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Dallas Morning News profile

Historical society director has art with management

Business acumen helps Wolber lead nonprofit organization out of debt
Robert Miller, 03/08/98, The Dallas Morning News (HOME FINAL Page 8H: Copyright 1998)

What do you get when you hire a music major with double master’s degrees – in business administration and the arts – from Meadows School of the Arts?

The Dallas Historical Society, which hired Andrew Wolber , got an executive director whose mantra is a question:”Is the mission (of a Dallas Historical Society program) related, repeatable and financially viable?”

They also got an arts- cum business-oriented executive director who holds that”there’s no reason nonprofits shouldn’t be as competitive or more competitive than for-profits.”

Despite his youthfulness – he will be 30 on April 23 – he exhibits a vision and grasp of modern managerial philosophy and practice that draw raves from those on his executive committee, such as DHS’ immediate past president and former Texas first lady Rita Clements and the current DHS chairman, management consultant and CPA Bob Clyde.

Andy Wolber with Dallas Historical Society board members
Andy Wolber with Dallas Historical Society board members

The praise is echoed by Margie Reese, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, who constantly”partners” with”Andy” since the Dallas Historical Society is the keeper of the keys of the city-owned Hall of State at Fair Park, that glorious monument from the Texas Centennial of 1936.

Mr. Wolber , a native of Greenville, Ill., grew up in Parma, Mich., and majored in music theory and composition at Spring Arbor College in Spring Arbor, Mich., where tuition was free because his father taught painting and liberal arts courses there.

Music even influenced the choice of the woman he married: He met his future wife, Liz Ford, at a choir convention in Fort Wayne, Ind.

But by the time he graduated, the administrative side of art and culture had captured his interest, and he high-tailed it to Southern Methodist University to take advantage of the Meadows School’s double master’s program.

The full load of courses – in SMU’s Cox Business School and Meadows School – involved majoring in finance and nonprofit management for his MBA and taking classes in dance history, art history and architecture for the master’s in the arts.

He studied without a break from August 1990 through December 1991, then served an internship in the spring of 1992 with Peter Donnelly, the former managing director of the Dallas Theater Center who had become president of the Corporate Council for the Arts in Seattle,”sort of a United Way for the arts,” Mr. Wolber says.

That fall,”I did management consulting with the Voices of Change in Dallas and then served full time as development director with Dallas Black Dance Theatre for about a year and a half.”

Then it was on to the Dallas Theater Center as manager of institutional giving,”writing grant applications for funding for about a year and a half.”

In the summer of 1995, he moved over to the then debt-ridden Dallas Historical Society as development director.

But new blood was badly needed in the director’s office, too, and John Bunten, president, and Carol Hall, chairwoman at the time, turned to Mr. Wolber in January 1996 to serve as interim director and both lead the society into solvency and energize the agenda.

He jokingly attributes his selection to the fact that”I came cheap” and seriously adds:”I was chosen because I had money-raising experience and had a business background.”

Yet he was not sure he was ready for the demands of the position:”I told them, ‘I’m not sure I want this job.”

But those on the board who dealt with him on a daily basis were impressed with his command of the details and the big picture.

As Mrs. Clements says:”I’ve never seen anyone grow in a job, mature the way he did, his self-confidence, total dedication, the way he made hard decisions and always kept us fully apprised of what he was doing.” She was also impressed by the way”he takes the bull by the horns” in solving problems.

Mr. Clyde says:”Andy is on the leading edge in his thinking of where we want to go,” and he is “on the leading edge in his use of technology and management practices.”

The emphasis was on his managerial and business acumen because those are the talents an executive director needs in dealing with the debt.

In fact, Mr. Wolber says the society had been”running an operational deficit for at least five years” with an annual budget of around $800,000 to $850,000.

He readily agrees with Mr. Clyde’s assessment that”nonprofits often don’t understand that you can’t do anything no matter now creative and desirable} if you don’t have the money.”

So the very first task, a difficult task, was to effect sizable savings.

“In January, I literally} lost my voice because I was talking to the trustees” practically nonstop”on the phone working through various scenarios on how to make it a viable entity both financially and also serving its mission.

“During 1996 I downsized the organization so that I felt it was sustainable with our cash flow. I outsourced several functions from late ’96 to mid-’97 – hiring an outside accounting firm, janitorial service and security.

“At the same time, I was trying to find mission-related repeatable programs that were financially viable.” Recognize the mantra?

