Lisa Wagner, Executive Director, Levitt Pavilion Dayton

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In the beginning…

Lisa Wagner enjoyed her childhood with her extended family in Allentown, Pa. “I spent my leisure time with my cousins and they were like siblings”. She had freedom to play and roam the city, but “there was a lot of accountability. I couldn’t get away with anything”.

Everything changed at the end of 7th grade when Lisa’s nuclear family moved away to Dayton so her father could take a job with NCR. Lisa played volleyball, basketball and softball in 8th grade, but when she started high school, “I became intimidated about not fitting in”. Nonetheless, “I seemed to be able to fluidly move between all these sub classes of The Breakfast Club”.

What did Lisa do after high school?

Lisa wanted to go to Ohio Northern University to study law, but her father insisted she attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to major in business. Lisa had other ideas. “I hated business and wanted to teach secondary math and went into the education department”.

When Lisa’s parents subsequently divorced, Lisa needed financing for her education. At that time, she had a summer job with Key Bank and they offered her a full-time job in loan operations. The offer included tuition reimbursement, enabling Lisa to continue part-time education classes at Wright State University. Time, however, became an obstacle. “I kept getting promoted and taking on more responsibility at the bank and I didn’t know how to do both”.

Did Lisa stay in banking?

In 1989 Key Bank moved its loan operations to Cleveland. They offered to move her, too, but Lisa declined, because she and her husband decided to stay in Dayton to raise their children.

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Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering, Kettering, Ohio

While Lisa was at home with her two children, a church friend opened Christopher’s Restaurant & Catering. As the catering portion expanded, he asked Lisa to join him. Since extra money was attractive, Lisa agreed help with that portion of the business.

In order to ensure she could fulfill her arrangements with catering customers, Lisa enrolled in the culinary arts program at Sinclair Community College. “I would sell it and then I would cook it. I’d load it up in the car; I’d go out and we’d serve it and then bring it all back and we’d clean it up”.

Eventually, Christopher’s catering got so busy, Lisa didn’t have time for school. “Christopher’s was nights and weekends and that’s when the classes were”.

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Lisa learned the catering business requires a proactive mindset. “You always have to be anticipating worst case scenarios” in order to provide solutions on the spot. “I always had to know where the nearest grocery store was in case I forgot something”.

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Did Lisa stay in catering?

After ten years of catering, “my body really started to break down, so I took a break”. In 2002, however, “the economy caught up to our family in a real way”. It was time to go back to work.

Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

In 2003 the Schuster Performing Arts Center was under construction. Lisa saw a posting for a job there in event operations. She applied, and due to her catering experience, was hired by the Victoria Theater Association (VTA), which owns and operates the Schuster Center.

How did Lisa’s life change as she settled in with VTA?

In addition to its theaters, the Schuster includes a full service restaurant and bar, Citilites. Prior to the 2003 opening, “I was very involved in hiring all the service staff – Citilites and the catering staff”.

Citilites Restaurant at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Dayton, Ohio

Once the Schuster Center opened, Lisa became “the execution element”, managing all the details for events held onsite, including the flow, layout and setup, decoration, service style, etc. “I went from kind of working very part-time to working almost 70 hours a week. And we did not have a kitchen in that building until September of 2003 and we probably did close to $1,000,000 worth of catering prior to that”.

How did Lisa move from event operations to ticketing?

VTA surprised Lisa when they asked her to become the Director of their ticketing operation, Ticket Center Stage, and address the issues between Ticket Center Stage and its licensees, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, and Human Race Theatre Company.

Lisa’s reaction was, “What? I’ve never sold a ticket in my life!” The VTA assured her, “you’re really good with customers and you manage people really well”.

Schuster Performing Arts Center Box Office

Nonetheless, she had a steep learning curve. “I spent probably the first month shadowing ticket agents. I sat in the box offices and listened and then I got on the phone and learned how to sell tickets over the phone”.

Lisa observed that the culture within the department did not promote collaboration and needed to change. In order to do that, “I spent a lot of time working on team building; I spent a lot of time asking for input. No matter what level you were within this little organization, I valued what they had to say. I spent a lot of time in the trenches with them”.

As Lisa worked to purge the negative dynamic, she also quickly identified two superstars. These two young woman “were very out of the box thinkers”, willing to approach problems from fresh angles. Working with them led to some of Lisa’s favorite moments: “seeing people that I have developed blossom and really enjoy their success”.

