Charlotte Symphony boss Robert Stickler: New ideas for old problems

Semi-retirement simply hasn’t worked out for Robert Stickler.

After four decades in newspaper journalism and corporate communications, he’d planned to slip away from budgets, spreadsheets and endless cycles of meetings.

Yet in 2012, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra asked its loyal board member to step in as interim executive director, after Jonathan Martin left for the Dallas Symphony.

“I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. I’ve never run an orchestra,’” Stickler says. Yet he agreed to take the job as the search for a permanent president went on. The board looked for eight months and finally identified a favorite.

His name? Robert Stickler.

So the region’s largest performing arts organization started its 2013-14 season last month under a guy with no experience in the nonprofit world, lots of business acumen, a passion for classics and the good faith of symphony colleagues, from the music director to a co-chairman of the players’ negotiating committee.

He aims to do a thing that hasn’t been accomplished since 2002: finish a season in the black. His chore list started out longer than Mahler’s Third Symphony: Negotiate a new contract with musicians, find sources of revenue in an economy that hasn’t fully rebounded, explore the growth of an endowment and much more.

“My wife wasn’t enthusiastic,” admits Stickler, who had expected to take up part-time consulting work at this point in his career. “The job beats you up: This isn’t a 40-hour week. I’d already been through the corporate rat race, and this was a different kind of rat race.

“But I care about this institution, and people told me I had the skill set to do this, so. …”

A change in regimes

Stickler says Martin had qualities he lacks: “He’d spent 30 years in the field and could help (music director) Christopher Warren-Green and (artistic planner) Tanya (Davis Sparks) with their jobs. He was an accomplished fundraiser.

“What I bring is an ability to (apply) a for-profit business focus to this world. We’re doing strategic planning at the department level for the first time. We have weekly staff meetings and a monthly all-staff meeting, so we see how we all fit under the tent. And I’ve done financial reporting for 15 or 20 years, so I know how to share that information with the donors and media.”

When Martin was hired, the search committee sent him to the board by consensus. Richard Osborne, who was on that committee and headed the group that recommended Stickler, said the process wasn’t as smooth this time.

The searchers looked for months without reaching consensus. Eventually, says Osborne, they realized Stickler looked better than ever: “He was a capable leader who could work with everyone. He had experience in management and knowledge of Charlotte, and our patrons were comfortable with him.”

At this point, Hugh McColl said a few informal words for and to his former associate.

McColl, a longtime symphony supporter, had been Bank of America’s CEO when Stickler arrived in 1998 and had worked with him on investor relations projects. McColl had also sat in on some of the symphony candidates’ presentations and interviews during the recent search.

McColl felt the symphony “clearly needed somebody that was analytical about the business. You could argue that all groups need people in the leadership area that understand the arithmetic of the institution.

“You can count on him not just to think something, but to satisfy himself that this is what the numbers are. He’s trustworthy, too: If he tells you something, it’s true. So I said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ I think he was going to, but he was inconclusive. I encouraged him.”

A guy who shoots straight

Everyone praises Stickler’s communications skills. Emily Smith, chairwoman of the symphony board, noticed him at a public affairs committee meeting a few years ago: “He was especially direct and on target. I thought, ‘This man is brilliant and insightful, and his manner is refreshing.’ He could get to the core of issues immediately.”

When she proposed he take the interim position, she admired his ability to speak cogently to donors: “His relationship with some of our most generous patrons was a real plus. The generosity of those donors was absolutely key to our success going forward.”

Stickler first honed those skills 40 years ago, as a reporter for the Providence (R.I.) Journal. He ended his newspaper career as business editor of the Miami Herald, switching to corporate communications for Barnett Banks in 1990. When he left banking in 2012, he was communications executive for Bank of America’s CEO.

Stickler was a Charlotte Symphony subscriber when a bank associate suggested he join the board of Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, the symphony’s choral arm. He ended up as Oratorio president, though he has never sung with them. (His daughter Lucy does.)

When he came to that board, he says, “Things seemed haphazard. They were dealing with people not showing up for rehearsals. I thought we should create a mission statement and organize around it, bringing a business outlook to an arts organization. And I found out leaders don’t have to be experts: They have to listen to experts and lead accordingly.”

His Oratorio presidency put him on the symphony board as well and made him a likely pick for interim boss in August 2012.

Facilitating artistry

On the simplest scale, Stickler has said, his job is to supply whatever tools Warren-Green requires to do his job well.

“He constantly says he knows nothing about music – which is not true – but he genuinely cares about the orchestra and individual players within the orchestra,” says Warren-Green. “That’s not always the case with executive directors.

“When he took over as interim, everyone expected him to be a baby sitter. But he got into the job from day one. Now I have a clearer understanding of how to steer the ship artistically without causing undue financial pressure.”

That’s Stickler’s real challenge: Helping the bottom line without hurting artistic quality.

He’s coming out of a fiscal year where the budget deficit was about $600,000, partly because of expenses that won’t be repeated. His board approved a budget for 2013-14 intended to yield a surplus of $1,000.

Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, says two-thirds of the U.S. orchestras in the CSO’s class broke even or reported surpluses for the last year on record (2011). Still, he says, making budget in Charlotte for the first time in 12 years would be “a real cause for celebration.

“If deficits persist, and each year you add to the prior one, you end up being in a position where you have to raise money to pay off debt, not to deliver on your mission. Accumulated deficits of any magnitude can become a drag on the forward motion of an organization.”

Stickler says he has “a long game and a short game. The first step toward stability is a balanced budget, where revenues at least equal expenditures. But we have to solve the deficit (problem), so we’re not on chronic life support.

“Successful orchestras usually have one of three things. An angel gives them huge amounts of money (as Lillian Disney did in Los Angeles, donating $50 million toward a new hall for the Philharmonic).

“They can get significant public support, the way the N.C. Symphony does. (That orchestra) gets $5 million from the state, and we get very little. Or they have an endowment.”

Stickler estimates annual interest from a $40 million endowment would let the symphony pay off its deficit. An anonymous donor group committed to giving $2 million a year over 10 years would prefer that some of it go toward an endowment, which he calls “a tree that gives fruit every year.” (Rosen says an endowment goal of four times the budget is in line with industry practice, but endowments of orchestras in the CSO’s class vary widely.)

Fresh ways to move forward

Stickler has already made changes: The KnightSounds series has been revamped with more of a party atmosphere, tickets cut to a top of $29 and noon matinees added to Friday night performances. He contemplates symphony partnerships with the Mint Museum, N.C. Dance Theatre (beyond playing for “The Nutcracker”), Discovery Place and Levine Museum of the New South.

In a way, his status as an arts newbie may be a kind of boon.

“Bob’s self-confessed lack of experience has worried some musicians, but I find it refreshing,” says Rich Harris, acting principal trumpet and co-chairman of the Charlotte Symphony Players Association Orchestra Committee. “He recognizes his need for our input, so he is willing to listen. He recognizes that people in the orchestra and on our staff are very competent (and) uses those around him as a resource. …

“He and I worked together closely this year on several musician-specific issues, notably the extension of our contract. I find him sympathetic to musicians’ issues and willing to compromise, where he is able.”

Stickler says simply, “I don’t think there are any magic bullets. For us, it’s not just about being new and unusual. It’s about helping people understand the things we do beyond concerts: how musicians contribute to the community by teaching, playing at weddings, all the work we do for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

“That’s a very hard message to get out – but we have to.”