“We got into the Dallas tours business – five tours a year on Saturdays charging $25 to $35 a day including lunch – but not competing with tour businesses like the Gray Line. We’d go to neighborhoods, South Dallas, East Dallas and cover the history of the area. We would break even or make a little money.

“Then we had our first partnership – with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, working with Jorge Herrera, vice president-sales and marketing in the Tourism Division.

“We worked with them to craft a training program and certification program, charging a fee, that would bring in local scholars and give the tour guides a context” for their spiels. The tour guides even have to take a written and oral test.

This resulted in”improving historical information being given out about Dallas .”

In the meantime, the DHS used seed money from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and others and made deep cuts in administrative and housekeeping expenses.”At the end of fiscal ’96 (September ’96), we destroyed $300,000 worth of value,” Mr. Wolber ‘s way of saying the DHS cut that much of its debt.

He likes the choice of words because”it sends a stronger message that debt is deadly (because) people in nonprofits don’t often look at it this way.”

At the end of fiscal ’97, an additional $60,000 in debt was destroyed, and by January of this year, the Dallas Historical Society became debt-free, which means it can devote both time and imagination to pursuing the cultural mission of the society – such as putting the society’s archival material online.

“The history of this community should be open and accessible to everyone,” Mr. Wolber says, and will be in the future on the DHS Web site:

Since fund-raisers are the lifeblood of nonprofits, he and the society have scheduled the inaugural Stanley Award Dinner for April 24, sponsored by Northern Trust Bank with Jennie Reeves and Nancy Duncan as chairwomen.

“Stanley” is, of course, Stanley Marcus, and he will present the first award to Geoffrey Beene. Anyone who has lived here any length of time recalls the closed social club attitude that once pervaded the society’s membership and remembers that the publicly owned Hall of State was a private preserve of the select few.

In recent years there has been a gradual opening of that closed approach, and Mr. Wolber , with the board’s approval, has taken it a step further by dispensing with the admission fee at the Hall of State unless you take a guided tour or attend a special exhibit or lecture.

Although he eschews the term”outreach,” Mr. Wolber is committed to”getting into community-based exhibits.”

“We used to make the customers come to us. We now want to take our exhibits to them, such as the one planned for Pike Park Recreation Center that would be there three to five years and would give the history of the area,” which was once Hispanic and now is largely African-American and Asian.

He wants to do the same for other sections of the city because “we have the core set of skills in conducting research, organizing information and presenting information.”

“We are working with Margie Reese at the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs to make it happen,” Mr. Wolber says.

He seems to make instant allies in all his dealings and elicits this highly approving comment from Ms. Reese:”He exhibits flexibility, thinks through tough issues and understands the three components that a great institution has to have: It has to have a vision, and Andy’s vision has to do with involving the community with its work. It has to have a commitment to its vision, and it has to have a plan to accomplish the vision.”

Instant allies. Well, not everyone and not every organization.

For instance, Mr. Wolber , Mrs. Clements and Mr. Clyde see the natural and logical marriage of the DHS and the Dallas County Heritage Society, which maintains and operates the city-owned Old City Park.

Mrs. Clements has served on the boards of both organizations and notes that they draw to a large degree from the same people. In fact,”there’s a critical mass of membership” that serves both organizations.

Mr. Clyde and Mr. Wolber heartily agree.

Susan Cooper, chairwoman of the Dallas County Heritage Society, while flattered at the proposal, does not feel that is the right course, at least at the present time. She does not believe the missions of the two organizations are identical or even overlap that much, saying her program is more of an architectural one, though it, too, is certainly wrapped in history.

Merger proponents at the DHS take heart from the fact that it is now debt-free, the debt being one of the main obstacles previously cited by the heritage society.

It does not appear that the idea of merger is destined to go away.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wolber , who has a solid foundation in the cultural world, keeps sharpening his administrative talents:”I tend to read contemporary business books – I steal more ideas from for-profit businesses,” aware that that knowledge is equally applicable to the nonprofit world.

His mantra offers the lyrics; maybe one day he’ll set it to music. He already has the tools.

Staff columnist Robert Miller writes about people and events of interest to the business community for The Dallas Morning News.

PHOTO(S): (The Dallas Morning News: Richard Michael Pruitt) Dallas Historical Society executive director Andrew Wolber (foreground) has gotten rave reviews from Bob Clyde, chairman (from left); Janis Coffee, president; Rita Clements, immediate past president; and Marty Weiland, CEO of Northern Trust Bank, which is the single largest contributor to the society in recent years.

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