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Port Madison Enterprise's CEO Russel Steele makes it so
By TARA LEMM
SUQUAMISH — It could be said he takes a lot of “abuse” for his choice of car: a 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix.
This is so because recently Russel Steele’s wheels had a slight carburetor fire near his Suquamish Clearwater Casino office — all the flames were extinguished in time.
Steele also might take a little heat for his choice of four-wheeled transportation, because it’s not really the type of vehicle one would imagine the Chief Executive Officer of Port Madison Enterprises (PME) to cruise in.
But Steele’s choice of car mirrors his down-to-earth, humble style.
And anyway, he has far more important things to occupy his time than worrying with a flashy car.
“My daughter’s in college and that isn’t cheap and I have a few other kids I’m helping out,” Steele said. “There are priorities, and a car isn’t one of them.”
What are top priorities for Steele are continuing to grow the business ventures of PME — Cleawater Casino, Kiana Lodge, The Masi Shoppe, Longhouse Texaco, Suquamish Village Shell, Suquamish Subway and Agate Pass Business Park — and fostering the personal well being of the Suquamish Tribe while providing employment and personal growth opportunities.
This is a quest Steele and his employees have been wildly successful at in the eight years Steele’s been CEO.
In his years, Steele has spearheaded the successful opening of the North End’s first casino and resort, overseen the expansion of PME’s retail operations and the acquisition of the award-winning Kiana Lodge.
When asked how he does it all, Steele plays a trump card of humility; it’s a card that perfectly describes the 63-year-old, who, after his father died, donned a pair of his father’s suspenders. He’s made that pair, along with an assortment of other trouser holders, a permanent part of his daily motif.
“It was just hard work and the coming together of minds and focusing on a direction we wanted to go,” he said. “Kiana Lodge was an emotional (acquisition) because my mom went there for dances in the ‘30s.”
Also aiding in Steele’s ability to lead PME down consecutive years of positive growth is this self-described Trekkie’s (TNG) slogan (he has a life-sized cutout of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in his office): “Make it so.”
“He says ‘Make it so,’ to everyone every day when we have big projects,” said April Leigh, Clearwater’s media coordinator. “Everything is ‘make it so.’”
Others have also taken notice of PME’s successes, as the Kitsap Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau recognized Steele with the Bob Morrissey Lifetime Achievement award Feb. 4.
Steele, to say the least, was humbled by the honor he didn’t expect to receive.
“I consider it more for PME. It’s always a joint effort around here,” said Steele, who nonetheless felt as though Feb. 4 was a bit of a fantasy, until he went home to Cynthia, his wife of four years.
“I get home and I’m excited to tell my wife why and she goes, ‘That’s nice. Make sure to take the garbage up the hill so they can pick it up.’ It was a little reality check.”
But spending just a few moments talking with this Seattle native whose employees affectionately call the “Man of Steele,” — his office has a bit of a Superman theme going — it’s clear he doesn’t need a reality check.
Steele started his hospitality career in the scullery in 1970 as a dishwasher at Sun Valley.
From there he was the food and beverage manager at the Hilton at Seatac, then he bounced to San Francisco to open Henri’s Room, then it was off to Tahoe, Reno, Fresno, Syracuse, Portland, Sacramento, Albuquerque and finally home to Northwestern Washington.
“That’s the nature of the business, you get to be a little gypsy,” he said. “Yeah it was a long road.”
Steele has spent his life traversing the world of hospitality because he likes the involvement with the people, he said.
He uses a sports team analogy to describe the relationships he and his staff share: “There’s all sorts of special bonding moments.”
When he’s not working crazy hours as a CEO — he usually takes only Mondays off — he loves to play softball and watch hockey, read books, study history and listen to music from opera to country (but the Gipsy Kings are his favorite).
In his lifetime of successful careers and business ventures, when asked what his greatest accomplishment is, Steele said his 23-year-old daughter.
“She’s going to film school and doing something she passionately cares about,” he said.
As for retirement, he’s not sure about that, but he knows he’ll “continue to do something.”
But he does have a plan.
PME has an internship for tribal members, complete with scholarships, books and stipends.
Currently one student is working through the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ hospitality program, and that is Steele’s ticket to retirement.
“I refer to that as my retirement plan,” he said. “Let’s get the kids back and they can develop it.”