How did Lisa’s responsibilities grow?

In 2009 the CEO and President of the VTA, Dione Kennedy left to head another organization. During the subsequent management reorganization, the interim CEO and the new CEO and President of the VTA, Ken Neufeld, decided it made sense to have a person with culinary experience oversee the food and beverage team. Consequently, VTA created the Vice President of Ticketing and Hospitality position, and asked Lisa to fill it. There is no equivalent position across the country, because in other preforming arts centers “the food and beverage team is not an internal team”.

Lisa and VTA leadership believed the food and beverage operation was a brand connection, making quality control imperative. Regardless of whether catering is provided internally or by outsiders, if it is botched up, “people see it as a reflection of your venue”.

Schuster Performing Arts Center

Periodically, Lisa asked her boss, Ken Neufeld, President and CEO, for additional challenges. As a result, he eventually added the audience services experience team to her portfolio. Managing that team fit into her hospitality focus, since the team manages the lobbies during a show, supervises the volunteer ushers, and solves any customer problems which arise before a show begins. Lisa led the team to give “the very best experience to the patron from the moment they walked in the door. And that was fun”.

How did Lisa grow into her career?

Lisa met with Ken Neufeld on a regular basis for wide-ranging conversations. “I was allowed to ask anything about the organization, the Board, anything”. Additionally, Ken encouraged her to consider further education. First, Lisa enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania – Executive Program for Arts and Culture Strategy, which featured virtual programs on strategic leadership, finance, fundraising, governance, and marketing.

In 2015, Lisa participated in the National Arts Strategies Senior Management Institute.  One of the Institute sessions was a thought-provoking career visioning process, which explored, “This is what I do now. Is this what I’m passionate about? What would I want to do?”

Lisa realized that “being connected to impact was really important to me”, but that much of what she was currently doing was more operational and “one off from the impact”.

Why did Lisa leave the Victoria Theatre Association for the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

Lisa loved working with the VTA, but when she attended a community meeting about the Levitt Pavilion project, it intrigued her. “It ignited something inside of me”.

Members of the Dayton community organized the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion to develop neglected green space in downtown Dayton into a community-gathering place with access to the performing arts for all. In 2017 the Friends of the Levitt Pavilion was awarded a grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation to develop the Levitt Pavilion Dayton.

Lisa recognized that she had influenced VTA, but the concepts of impact and legacy sparked her. “I felt like this was a really great opportunity to be on the ground floor of this amazing community asset”.

Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton

Consequently, she applied to be the new organization’s first Executive Director. “I was terrified of leaving a well-oiled machine, a $16 million organization to a start-up, but there was something really exciting about being part of the Levitt legacy”.

The Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, now serving as the Board of the new nonprofit organization, Levitt Pavilion Dayton, selected Lisa to become the first Executive Director.

The Levitt Pavilions’ premise is that free, high quality outdoor concerts will increase participation with the arts. “I know for a fact there are people that think they can’t afford an arts experience. If we give you a free concert, we’ve taken away that obstacle”. Beginning in the summer of 2018, Levitt Pavilion Dayton will present free concerts on the Pavilion’s lawn featuring high caliber and diverse local, national and international musicians.

Artist rendering of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton stage

By increasing participation with the arts, the Levitt Pavilion Dayton will provide a place for residents “to come and connect. Not only connect to music, which I feel is one of the most beautiful universal languages in the world, but then also” to each other as they listen on the lawn. Lisa envisions “diverse socioeconomic generational people all sitting on the same lawn, experiencing a common experience” and sharing conversation. “’Hey, I forgot my mustard, would you pass me the mustard?’ All of a sudden I don’t care where you live, I don’t care what you do, you’re my neighbor now”.

How has Lisa’s work changed now that she’s leading the Levitt Pavilion Dayton?

Levitt Pavilion Dayton job site; photo by Andy Snow

As the Executive Director, “I’m coming into a universe where now I have to be challenged in areas that I may not be as familiar with, such as a construction project or other nuances of a start up.

In order to open the Levitt Pavilion Dayton in time for the 2018 summer season, Lisa is working with the Board to build the new organization. Together they are engaging in big picture activities like strategic planning, mapping the organizational structure, hiring new staff members, programming and defining the customer experience, to ensure that everyone is invited, everyone feels welcomed and when the lawn is activated that audience members feel connected.

