their engineers and architect find the potential site to be unbuildable. The letter to the tribe sets the project back three days. I tell the tribe I am confident I can overcome the engineering challenges of the site. The high ground water and clay soil are not enough to scare me away. The tribe had enough of the investor and excuses and severed the relationship. What does a contract mean? NOTHING. Time for Victor find another investor.

A few more phone calls and the new investor was on a plane to meet with us in the morning. I was able to lay everything out and told to proceed. I broke ground on the project and had exactly zero cash in hand. I promised to pay the bills the following week. I made some unique arrangements. Work would proceed all week with the contractor and suppliers submitting bills the following Monday by noon and I would process and approve for payment by the end of the day and money would be transferred by the investor. Checks would be cut and signed Tuesday morning and delivered by noon on Tuesday. Everyone was willing to work under these terms. On Monday I submitted my requisition and on Tuesday there was no money. I called everyone and apologized and stopped work. The tribe severed relations with our second investor in two weeks. By the way I still have a hard deadline for my opening.

The next investor showed up a day later and I had warned him the tribe was not feeling too warm and fuzzy. The investor had flown in from Costa Rica and I do not know if he owned the plane or was just renting. I could only wonder about international travel protocols and how a person can show up on 24 hours notice. The meeting was at the site and held on the hood of truck. I saw a briefcase full of cash and a total lack of disclosure. I am not sure who he is and he does not want a contract just a handshake. The tribal chairman refuses the offer to join forces with an unknown cash source from Costa Rica. Find one that is a little more ethical please, Victor.

The fourth investor actually called me. He had heard a rumor that I was looking for some financing. I asked if he minded sharing with me the source of the funds. He is a practicing doctor. I asked if he understood anything about Indian gaming. He seemed to be legitimate and was willing to join forces. I invited him to come meet the tribe and he declined saying he could not come for at least a week. He asked for an account number and said he would transfer $200,000 to get me out of my current financial trouble and show good faith. The tribal chairman was leery but he was going to trust my judgment.

I made the phone calls and the project was underway. The construction was proceeding seven days a week and I had a revised schedule. The bills were getting paid and the doctor was living up to his word. The final days before the casino opened were entirely too hectic to describe and would fill up an entire story. I managed to get a casino manager hired and on board in time to work with me on the casino layout and esthetics. The casino managed to hire and train staff in time to make our original 60 day schedule. In an effort to be completely honest I have to admit that it was actually 61 days from the day I walked into the project until the day we opened. The manager and I picked a date for the opening based on the day of the week with a Thursday evening opening. I made the opening date with no room to spare.

The project was a success in many ways. I may never recover from working on the project as the stress probably cost me many years of my life. No amount of money would convince me to tackle this project again. Well it would need to be at least seven figures and I would want 90 days to complete the project.

I did build four of these casinos over the next couple years.

I am older and wiser these days.

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