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Running the business of putting on shows

Rochester Business Journal
January 10, 2003
Although he is no Inspector Javert dogging Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables," Donald Jeffries keeps his eye on his objectives.

Jeffries, president and CEO of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League Inc. since May, lists making the non-profit's brand a household name among his chief aims.

RBTL-known as a roadhouse-brings Broadway-type productions, such as "Les Miserables," "Phantom of the Opera" and "Mama Mia!" to Rochester. The group leases space in the Auditorium Center for its fall through spring season.

RBTL's musical events, such as Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow concerts, have filled both the Aud and the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua.

"Everyone knows the events," Jeffries, 51, says. "But they don't know who we are. We never say RBTL presents ... We need to get our name out there."

But consumer education is not his ultimate goal. Jeffries wants every area theatergoer to want to see an RBTL production, no matter what venue.

Some Rochester folks travel to Toronto or Broadway to see the same shows that come here-primarily to avoid the uncomfortable Auditorium, he says. Although some work was done to improve the facility in 1996, the 75-year-old theater shows its age.

Even blockbuster shows-all of the recent "Mama Mia!" performances nearly sold out-are not enticing some former patrons.

"I was playing in a golf tournament just after my new position here was announced," Jeffries says. "I must have had 40 people come up to me and say, 'Hey, congratulations. By the way, I won't go to the Auditorium-I hate the seats, it's too hot, my wife doesn't like it because the line at the ladies' room is too long. But hey, congratulations, you'll do a great job.'"

RBTL has been operating in the red, with close to a $1 million annual deficit, for the last couple of years. Jeffries was hired as CEO to turn the group's financial problems around.

Since coming on board, Jeffries has been streamlining the agency's operations and cutting expenses to reduce the loss. In addition, he has been researching the funding situations of similar theater groups in other cities, looking for alternatives.

RBTL plans to buy the large theater it uses in the Auditorium Center, then invest $2 million in renovations. The asking price for the theater is $1 million. Renovations would include new seating, heating and air conditioning, and bathrooms.

"I'm going to make the Auditorium a place to be. I'm going to make the Auditorium a comfortable, nice place," he says.

RBTL, with 18 employees and an annual budget of $13 million, has been paying some $200,000 a year to rent the theater.

"In the business model for a non-profit, that doesn't work," Jeffries says.

RBTL hopes to announce its purchase of the Auditorium by the end of this month. When the purchase closes, RBTL will move its East Avenue administrative offices there. In addition, RBTL is looking to scale back its ticket operation. Fewer people are walking up to a ticket window to purchase tickets. Almost half of RBTL ticket buyers now purchase online, Jeffries says.

RBTL is the odd man out among similar Broadway-style roadhouse groups in the state, Jeffries says.

"Shea's theater in Buffalo is owned by the county. The theater in Syracuse is owned by the city-it's the same in Albany and Binghamton. All these theaters are owned by a municipality and there is no rent," he says.

The other cities also have been able to secure funding for improvements and renovations, he says.

"Syracuse just received $3.8 million in state money to fix up their theater. Buffalo got $4 million last year. It seems obvious to me that Rochester's been left off the map," Jeffries says.

Performing-arts center

A proposal to build a performing-arts center in Rochester has been on the table for several years. RBTL still plans to participate in that project when it eventually comes to fruition, Jeffries says.

"The performing-arts center is going to happen. But in the meantime, we've got to fix up the Auditorium," he adds.

Having more than one stage at RBTL's disposal would make it possible to book other types of entertainment, he says.

"We could have several different events at any one time. You know people ask why we don't do more city-type events, or why we don't do more ballet or that type of thing," Jeffries says. "The Aud is the only stage big enough to do those big productions. When we build the performing-arts center, we could have two good venues downtown."

RBTL also manages the arts center in Canandaigua. FLPAC is owned by Ontario County and operated by Finger Lakes Community College. The college hires RBTL to book the summer shows for the venue, manage the events and run the concessions.

"Again, the Rochester area has been absolutely awful at receiving funds from the government," Jeffries says. "The shell in Binghamton receives $250,000 a year from the state. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center gets $1 million a year. Artpark in Buffalo gets over half a million (dollars) a year. The Finger Lakes gets nothing."

The primary reason RBTL has not received state funding is because no one has ever gone to bat for it, Jeffries says. He is rectifying that problem.

"We have not been asking," he says. "When we talked to our state representatives, that's basically what they told us-you have to make a case."

With ticket prices for shows creeping closer and closer to three figures, theatergoers might wonder why RBTL needs money. Jeffries quickly points out RBTL does not set ticket prices and receives little of that revenue.

When big shows such as "Mama Mia!" come here, the promoter sets the ticket prices. The promoter usually fronts the money to sponsor the show, hoping to recoup the investment and make a profit from ticket sales, Jeffries says.

RBTL gets a small percentage of the sales and concessions to pay for the event marketing, the venue and other overhead.

However, top performers often set the ticket prices and dictate the terms for an event, he says.

"We had Dave Matthews at the Finger Lakes. We had 17,000 people, the biggest crowd we've ever had. Dave Matthews got 100 percent of the gate, plus a percentage of the concessions," he says. "We made $600 net profit on beer sales."

RBTL, a non-profit, is not looking to make big profits, Jeffries adds.

"We just don't want to be in the red," he says.

Dollinger Travel

Operating in the non-profit sector is new for Jeffries. He came to RBTL from Dollinger Travel Inc. He had bought that company in 1985 from Leslie Dollinger.

