In Philadelphia, SMG has assumed management responsibility for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. But before all that, he was a public-school teacher.
Was your original plan to have a career in education?
No. I was a political-science major at the College of William and Mary. In the summers, I was coaching. In the desire never, ever to leave school, I stayed and got a second degree in education, just in case I wanted to teach someday. When I went back to Philadelphia after I graduated, I started teaching. It was in that timeframe where finding good teaching jobs was hard, so I struggled. I got some part-time, where I was working in Lower Merion [Pa.], teaching eighth-grade world cultures, and I was the girls’ swim coach.
I was able to cobble it together for a while, but I decided that I needed to, at the same time, pursue my master’s degree. Temple University had a sports-administration program, which is very well-known now. I decided to take a year off pursuing teaching jobs and worked as a grad assistant. Temple University has a medical campus and they had a conference center there, so they offered me a grad-assistant job working in this conference center as, for lack of a better term, an AV tech. That was my introduction to the meetings and conferences business.
I had gotten into teaching because I don’t like sitting at a desk. I found that this fulfilled that same vision. The one, probably fortuitous turn that occurred was that Temple, as part of the program, does this executive seminar where executives from industry come in and speak about their particular area of expertise. A gentleman by the name of Sy Nuddle, who was the executive director of the old Philadelphia Civic Center, spoke at this session. After the program, I introduced myself and said, “This is what I’m doing now. I want to get into the meetings and conferences business.” He said, “Well, I’d love to talk to you, but a company called Spectacor [Management Group] is taking over operation of the civic center. So I’m going to give you a guy’s name and number.” It was a gentleman by the name of Matt Brown, who was going to be the general manager of the civic center.
That was the connection that got me into the business. I basically lobbied Mr. Brown for probably almost a year before he finally hired me as what basically was an operation supervisor. I supervised housekeeping crews and event services, and predominantly was the go-between with organized labor and SMG. That’s where I got my start.
Besides not working at a desk, what was it that drew you to the meetings and conventions industry?
It really was the fact that every day was different. That was what I was looking for. I always hated the thought of walking into the office every day and knowing it was going to be exactly the same as the day before. I talk to a lot of students and people who are looking to get into this business, and what I always tell them is that we can absolutely guarantee every day will be different. Everyday will be a new challenge.
During your career with SMG, you’ve had a lot of experience working with buildings that have had labor challenges. Was that something you deliberately sought out?
It really was not an educational choice as much as it became a field that I felt very comfortable in and enjoyed. One of the things we learned very early on at the civic center was the importance of building strong labor relations with the trades, especially in any multi-trade environment like Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit. Developing those kinds of relationships was critical to our success. I was fortunate to work with some very good people early on in my career who mentored me in both the legal aspects of it but more importantly the human aspects of managing organized labor and working cooperatively to develop a strategy that produced the highest customer service possible.
Has your background in education played a role in your career?
Sure. First and foremost, anybody who has ever stood up in front of a room full of eighth graders knows there’s no room more intimidating. [Laughs.] At the end of the day, management is coaching and teaching. It’s no different. You’re doing exactly the same thing, which is you’re developing strategies with each individual person that gives them the best opportunities to succeed.
What advice would you give to someone who is just entering the industry today?
I always talk to students and graduates about finding their point of entry into the industry. Once you’re in, then you know you can prove yourself through hard work and dedication and commitment to the customer, and move your career anywhere you want to go.
As my father always taught me, you never control whether you’re the smartest guy in the room, but you can always control whether you’re the hardest-working guy in the room. We’re in a business where hard work is the key ingredient to success. We can learn a little bit and we can teach a little bit, but at the end of the day customer service is just who is working harder for the customer.