New corporate and nonprofit leadership requires vision

San Diego’s cultural world has experienced several major transitions in leadership. Two prominent music groups recently recruited new CEOs to lead their company’s future operations.

San Diego Symphony engaged Martha Gilmer to bring her expertise from the Chicago Symphony to the community’s major orchestra. She will in turn oversee the transition to a new resident conductor when Jahja Ling steps down in 2017.

Several changes in theater and museum directors have been in process and continue into this year. The Old Globe Theatre, Diversionary Theatre and the Natural History Museum have new leadership or are planning for directors’ retirements.

A big change in San Diego arts came with the shakeup at San Diego Opera. Last May the management of this 50-year old organization approved an unauthorized decision to shut down the company at the close of the 2014 season. Only the membership can do this under the by-laws.

A small remaining group of the board of directors, with 100 percent support from the opera company staff, formed a leadership campaign to save the company. The public appeal for fundraising, combined with important adviser support from the national and international opera world, encouraged the renewed board of directors to continue production of the 2015 season and beyond.

So far, this season has been a great success, and a search committee identified a new director for the opera company. It is truly the dawn of a fresh era to kick-off the next 50 years.

The incoming general director, David Bennett, was the innovative general director of New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera. Although smaller than San Diego Opera, it is artistically successful and complements the vastly larger Metropolitan Opera with new works performed in unusual locations, attracting new audiences to opera.

A former singer who earned a master’s degree in arts management and was a consultant to performing artists, Bennett will bring a 21st-century vision to San Diego Opera. An important guideline to selecting a new general director was his vision for the future of the company. Vital new management will produce groundbreaking repertory while keeping traditional opera alive and rebranding San Diego Opera.

The previous 1950s model of repertory produced diminishing season-ticket subscriptions and just could not support the high cost of opera production. Former management and the board of directors lost sight of the future.

Similar incidents happen in the corporate world. I will use McDonald’s and IBM as two examples of corporate management struggling to rebrand its product. This may seem a strange comparison to a local community not-for-profit organization, but I think the principles are the same.

McDonald’s style of operation when Ray Kroc took control in 1954 was a great innovation in fast food service. In fact, Kroc was the creator of an entirely new industry copied by many others over the next 50 years. The international franchising scheme came to its full productivity when the company incorporated in 1984 and was an extremely successful stock market investment with record expansion worldwide.

The standard menu, which could be quickly delivered to drive-up customers, was increased each year to compete with the new restaurant business now referred to as fast-casual. The basic burger and fries with some options and a drink had to give way to the latest fad of fresh and healthy with multiple options — too much for a drive-up clientele in a hurry while still providing burgers and fries.

Severe cuts in the bloated menu are underway to trim the service time and relieve the relatively small food preparation area of too many products. That will be the challenge to the new CEO at MacDonald’s as Don Thompson steps down in a surprise management shift. The new top executive is Steve Easterbrook, lately chief brand officer. He sounds like the right guy for the right position.

The other example, IBM, was founded in 1880 but did not become the leader in electronic recording devices until 1924. The company dominated the market with innovation until it had to rebrand its primary products to compete with Asian manufacturers intruding into IBM’s exclusive PC and laptop market with cheaper labor and innovation.

The next time that rebranding was needed was 1993, when Silicon Valley startups were chipping away at IBM’s business and giving the Asian industries some new competition. In today’s rapidly expanding digital world, IBM has yet another challenge by banking on cloud information storage.

Those are big prospects for two of the world’s biggest corporations. How can rebranding apply to a local organization like San Diego Opera or any other arts organization?

That is the challenge for David Bennett and his board of directors. There is an audience out there to be reached with a variety of musical theater options without abandoning traditional opera programming.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at

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Betsy Hiteshew 8:45pm March 12, 2015

Interesting analogy with the business world. Marketing will be the key.