As Johnson C. Smith University gets ready for Oprah Winfrey to speak to its graduation class on Sunday, longtime Charlotte event planner Clarke Allen is reflecting on how he lost the media star’s business – and how that crushing disappointment inspired him to reshape his company.
Allen shares his story:
He had already done two events where Winfrey had seen his work. In 2010, he created an 82nd birthday garden party at the Winston-Salem home of Maya Angelou. Winfrey hosted the party for the author, poet and civil rights activist who died in 2014.
Another time, Allen worked with Angelou at her request, for an event at her home hosting students from Winfrey’s all-girls leadership academy in South Africa. (Two graduates of the academy are also among Sunday’s JCSU graduating class.)
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Allen recalls that when Winfrey herself called him in 2013, this time to coordinate Angelou’s 85th birthday, he told the media titan that “I thought you were a friend of mine playing a joke.”
But Allen was grateful for the business, and knew it would be a key turning point for his company.
Losing Oprah’s business
Then something went wrong. Allen says an employee didn’t send an email or mailing package regarding invitation samples Winfrey wanted to see.
He says Winfrey called him that next day: This is unacceptable. (Emails I sent to Winfrey’s television network staff asking about this exchange weren’t returned.)
An intern scrambling to get the mailing out misspells the boulevard where Winfrey’s office is located.
Allen, unaware, heads to Friday afternoon yoga. Later, he says, he gets a call from Winfrey.
He recounts the painful conversation: Mr. Allen, I know what this could have done for your career.
And: You’re not ready yet. You need to surround yourself with better people.
“And she pulled the job from me. And ...it was devastating. I had worked so hard to rebuild my business, and I had worked so hard for my brand.”
“For three days, I cried like a baby.”
Fishing through wastebaskets for leads
It was a serious setback for Allen, who had launched a destination management company in 1994, following his lifelong interest in hospitality. A native Charlottean, he recalls standing on a three-step ladder to talk to Grandma while she cooked.
“I believe the kitchen is where love resides,” he says. “That’s where community was.”
He worked at restaurants in the SouthPark area while attending South Meck High School. He graduated from Appalachian State with a hospitality management degree.
He moved to Dallas to start his career in the hotel business, first as a management trainee, then later in sales. In that job, he’d ask potential clients what they were coming to town for, and then pitch entire experiences after lining up transportation and other vendors.
He returned to Charlotte to work on a magazine for the city’s convention bureau. He’d fish in the copy room trash to see who was coming to Charlotte, for possible leads. Six months later, he launched his business from an East Boulevard office.
With a focus on corporate event planning, business took off. In January 2001, he bought a 30,000-square-foot building on North Davidson Street.
Then came the events of 9-11, and the economic slowdown. His industry froze.
Allen diversified, getting into weddings and other social events, turning his business into a blend of social, nonprofit and corporate work it maintains today. By 2005, he says, the company hosted more than 300 events and had a staff of 18 full timers and 20 part-time workers.
But by the second quarter of 2008, months into the recession, he started laying off staff. A year later, he recalls, “I’m sitting in my building all alone, no jobs, no projects, really no hope. About to file for bankruptcy.”
His creditors weren’t big banks, but peers who took a chance on him. “I couldn’t walk away from this, and live in Charlotte,” he says. So he started “clawing back.”
His connection with Mooresville-based Lowe’s Home Improvement, which was involved in Angelou’s garden party, led to that first Winfrey meeting. When she called him in 2013 about Angelou’s 85th, Allen says, he was still rebuilding, but was optimistic, having hired a great new team.
Inspiration from failure
Losing Winfrey's business hurt. But he credits her candor and high standards for making him rethink his business model. Years earlier, Allen says, he moved away from his micromanaging style, and more toward one that gave employees more independence.
That fit in with his overall aim to make his work environment more family-like and meaningful for him and employees. But he learned in that last conversation with Winfrey that he needed a different approach to get there.
“Ms. Winfrey, I think she was coaching me right to the last moment,” says Allen, 52.
“What she was saying was that you need to surround yourself with people of excellence, with people who have the same care and concern for excellence that you do. Then you can give them the reins.”
“….If you’re going to move and evolve and let them take ownership, you’ve got to then hire the type of people that can fulfill that, think for themselves, that have the same pride and care and concern for your brand that you do. Not just when you’re there watching over their shoulder.”
It prompted him to look for ways to change the accountability program in his company.
Originally called Charlotte Arrangements, his firm is now Clarke Allen Inc. That covers three ventures: his entrepreneurial coaching work, a new “Get Inspired” video and class series teaching people how to host their own events, and his longtime event work and hosting space in his building, called CenterStage@NoDa.
Employees have a stake in company success, with commissions and other incentives for bringing profitable programs to the firm. Allen says employees will also have the opportunity to earn and buy equity in the company after staying a certain period of time, and showing a commitment to the company.
“I'd be lying if I told you I wouldn't be honored for another chance,” Allen says of Winfrey.
But “if I carry on my journey, the right opportunities will present themselves at the right time.”