Jeffries grew Dollinger Travel from four travel agents and two offices in 1985, to 100 agents and 14 offices. He sold the company three years ago to Navigant International Inc.

As part of the sale, Jeffries had negotiated a two-year employment contract. But he left with six months left to go.

"It was very difficult for me to go from running my own business to working for another company that was running my business," Jeffries says. "It was next to impossible, sitting and watching someone else control the company that I had built. I had to leave."

He did some free-lance work for HPA Consulting Group Inc. after leaving Navigant, and was active in various community efforts. Among his volunteer projects, he served as an RBTL director.

RBTL was incorporated in 1957 and survived a number of little deaths and reincarnations. For a few years in the 1970s and 1980s, RBTL was merged with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc.

The RPO hit hard financial times, however, and could no longer support RBTL. In 1987, Nancy Calocerinos and John Parkhurst revived RBTL and took it from a $2 million annual budget to its current $13 million.

They jointly have run RBTL since 1987.

"John's and my strengths are opposites," Calocerinos says. "We complement each other. But as we grew bigger, there was no one in charge. We didn't have the leadership and we needed it."

As an experiment, RBTL hired a consulting CEO, John Daybolt, in November 2001. Daybolt died last May.

The board then approached Jeffries and asked him to take over.

"This was really a challenge for me. It's a turnaround and I just love getting my hands around the financials and dealing with all the people issues," he says. "And this organization is very high profile and really important to Rochester."

As its first formal president and CEO, Jeffries changed the shape of the organization. He made Calocerinos and Parkhurst executive vice presidents. Calocerinos is in charge of marketing; Parkhurst operates the venues.

"When I first got here, the management team was kind of like a straight-line team," Jeffries says. "There was no clear definition of who did what. The venues were fine, and the sales and promotion were fine, but the hiring and firing, the profit and loss stuff (wasn't)."

Jeffries also created a chief financial officer's position.

"I wanted more accountability for the numbers," he says.

Although RBTL is Calocerinos' and Parkhurst's baby, giving its charge to Jeffries has been relatively easy, Calocerinos says.

"We needed the boss," she says. "And the interesting thing is Don is firmly committed to working as a team. He wants us all to contribute. I don't personally feel like I lost anything-I just have more help."

Calocerinos' talents lie in marketing and publicity. The extra hands have helped RBTL create another annual season of children's programming and led to capacity crowds for "Mama Mia!"

"It's because his being here means I had time to do my job," she says.

People like to work

Jeffries prefers to let people do their jobs with as little interference as possible. The old management model, based on the concept that people basically do not want to work, is wrong.

"I think people like to come to work. If you give them a lot of latitude to do their job, they do it well and enjoy it," he says.

Managing at RBTL has been simple because people were passionate about their work before he showed up, Jeffries says.

"We had the Temptations at the Aud last night. I was there till about 11:30, then I get here at quarter to nine this morning," he says. "When I got here, people were already running around-the same people who were working last night. And they were smiling. People work tremendous hours here."

Managing a non-profit is not much different from running a for-profit business, Jeffries says.

"Travel is a customer-oriented business and so are we. Our customers are the people who go to the theater," he says.

Non-profit managers report to a board, but RBTL's board has given Jeffries as much latitude as he needs to get the organization back on track, he says. His experience as a board member gave Jeffries a strong sense of the board's intentions.

An original

"(Jeffries is) one of the last Rochester originals," Justin Doyle says.

Doyle, a partner with Nixon Peabody LLP, has known Jeffries since childhood.

"There aren't too many like him around. He has an extensive network of contacts here and he knows exactly what to do when he gets in the door," he says.

Jeffries grew up here. His father was the Brighton fire chief and owned a gas station there. Jeffries began working for his father when he was 10 and graduated from Brighton High School in 1969.

The Jeffries men are volunteer firefighters. Jeffries has been a volunteer in Brighton since he was a teen-ager. His three brothers also signed up.

His son, Bo, 20, is a Brighton department volunteer. And younger son, Denis, 17, is chief of the department's junior firefighters program. Jeffries also has three nephews in the junior program.

"When the fire bell rings in the Jeffries household, everybody goes," Jeffries says.

While working on a bachelor of science degree in business management at St. John Fisher College, he worked part time doing public relations work for U.S. Senator Jacob Javits. When he graduated in 1974, he took the Javits position full time.

But Jeffries missed Rochester. In 1979, he became director of alumni affairs for St. John Fisher College. Four years later, he went to work for Dollinger Travel.

Wife, Nancy, worked at Dollinger Travel for 20 years as director of operations.

"She just started a new job working with a company called the Travel Team out of Buffalo. But she was instrumental in Dollinger's success," he says.

Jeffries is executive vice president of the Otetiana Council Inc. of the Boy Scouts of America. He also is on the boards of the Monroe Community College Foundation and Hunt Hollow. He was a founder of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America Inc., Greater Rochester/Finger Lakes Region's annual bike-a-thon.

Jeffries also skis and plays golf.

"As bad a golfer as I am, I'm a worse skier, but my kids and my wife are pretty good," he says.

One of Jeffries' talents is making what he does seem easy, Doyle says.

"He's so personable, you lose sight of his analytical abilities. So he can operate under the radar. But if you saw forest and I saw trees, he would see a result," Doyle says.

Jeffries'w stage experience is limited-he was a munchkin in a grade school production of the Wizard of Oz-but he is having a great time being so deeply involved in performance, he says.

"Last night we had the Temptations, Wednesday night was the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, last Saturday was Kenny Rogers-we're the only ones that bring big names to Rochester. All the other stuff is small theater," he says.

(kthomas@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

01/10/03 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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