The Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians is a federally-recognized Native American tribe located in Southern California. Descendants of the Chemehuevi people, the Band has settled at the sacred site known as the Oasis of Mara, located near the town of Twentynine Palms, California.
The Twenty-Nine Palms Reservation was established by the Executive Order of 1895 and expanded in 1979 with an additional parcel in Coachella, California.
Today, the Tribe has built businesses and governmental operations on its sovereign lands, with Spotlight 29 Casino and the Tribal Government Offices near the city of Coachella, and Tortoise Rock Casino near the town of Twentynine Palms. And it has big plans in the future to expand, through the building of hotels and the creation of its own energy grid.
However, just a few short years ago, Twenty-Nine Palms was struggling with a huge assortment of different systems to manage its government and business affairs, which were split over two different sites. With its growth ambitions, it decided that a change was needed and that it needed to consolidate onto modern, cloud-based software.
We got the chance to speak with Anthony Kosturos, CFO of Twenty-Nine Palms, at Oracle’s annual CloudWorld event this week in Las Vegas. Kosturos said:
Just like many other Tribes, there were two distinct sets of everything, systems and people - one for the casino, and then one for everything else.
So you have two different HR platforms, finance, two CFOs, two IT directors. It's a big waste of effort, right? Especially when many of these Tribes are very small, and it doesn't really require all that. So, our Chairman made the decision to group everything into one shared service that will take care of all the Tribe. Not only the current casino and government, but also all the things he has envisioned for the future.
Kosturos said that in HR Twenty-Nine Palms had three or four different systems, in finance it had a system that he described as ‘casino-centric’, green-screen based and difficult to use. It also had twelve different QuickBooks accounts, which made rolling up the accounts difficult and consolidation only happened once a year at audit.
In 2019 Twenty-Nine Palms began merging all of its teams - finance, HR and IT - for both the casinos and government, in anticipation of a move to new technology. In 2020 it started talking to different vendors, assessing its options, and ended up selecting Oracle Fusion and Microsoft 365. Kosturos added:
We needed something that was going to carry us through to the new hotel, to the new travel center, to the future businesses.
Twenty-Nine Palms also, since consolidating its approach, has found it easier to recruit directors and VPs, which have come from all across the country to help drive its future growth vision - something that was important to the Tribe.
So, it made the decision to go with Oracle Fusion for financials, procurement, and HCM in 2020 and went live with a Big Bang approach on January 1st 2021. One of the key benefits the move has enabled is increased automation and cost savings. Kosturos said:
For us a lot of automation that we weren't using before is now coming into play. I think our AP volume has tripled and we've pretty much had the same staff as we did before. Just small things too, like the e-workflows with approvals. We used to have people walking around with stacks of crates for one approval or the next approval. To get a check, from the time it got invoiced to the time It got the check outside was weeks, because the AP team would be carrying the paper from approver to approver.
Things were just getting delayed for no reason. Now with the e-workflows we can get something received on Monday and paid by Thursday.
And the best part for me is we can go in and pull historical invoices now. Before, we would store them on site for three years and then we would send it over to Iron Mountain. We were paying $120,000 a year just storing invoices. But we just did a document destruction of 8000 documents.
Change management is a factor
However, the migration, whilst successful, did result in some change management factors that required investment. Kosturos said he underestimated how much time would need to be spent with staff, and putting systems in place, to ensure that people got used to the new software. He added:
Change management was the hardest part, with helping employees. Kronos used to be a four letter word in our company, and then all of a sudden on day one of Oracle, they were saying ‘where's Kronos’? I just didn't really appreciate how hard it is for people to learn a new system and to do things in a different way.
Two and a half years later, Twenty-Nine Palms is much more proficient in its use of Oracle, thanks to Kosturos and his teams putting in place standard operating procedures (SOPs) and giving people time and the space to adapt. He said:
The key way we overcame that was just time, people just need time to learn the system and feel comfortable with it. Be we also really put the onus on the team members to develop SOPs with screenshots.
So, for example, we have multiple controllers, and we told them ‘for all your staff’s day-to day aspects we want to see a snapshot SOP in the system with where to go, what to do and how to process something’. Once we had those, it was a very quick turnaround of the lower level staff feeling a little more comfortable in the system. And that only took a few weeks for them to put those together.
Now the change management aspect is largely resolved, Twenty-Nine Palms finally has a consolidated view of its enterprise and government operations, with financials rolling up and its HR team able to see all employees across the system.
It’s also changing and standardizing its processes, adopting best practices, and Kosturos said it is enabling the Tribe to think in ways it wasn’t able to previously. Data is also a key aspect of this. He said:
Now we're thinking of how we can capture data? Data that we previously discarded or didn’t pay attention to, how can we capture it? How can we analyze it? How can it help us be a little better? Using different fields, whether it's in procurement or chartered accounts, to capture things in a different way, which we weren't doing before. So it's helping us a lot.
Twenty-Nine Palms has also increased its employee base from 600 to 850 people over this time - and a key benefit of the project has been that staff feel more empowered. Kosturos said:
We're treating this more like a living breathing thing that we can adapt and change. So now we're telling staff, if you see something in the system that's holding you down, or where you want to update it, let us know and we can fix things. There's a little bit more ownership and empowerment with the AP clerks.
The more we can empower the staff with things like how the software is adaptable, the more they're just open to share other things in general. It really helps us grow junior people and make them feel like they can communicate and not feel shy. It’s hard to do and a lot harder than I would have imagined. But this is just another step in pushing them in that direction.
Having the standardized e-workflows also means that it's much easier to promote from within and further the careers of junior staff. Prior to the introduction of Oracle, Twenty-Nine Palms struggled to do this because the learning curve with the green screen systems and all the disparate operations meant there was a higher barrier to entry. With the consistent processes and similar feel of all the Fusion apps, Kusturos said junior staff are able to go and get experience in a variety of different business segments.
Overall, whilst Twenty-Nine Palms is a ‘small’ customer in terms of Oracle’s install base, Kosturos said it has helped the Tribe support its future goals. He added:
It's really helped us in a broad way to do things faster, more efficiently, with better separation of duties. I think we're in a good spot, our auditors feel a little better, and I feel a little better that our Chairman knows that.