Lisa’s observations:

  • Be true to what feeds you
  • Be open to new experiences
  • Be open to new skill sets. “Don’t fear what you don’t know. Embrace it”
  • Recognize that “you’re not the smartest person in the room, that everyone around you offers you something that can either be put in your tool box for later or that can help develop you”
  • Network, network, network. “Make meaningful relationships, be honest, be humble, be authentic, be accountable”
  • Ask a lot of questions or for help. It’s better to admit you don’t know and do some research

Lisa believes her journey has prepared her for this new phase of her life. “Now I have the skill sets and I have the fundamental pieces of where I can do something, but it was the impact and the legacy piece and the passion of wanting to be part of a different conversation – it just felt like the timing was kind of all falling into place”.

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Levitt Pavilion Dayton, August 17, 2018 Band: Kyle Dillingham & Horseshoe Road



Bill Evans: Baker and House of Bread Executive Director

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Do you flourish in the kitchen – mixing dough, baking cookies, and decorating cakes? Have you wondered if you could do it for a career? Bill Evans has been feeding people his entire career, first as an owner/baker and then as executive director of the House of Bread. I asked Bill how he crafted his career. The highlights of his story follow.

Dough rollerMy conversation with Bill Evans started at 7:00am at Evans Bakery in Dayton four days before St. Patrick’s Day. Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, were hard at work. The dough rolling machine rumbled, oven timers rang, and the wide cookie dough lifter clacked against the cutting table. Completely dressed in bakers white, Bill talked while he prepared the cut out shamrock cookies.

How did Bill go from a schoolboy in Bordentown, New Jersey to a bakery owner in Dayton, Ohio?

When Bill was growing up in Bordentown, New Jersey, his father was a baker and his older brother was a baker, but he wanted nothing to do with baking. He made his first acquaintance  with the business as a boy. He decided that, unlike his brothers and sisters, he wanted to go to the Catholic high school. His father said, “Well son, that’s what I want you to do, too, so you better get you a job.” So Bill cut grass and swept the floor in the bakery where his dad was chief baker.

When Bill graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college. His father said, “Well, I want that, too, son. You better get you a job.” Bill knew he couldn’t mow enough grass to pay college tuition, so he looked around. The employment options in Bordentown were limited, however. Bill knew he didn’t want to work in the Ocean Spray factory, so he applied for a job at the Royal Bakery in Trenton, New Jersey.

Management at the bakery assumed that Bill had been baking all his life and hired him. Bill’s father gave him a crash course in baking and Bill went to work. It didn’t take long for the folks at Royal Bakery to realize that Bill was a complete rookie. But he was smart and trainable, so they kept him.

Did Bill ever go to college?

Once Bill had earned enough money to pay the tuition, he quit his job and enrolled at Miami University. Unfortunately, he ran out of money after the first year and returned to Bordentown. After another year working at the Royal Bakery, Bill boarded a bus for the University of Dayton, where he knew a lot of kids from New Jersey.

Bill had never been to Dayton before and knew nothing about the city, but he knew his first task was to find a job. He got off the bus on Brown Street outside the South Park Bakery, which had a “Help Wanted” sign posted in the window. He set his suitcase down on the ground and walked in to ask for a job.

The old baker groused about hiring him, but finally agreed to test Bill for a week. The old guy grumbled at him all week, but at the end of the day on Friday, he said, “See you tomorrow”. So Bill knew he had a job. Bill’s Monday – Friday hours were 2:30am – 6:00am, which gave him time for classes the rest of the day. Saturday was an eight-hour day, and Bill looked forward to resting on Sunday. But when he clocked out that first Saturday, the old baker said, “See you tomorrow, kid.” Bill swallowed hard, knowing that meant he had no days off, but he needed the money. So he stayed.

Bill worked those hours seven days a week and went to classes until his senior year. Then he asked the old baker for a nickel raise. Without hesitation, the old guy said, “Kid, good luck to you. There’s the door.”

Bill was majoring in Social Work, so he used his new free time to get an internship with Juvenile Court. He graduated from the University of Dayton with a strong foundation in social work, insight into the juvenile justice system, hard-earned experience in the bakery business, and no idea of what came next.

So Bill got a college degree. Then what?

When Bill’s internship boss asked him what he was going to do after graduation, Bill said he was going to take the first job he could find anywhere in the world. In response, his boss offered him a full-time job in the Juvenile Court. So he stayed right in Dayton. He graduated on a Saturday and went to work the following Monday

What propelled Bill back into the bakery business?

