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Erpenbach blazing trail for women in gaming industry

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Jahnae Erpenbach is thesenior vice president and general manager of Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville.
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Jahnae Erpenbach, a small town girl from southern Illinois, front center in red jacket, loves the thrill of leading Indiana Grand Racing & Casino as a top-flight entertainment destination and socially responsible community partner.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

When Jahnae Erpenbach first started working for a casino, she knew very little of the gaming side of the business.

“I had never been to Las Vegas in my life,” she laughed. “I knew nothing about gaming. If you would have said to me at 19 years old that you are going to run casinos, I would be, ‘No way. I’m not. No way.’”

What Erpenbach discovered in casinos was a massive business plan at work that combined, gaming, hospitality, marketing and entertainment. And she was sold.

Erpenbach is now in her third year as senior vice president and general manager of Indiana Grand Racing & Casino in Shelbyville. And she is mere months away, potentially, from working for Caesar’s Entertainment  – the biggest name in the gaming industry.

Not bad for a small-town girl from Dongola, Illinois, who knew one thing early on in her life – she wanted to be in charge.

“I remember my mother going to visit my kindergarten teacher and she said you need to tell her she is not the teacher ... she is not in charge in my classroom,” recalled Erpenbach, the daughter of educators.

After taking college courses while still in high school – her graduating class had 27 boys and girls in it – Erpenbach earned an associate degree before leaving Dongola. 

“I knew I needed to be in business and I wanted to be in management,” she said. “I like to talk. I like to present. I like to speak. So when I had to make a decision (on a major), I decided I wanted to be a broadcaster.”

Also a college cheerleader at Southern Illinois University, Erpenbach’s effervescent pep didn’t gel so well with a professor, who helped her find the right path in life.

“I was interviewing someone, giving the news and the teacher stopped me and said, ‘Are you a cheerleader?’ He said with that tone and inflection, you won’t make it in this business,” said Erpenbach, who was relieved by the candid assessment. She stayed in speech communications and found journalism, then advertising and psychology. 

“It all started coming at me,” she said.

Erpenbach entered the gaming industry on a riverboat – literally.

“Almost right out of college when the riverboats started coming across Illinois, I started working for one of the first riverboats in the area. I was in sales. That was when the baby boomers were in the heyday of wanting to travel a lot. We had buses coming from Nashville and Cincinnati ... scores of buses on a daily basis. I brought in those buses and took care of them,” said Erpenbach, who found her career path.

Her role at the Players Island Casino in Metropolis, Illinois, led to the Majestic Star Casino in Gary, Indiana, and then the Empress Casino in Joliet, Illinois. In 2007, Erpenbach arrived in Anderson, Indiana, to be the director of marketing for Hoosier Park and was part of the management team that opened Indiana’s first racetrack casino. Nine years later, Erpenbach accepted Centaur Gaming’s challenge to bring stability to Indiana Grand as its general manager.

“I came here to pass on the Centaur culture to this property,” she said. “I will have been here for three years in August. I was general manager No. 8 in eight years here. They needed some continuity. That’s what I’m here to do.”

When quizzed as to how many women are running casinos across the country, Erpenbach was stumped. It never crossed her mind to look up that statistic but she can guess it’s a small handful. It’s not an easy job. Because Indiana Grand is both a casino and a thoroughbred race track, there are approximately 1,100 employees across multiple departments to be supervised.

“It’s all about hospitality and entertainment at the end of the day,” she said. “What is unique about this is we have pillars in the way we approach the business. There is ‘Gaming,’ and there is a little bit of gaming with racing. There is ‘Racing,’ there is ‘Dining,’ and ‘Entertainment.’ And all of those areas are industries to themselves. Learning all that from opening facilities and starting things from the ground up and learning how to develop all that and work within it in a highly-regulatory environment is always a challenge. I learn something new everyday. I have to.”

One of Erpenbach’s biggest challenges upon her arrival at Indiana Grand was meshing both the gaming and racing protocols to make them work together seamlessly.

“We’re completely integrated and that’s not always the way it’s been here, but when Centaur purchased Indiana Grand it was very important that we become integrated so that those pillars really come to fruition to the guest ... so they can see it and feel it,” she said.

Erpenbach is essentially responsible for the front half of the property. Human resources, marketing, security and facilities all fall under her umbrella of responsibility. The track side operations are directed by Jon Schuster. But that doesn’t mean Erpenbach, who grew up on a horse farm, can ignore the racing side of operations.

“From a marketing perspective, we have to get involved in so many things that they do,” she said. “So I have to know the product and how it works. You can’t market something you don’t know. You can’t handle human resources for job descriptions you don’t understand. You can’t handle security for issues you are unaware of. I had to learn that part of the industry.”

Add to the responsibility that Erpenbach runs one of Shelby County’s largest employers – and one of its most visible.

“It’s a very serious job I do,” she said. “We have an ethical responsibility, a moral responsibility to our market to make sure we give back ... to make sure we’re leaders in the community. That is important to me. And we have to make sure we’re monitoring the gaming issues. We have a social responsibility and we take it very seriously.”

In late 2017, Caesar’s Entertainment announced it was in the process of purchasing both Indiana Grand Racing & Casino and the Hoosier Park property in Anderson from Centaur Gaming. As to what that means for Erpenbach, she is unsure. Casino buyouts are not uncommon. She hopes that the strong management team in place will be allowed to continue its work in Shelbyville.

“It’s no secret that Caesar’s is working to purchase Centaur Gaming. With that comes all new ways of doing business. I feel like I’m going back to school to make sure we have a smooth transition into new systems, potentially, and new programs,” said Erpenbach. “I really don’t know what is going to happen. They have not yet been approved to purchase. I’m hoping the success of our property makes a statement about our management team. And we definitely have a good management team. I’m hoping I can stay on and continue to be as successful as we have been over the last three years.”

Erpenbach is married to Curt Erpenbach, a surgical nurse at Community Hospital in Anderson. She has two sons and a 3-year-old granddaughter.