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WORLD FOCUS: A day in the life of a museum CEO

August 11, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

The recent announcement by Mitchell Reiss, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, that the Foundation will outsource management of its commercial operations, and "focus on our core educational mission - historic area preservation, the museums, and educational programs," has become the talk of the town.

Dozens of letters to the editor, essays and comments in the Last Word weighted in on the merits and demerits of the decision. To gain an insight on how decisions are made and executed at Colonial Williamsburg, I asked for permission to follow Mitchell Reiss around for a day and observe the operation of the organization.

I asked him when and how his official day begins.

"I am never really off the clock with this job, but my day usually begins at 7 a.m. when I check my emails, and lasts that evening until my wife, Elisabeth, tells me to stop checking my emails," Reiss said.

The other day, Reiss was at his desk before 9 a.m. He has just returned from Boston, where he has presented a donor with some new ideas and proposals on how to enhance visitor's experience at Colonial Williamsburg.

At his desk, a pile of memos, letters and documents, organized by military precision by Davelin Forrest, chief of staff of the president, and Rhiannon Redding, Reiss' executive assistant, was waiting for him. He had to sign dozens of notes to donors, and requisition requests. "Everything in excess of $10,000 has to be approved by me," he said.

By 9:30 a.m. Joseph Straw, the public relations manager, joined Reiss. They were linked into a conference call to discuss how to respond to media requests for minute details about how those operating losses, as for example $64.1 million in 2014, or $176,000 a day, occurred (The losses related to the draws from Colonial Williamsburg's Endowment necessary to fund operations).

Reiss, in the course of the discussion, insisted that "transparency" should be the key word applying to any action or statement issued by Colonial Williamsburg.

At 10 a.m. Reiss moved into the conference room to meet Alison Ranney, the managing director of a search firm, and Anny Chou, her colleague.

But before their arrival, Reiss led me to an alcove, with soundproofed walls, adjacent to the conference room.

"This is very cool. It is where Mr. Rockefeller used to make his calls back to New York, to sell and buy stocks," Reiss said.

The reason for the meeting with the search firm representatives was the need of the Foundation to find an individual who would fulfill multiple tasks. In a sense, to complement Reiss. He has to be a skilled communicator, a proven fundraiser, and a successful promoter of cultural offerings.

"We will have a $40 million addition to our museums," Reiss said. "Promoting it shouldn't be an experiment. We need to become a cultural centerpiece for the community."

Back at Reiss' office, Sam Rucker, in charge of all electronic technologies at the Foundation, waited for him. He presented Reiss with one-page proposal of Cost Reduction Strategy. The proposal described how to better minimize spending, optimize efficiency, re-architect future-proof, drive IT-enabled business value, and how to invest resultant savings.

Reiss asked him some relevant questions and pressed him for details. Rucker, a big guy with an easy smile who is also an accomplished saxophone player, gladly obliged. Reiss, using people-handling skill, changed the subject of conversation and asked Rucker about his family, with whom he was about to go on vacation.

I asked Reiss what are his priorities on any given day. "I try to focus on two things," he said. "One, what do I need to do, instead of what do I like to do? Two, what can only I do as the president and CEO and what can I delegate to my senior team?"

I asked him also when did he realize the severity of the problems Colonial Williamsburg faces.

"This was a topic of discussion when I was interviewed for the position in May 2014, but I learned more details when I started in October 2014," he said.

Now that he is fully aware of the problems, I asked about what gives him confidence that those problems will be overcome.

"I am very confident that we will succeed in returning the Foundation to financial sustainability so that we can rededicate ourselves to our core educational mission because I have a talented senior leadership team in place, because I have an excellent plan for success, because I have full support of the board, because our employees now have a clear idea of the challenges ahead and, not least, because our supporters and donors have enthusiastically embraced the restructuring plan to save Colonial Williamsburg."

I asked an interpreter with a 20-year service record at Colonial Williamsburg what she thinks about the restructuring taking place.

"We all knew that CW has financial problems," she said. "We didn't know the extent of it. I give President Reiss credit for trying to bring about change. Whether he will succeed, I don't know. The jury is still out."


Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns.



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