Bill got married and rapidly discovered there was no money in social work. So he worked at another bakery on the side and kept his ears open for opportunities. In 1969 after eighteen months in Juvenile Court, Bill heard that the Schattschneiders were ready to retire and wanted to sell their bakery. Bill didn’t know them, but he went over to talk to them. As he said, “they kind of liked each other”. The Schattschneiders wanted $5,000 for the down payment, but Bill didn’t have that kind of money. Fortunately, he and his wife, Rosemary, were able to borrow it from her parents.

Bill signed the contract for the purchase of the bakery from the Schattschneiders on a Friday and he opened Evans Bakery the following Monday morning. When I asked him how he learned to manage a bakery, he shrugged, “I kind of have that baking gene, and I never found it to be much of a mystery.”

Evans Bakery, 700 Troy Street, Dayton, Ohio

Is the bakery business really that simple?

I watched Bill and his daughter, Jennifer, quickly pushing the brick of dough through the rolling machine, cutting the cookies, and spreading them out on the deep layer of green sugar that coated the cookie sheets. I concluded running a bakery may not be a mystery, but it’s demanding work. And like any business, the owner must plan ahead, track money and details and manage staff.

Did Bill head for the links when retirement beckoned?

After running the bakery for 35 years – from 1969 to 2004 – Bill was ready to sell the bakery and retire. He emerged from retirement almost immediately, however. The Board of Trustees of the House of Bread knew him through his volunteer work at St. Vincent DePaul Dayton. The House of Bread Executive Director was retiring, so the Board asked Bill to fill the position. Happy to have a new challenge, Bill agreed, despite the fact that he had no experience running a nonprofit organization. House of Bread, 9 Orth Avenue, Dayton, Ohio, provides a hot, nutritious lunch to anyone in need.

Bill expected to spend a month working with the retiring Executive Director, Jean Taylor to learn on the job. They met at Meadowbrook Country Club to plan, or so Bill thought. On arriving, Jean directed Bill to move five giant boxes from her car to his. Then, after four hours of instruction, she left. “The shortest training on record!”

How did Bill translate his bakery skills to being an Executive Director?

Bill applied his planning skills honed by running the bakery. Before Bill started at the House of Bread, the Board of Trustees had raised $100,000 as seed money to build a new facility. Unforeseen engineering work required to stabilize the ground, however, quickly ate that fund. So Bill started with no money to fund construction. Working with the Board, Bill found a way to complete the $549,000 project. When Bill left the House of Bread in 2014, their debt was paid down and now the organization is completely debt-free.

Raising the money to operate a small nonprofit is generally the job of the Executive Director. Bill was used to selling baked goods for profit, so running a business by asking for money it was new. Generally nonprofits cover expenses by raising money in two ways – asking for donations and writing grants. Although he wrote some successful grants, Bill said he didn’t like writing them. He was, however, “really really good at asking people for money” even though he didn’t enjoy that, either. His persistence and thick skin made it work. If the person gave Bill money, he would say, “I love you!” If they turned him down, he would say, “I love you.”

Given that Bill had never run a nonprofit before, I asked if anyone gave him good advice. He immediately mentioned Peter Benkendorf and The Collaboratory. Bill was always curious to learn what others were doing and The Collaboratory was a good source of information.

Retirement beckoned again. But did Bill really retire?

Bill said he had a good ten-year run at the House of Bread. As much as he liked doing it, he said, “Sometimes there just comes a time. It’s very exhausting to minister to the poor, the needy and the hungry.” So he stepped away.

Did Bill settle into a rocking chair this time?

Seven years after Bill sold the bakery, it was available again. Fed up with their jobs in Detroit, Bill’s daughter, Jennifer, and her partner, Matthew Tepper, decided to return to Dayton and reopen the bakery. On December 17, 2012, they opened Evans Bakery as a full-service bakery, Monday through Saturday. So Bill came out of retirement to work for Jennifer on a part-time basis.Racks and counter

As Bill sprinkled flour and then ran a brick of cookie dough backwards and forwards through the rolling machine, he told me he enjoys the work. Then he lifted the flattened dough and said, “But this is the last time I come out of retirement!”

Bill’s observations…

  • Master basic math – bakers must be able to multiply beyond 10 x 10, figure percentages, and make change easily and rapidly
  • Ask for help, regardless of whether you’re looking for a job, raising money or seeking business advice
  • Be curious about what other people are doing to succeed
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