'Good Golly, Miss Molly'
EDUCATION by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor
Larry Thompson, known for overcoming big obstacles in big jobs, has a doozy on his hands: Infusing business principles into an arts-focused college.
Larry Thompson rarely does anything at half-speed, right down to the shaky hand jigs people say he does when he thinks up a new idea - a pretty common occurrence, by most accounts. Even Thompson's surprise 50th birthday party while running a Flint, Mich.-based arts center, was a full-speed, elaborate affair hatched from an outlandish idea.
Known as The Demise of Larry's Youth, the well-attended party held 10 years ago featured an office decorated in funeral-black and a coffin on Thompson's desk. Thompson's wife, Pat Thompson, dressed up as a fake widow and shed some fake tears, too.
Just the way Thompson likely would have planned it if he had thought of it first.
No matter the occasion, Thompson, now president of the Ringling College of Art & Design, is first and foremost an ideas guy. This goes from parties he wished he plotted to actually planning how to turn a mom-and-pop arts school like Ringling into a elite magnet college for the country's most promising art and design students.
"I've never met anyone with the leadership and vision he has," says Melissa Stephens-Farrell, the marketing director for the Flint Cultural Center, where Thompson worked for six years. Adds Paul Visser, the former chairman of the cultural center who hired Thompson: "He's someone capable of dreaming big. His vision was out there beyond what we thought he could do, but he was able to convince people he could do it."
Still, ideas are just one battle in the daily business war. Execution of those ideas, leading people toward accomplishing that execution and being able to adjust both the ideas and the execution as circumstances change, are at least as equally important.
And, based on both empirical results and anecdotal evidence, Thompson shines in most of those areas, too. Especially in what's become his niche: Getting split sides of an organization to agree, or at least compromise, in the best interests of a common goal. It's a streamlined method of idea execution.
It's also a skill Thompson's used deftly at several jobs, from serving as a special assistant (read: mercenary) to the Ohio State University president to overseeing the Flint Cultural Center to being the first chief executive of the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The rock and roll gig, which Thompson took on in 1988, was especially dicey: Getting a group of flashy, style-first New York record executives to agree on focus and strategy for the then-fledgling museum with a group of bare-bones, substance first Midwest civic-minded volunteers was no easy task.
"For a while, I thought I was Henry Kissinger," says Thompson. "It was five years of my career that took 25 years out of my life."
The Gold Standard
With a job like that, or one selling the virtues of a culture center in 1990s Flint - then a death bead of American economic prosperity - the Ringling job might seem like a breeze. It has been more like 30 mph winds - challenging, but potentially invigorating.
Thompson didn't come to Ringling with the intention of coasting into a Florida-style retirement, much like many other 50-somethings from Michigan and Ohio. Indeed, when Thompson was first approached by an executive search agency about the Ringling job in 1999, he didn't want to leave Flint. Leaning on his admitted Midwest bias, Thompson was thinking about the Florida of humidity and early-bird specials, not the Sarasota of Ringling and Siesta sunsets.
After being wowed by students, teachers and the greater Sarasota community, though, Thompson took the job, back when the college was still known as the Ringling School. It was the first time Thompson was taking over an institution neither in startup or desperation mode.
Instead, the Ringling School, founded in 1931 by circus guru John Ringling, was somewhere in between startup and big time. It wanted to be both bigger and better. "It was a really good art college," Thompson says. "But there was a lot of need for some leadership and strategic direction."
Thompson's big-picture idea was to have Ringling mentioned in the same art school conversations with the industry's gold standards, schools such as the Parsons School for Design, the Pratt Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago. His plan was to accomplish that through a series of smaller ideas - expanding the school's majors, recruiting and retaining a bigger and brighter pool of students and faculty and putting an end to the false image of the starving arts student.
Eight years into the Thompson era, the school is thriving. Revenues at the nonprofit institution increased 30% last year, from $27.7 million in the 2005 fiscal year to $35.9 million in 2006, according to the school's IRS tax filings. About 55% of Ringling's operating budget comes from the student body - annual tuition, room and board runs about $44,000 a student.
What's more, student enrollment has increased 50% since 2000, from 800 to 1,200 and Thompson projects the school will pass 1,600 students within a few years. And those students are increasingly being sought after by a prestigious set of nationwide potential employers, including Hallmark, Disney and video game maker Electronic Arts. The CIA has even recruited Ringling graduates.
Finally, in 2006, Business Week named the college one of the top 60 design schools in the world and one of the top 10 in the country. And that's without considering the school's five new majors set to debut next year, including advertising design and printmaking.
But the new major truly pumping Thompson up is the one combining business and art. Specifically, in 2008, the school will offer a bachelor's degree in the business of art & design, in a program geared to teaching freelance artists how to excel in a business-driven world.
Think of it as an introduction between the right and left sides of the brain. "We are infusing a business curriculum into an art college," says Thompson, who earned a $240,500 salary from the school in 2006. "It has never been done before."
