By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY – As the first African-American woman to run a casino in Atlantic City and one of the few in that position anywhere in the country, Melonie Johnson said she is aware of her opportunity she has earned – and the responsibility that lies ahead of her.
But first things, first, Johnson is running Atlantic City’s top-performing casino, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns and restrictions.
“I’m blessed where I am,” Johnson said this summer in an interview with Front Runner New Jersey as the casino opened back up again. “I have a good work life. I’ve got a family that loves me. I love what I do. I’m surrounded on a daily basis by professionals who are not good, they’re great.
“That’s a luxury. Right now, it’s about giving back in the workforce and giving back to charitable organizations and helping. My needs aren’t grandiose,” she added.
Johnson grew up in Lacombe, La., directly north across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans off Interstate 12. She described the challenges she faced being an African-American and a woman there to Philadelphia Magazine in August.
“I grew up in Southern Louisiana, where it was difficult for a person of color to get any professional level job,” Johnson, who earned an accounting degree from the University of New Orleans, told the magazine. “When I went in for an interview at the many jobs that I applied for, they saw a person of color and that was that. They didn’t know on the phone interview that I was a person of color.
“So I went to an employment agency to have them secure a job for me. I paid $960. Yes, I bought my first job. I literally did. But there was so much heartache, so many things said to me. But I never allowed it to break me. I used it as a foundation to prove my work and worth.”
Johnson told FRNJ that she made it through those tough times and the microaggressions to excel in the industry she has come to love.
“I remember when I was CFO and I went to some event and told this person I worked at this casino,” Johnson said. “They said, ‘What are you there, a dealer or secretary?’ I said, ‘No, I’m the chief financial officer.’ I would just laugh because it’s other people’s problem, it’s not mine.
“I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I’ve worked really hard where I’ve earned my seat at the table. I have so many colleagues that respect me. I’m respected in the gaming industry,” she added.
A History of Success
That is evident by Johnson’s continued rise in gaming. Before coming to Atlantic City this year, Johnson served as president MGM National Harbor in suburban Washington, D.C. She has served as president and chief operating officer of Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica, Miss.
Before that, she was assistant general manager at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, W.Va., chief financial officer and interim general manager at Hollywood Casino in suburban Chicago; and as regional vice president of operations and vice president of finance for Caesars Entertainment Corp.
“I do feel since of accomplishment,” Johnson said. “Right now, it’s about how do I want to be remembered and what kind of legacy I want to leave behind. I want to help young professionals move to that next level where they have that guidance and foundation to achieve the level of success they are looking for in their future.”
Johnson learned about sticking it out through tough times before she became involved in the gaming industry.
Johnson, who proudly calls herself “the official bean counter” as a certified public accountant, started working in the oil and gas industry and believed that’s where her entire professional working career would be.
“I loved it. I knew what I liked and I was always very structured and had goals,” Johnson said. “I was there for six years [after graduating from college]. I was young and didn’t know any better. I thought I would retire from there. Then they filed for Chapter 7 and I got the rug pulled from under me.”
Johnson knew she was good at numbers – really good. She applied for a job at a casino because “I needed a job.” She got hired for a position was not originally seeking, leading here to job accounting and reporting. The rest is history.
She currently sponsors a scholarship at the University of New Orleans, recognizing how critical financial aid through Pell grants and other assistance was critical in her finishing college. She also takes the time to constantly mentor young people in the industry.
“I role model by the school of tough love,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I know if I want to mentor someone, you have to lead by example. You have to be an example for them on a daily basis. I like to have a lot of questions and have the mentees come to the solution on their own. Forcing your opinion down someone’s throat is not effective because I know how I am and walls come up. It’s best to have natural conversations and then come to a resolution.”
Johnson counts her father, the late John Marvin Dupree, as one of her biggest supporters. He died in Aug 28, 2019, but his memory and belief in her lingers on.
“My dad went through this evolution process,” Johnson said. “The man that raised me as little girl, I knew when I got married, became my best friend in life. It’s amazing how he evolved throughout those years. He was the best grandfather to his grandchildren.”
As far as the future, Johnson said she sees herself as a property president or regional president one day but admitted she is not a “corporate” person.
“I don’t see myself in corporate office in Las Vegas,” Johnson said. “I need to be in an environment where I can talk to employees and guests. That’s where my strength is.”
Johnson touts the support of her husband, Mark Garmon, children Samuel Johnson II, Sean Johnson and Shelbie Johnson, and six grandchildren.
“Anything is possible,” Johnson said in advice she would give to others. “Find something you are passionate about because that’s what will make you happy in the end. More money could always mean more problems.”
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