Emily Gaines is one of HR's Rising Stars for 2011.
Her greatest challenge: To help rein in the company's medical spending, which is about $330 million per year.
Her greatest accomplishment: Instituted a wellness program, on-site nursing and benefits scorecarding, which reduces emergency-room visits, increases generic-drug utilization and helps detect serious diseases early.
With her mind set on a career in marketing and strategy, Emily Gaines was shocked by her results on a career-assessment exercise while attending Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The test said she'd be a great fit for HR.
"I was very dismissive of it, quite honestly ... 'Who wants to be in human resources?' " she recalls. "I'm a consultant, I'm a marketer. I completely dismissed the results."
Even after she found herself enjoying classes in organizational design and HR strategy, she still wasn't convinced of HR's value.
"I didn't understand what HR could and should be at an organization," she admits. "I had a narrow, traditional view of HR being a staff function, an administrative function. I didn't really get it."
That's a funny start for someone who -- in just six years -- has helped change the face of wellness, benefits and succession planning at Caesars Entertainment while rising to the position of vice president of compensation, benefits and HR effectiveness.
Her accomplishments led her to be named to our 2011 HR's Rising Stars list.
With Caesars employing 65,000 people and spending $330 million on medical benefits each year, Gaines knew that saving money on healthcare was imperative, so she teamed up with New York-based Towers Watson to create an integrated benefits strategy that offered lower premiums to folks who joined the company wellness program and received biometric screenings from on-site nurses. Those who didn't join paid higher premiums.
Gaines helped develop the program and introduced scorecarding to show all employees its exact effects.
So far, more than 35,000 employees have completed wellness screenings, leading to early diagnoses of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Gaines says the company expects to save around $35 million over the next five years.
The on-site nurses and wellness centers can also help people who don't normally see medical professionals.
"We know a lot of our [employees don't] have primary-care physicians," she says, "so let's educate them on our wellness-center option to make sure they're seeing a doctor."
Results have been terrific so far: Emergency-room visits are down 20 percent, saving $2 million; and generic-drug utilization is up 15 percent, saving $3 million.
Those are great strides for someone who never even intended on staying with the company for more than a year. She only moved from California to Las Vegas in 2005 to be with her boyfriend (now husband), who was living there temporarily.
But she joined at an exciting time at the company, especially after Harrah's acquired Caesars Entertainment (and took the Caesars name), doubling in size.
It was at that time that company leaders found the talent pipeline to be lean and realized they needed to focus much more on attracting and developing top talent.
So they tapped Gaines to reinvigorate the company's President's Associate Program -- which provides rotational, developmental assignments for recent MBA graduates. Gaines had to build Caesars' employment brand on business-school campuses and convince them that gaming had plenty to offer.
Under Gaines' guidance, the program hired more than 75 new, quality people in her first year, up from 15 the previous year. The company even made Fortune magazine's list of the Top 100 MBA employers.
From then on, her career was off and running, especially since Senior Vice President of Human Resources Mary Thomas worked to make HR a trusted adviser at the company -- something Gaines never thought possible before.
"I saw how the function was evolving and becoming more credible and having an impact on the business," says Gaines. "I am a huge convert."
What was supposed to be a short stint in Vegas turned out to keep Gaines in Vegas long-term.
Even though you'd be hard-pressed to find her playing a slot machine or table game (she's more into live performances and even deferred her admission to Stanford for a year to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer), Gaines says working at Caesars is about much more than gambling.
"It's an entertainment business. There are elements of just about everything. You've got gaming, certainly, but then you've got hospitality, food and beverage, and big retail," she says.
And going to work every day at Caesars Palace, the company's headquarters, is not too taxing.
"If I decide not to take the freeway for whatever reason, I can drive straight down Las Vegas Blvd.," she says.
"Sometimes, I pause and say, 'Who would have thought that this is where I go to work every day?' It's pretty cool."
Gaines says she's fortunate that she's been put on a great career path -- but says she must earn it constantly.
"As I look forward, I hope to be in a head-of-HR position one day, either here or somewhere else. I'm very grateful for the opportunity that Mary has given me in rotating me around deliberately to help prepare me for that position," says Gaines.
"While I think it's nice to be on the succession plan," she adds, "I think I have a responsibility to earn my place there."