Doing things never been done before has become a Thompson career staple. Thompson, 60, was born and raised in suburban Dayton, Ohio. His father worked as a purchasing agent for General Motors for 45 years, while his mom was an industrial nurse.
In school, Thompson found while he excelled at math, he didn't like it. After considering a career as an actuary for a life insurance company and after earning a Master's in counseling, Thompson found himself at the Ohio State University Law School.
That's when things clicked. In law school, Thompson was able to think logically and get results, but he could use words, not numbers. Thompson graduated second in his class and took a job with a firm in Columbus, Ohio.
Turns out that firm did a lot of work with Ohio State, and a few years later, Thompson was back on a college campus, working as a special counsel to the school's president, or as Thompson calls it, "management troubleshooting."
Thompson's roles, all short-term fixes, included running the school's TV and radio station, overseeing the athletic department and leading the way for construction of a research and development park. "If it didn't fit anything," he says, "they gave it to Thompson."
In 1988, Thompson took a phone call from an executive recruiter seeking someone to run a startup group in Cleveland putting together the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The recruiter sought someone passionate about education and culture who could also bring divisive groups together, raise money and be an all-around spokesman for everything rock and roll.
Thinking the call was for advice, Thompson suggested a few people he knew. The recruiter said thanks, but he was actually already speaking with the person he was really interested in.
"Good golly, miss molly," was all a shocked Thompson could say.
He took the job.
In Cleveland, Thompson honed his invaluable diplomacy skills. He learned the tricky balance of how to be persuasive but comforting, cooperative but firm.
Essentially, Thompson developed a keen ability to not take no for an answer while simultaneously making the others in the room feel like they were getting what they wanted, too. And he did that, former colleagues and employees say, with a steely focus.
"He's someone who could really get to the core of an issue," says Ed Jennings, a Ringling College trustee who, as the president of Ohio State in the 1970s, hired Thompson as his special assistant.
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Thompson was responsible for bringing all the moving parts together, so it could go from idea to grand opening. In addition to getting the various sides to work together, the job included raising money, working with the architects and supervising construction.
By 1992, the Hall was ready to open and Thompson was ready for a new challenge. He found it with the Flint Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization made up of various arts programs, schools and theaters on 30 acres in the heart of the city's downtown.
The job was as bleak as it was challenging. Thompson was entering a downward spin cycle, where Flint's floundering economy led to an even more floundering scene at the cultural center. Both funding and citizen interest were at the bottom of the cliff lows.
But in his six years there, Thompson increased the funding from a few million dollars to $40 million, among other fiscal and cultural accomplishments.
And Thompson pleasantly overwhelmed his staff with his gregarious brand of optimism.
"Larry was a breath of fresh air," says Ann Richards, who at the time worked for the Mott Foundation, a Flint-based philanthropic group that partially funded the cultural center. "He was so upbeat. He saw the potential of what could happen here, at least with his little piece of Flint."
Larry Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Arts & Design in Sarasota, has also unofficially served as executive peacemaker over the past 25 years. One job in particular took place in the late 1980s, when, as the initial chief executive officer of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Thompson was responsible for getting two boards overseeing the project to work together.
And while one group was in Cleveland and the other was in New York City, the challenge was more than geographic: The groups brought competing ideas, agendas and strategies. Adds Thompson: "It was like I was at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks."
With that as a background, here are some of Thompson's tips on how senior executives can bring competing groups together:
• True listening: Thompson says it's imperative to listen to all perspectives and sides before speaking too much. So if someone's angry, find out why, not just deal with that secondary emotion. "Too frequently we may think we hear what the person says but we do not really listen to what underlies the issue," Thompson says. "Or, even worse, instead of listening to what the other person is saying you are concentrating on what you are going to say in return."
• Laser-like focus: Stick to the issue, making things messy. "It's not about the personalities," Thompson says, nor is it about quirks or even whether you like or don't like someone. "It is," Thompson says, "all about the issues at hand."
• Bring humor: Thompson says humor, smiling and having fun helps bring a sense of perspective to a situation, especially one seemingly on the brink of a breakdown. "In the end," says Thompson, "(none) of these conversations or discussions, no matter how intense they may become, are the most important things in life."
Ringling at a glance
Founded: 1931 by John Ringling
Faculty: 140, most of which are also practicing artists and designers
Students: 1,200, from 43 states, with 49% from Florida.
Cost: $26,410 for tuition in 2007-2008; cost is $44,200 including room, board and art supplies.
Campus: More than 100 buildings on 35 acres, a few miles north of downtown Sarasota and a few miles south of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
Source: Ringling College of Art & Design
BY THE NUMBERS
Year Revenue Growth
2004 $25.2 million
2005 $27.7 million 10%
2006 $35.9 million 30%
Source: IRS, www.guidestar.org
Institution: Ringling College of Art & Design, Sarasota
Who: Larry Thompson
Key: The school's president excels in getting all sides to play nice and pursue a common goal.