Jimmy Earl, CFE, senior associate director of the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas, is the 2016 recipient of the Charles A. McElravy Award. The award is granted for extraordinary contributions to IAVM and the professional venue management industry it serves.
How did you first get involved in the industry?
I didn’t even know that there was such an industry before working at the Amarillo Civic Center. I had always been interested in performing arts, theater, and entertainment since I was young. I think one of the first memories of being curious about the industry was going to the Municipal Auditorium in Amarillo, Texas, as part of a school group to see a symphony performance. I remember being intrigued by the set up and all the things that happened. I was really intrigued by the kid that got picked to play with the orchestra. I didn’t know what a stooge was at the time and this kid had on a red shirt and of course got to be with the orchestra. This was all planned but it was very, very interesting to me. My first real experience was when I saw the James Brown and Famous Flames show at the Amarillo Civic Center as a very young person. It was the first real event I got to see. I was just blown away by the whole concept: the setting, the lights, the chairs, and the people. I think as far back as then I was curious about it.
Did you have any interest in getting into the facility management profession when you were in college?
No, none whatsoever. I was kind of looking around for some work to do and my degree was in industrial engineering and technology. I had a few electronic repair jobs and it was kind of unfulfilling at the time. It wasn’t until one of my childhood friends, told me about this part-time job at the civic center. So I went down and talked to them and they hired me! The nature of the job was to work in different areas, some in maintenance, some in custodial, some in the box office, the administrative office, and food and beverage. It was there at the civic center that I met my mentor David DeWald. We actually met in an interesting way. They were shooting a car commercial in the plaza and he was just walking by when I mentioned, “Hey, it would be pretty neat if they turned the fountain on outside because it would kind of enhance the commercial.” The next thing I know the fountain was on. I had no idea who David DeWald was at the time. He called me to his office and he talked to me for a bit about my interests. It was David that made me aware about the venue industry. After a while, he called me to his office on a Friday evening and told me, “On Monday I want you to come to the office and I want you to wear a tie.” I had to grab one from my dad for the time being. David made me his administrative assistant. It was from that point that I received an intensive background on the event and facility management business.
How do you and the rest of the Frank Erwin Center set themselves apart from the rest of the competition around the city and the state?
Well, I think one of the ways is that we have a great location. The geography is very key. Austin is a growing, very diverse city with a very high discretionary income and one of the ways that we are able to distinguish ourselves is being one of the first full-service facilities in the country. When I say full service I mean like one-stop shopping. We have our own in-house catering, our own ticketing office, our own security, our own marketing, our own ushers, everything in-house. You could come to us and we could do the whole show. So that was one of the things but I think the key part is the level of service that we offer. I would match our crew and our staff against anyone in the country. They’re some of the best in the country.
Is there any particular aspect of the facility management industry that you enjoy more than the others?
One of the things I enjoy most is developing people and watching them grow. I love the technological advances that have been made. When I started there were no cell phones, no fax machines, no emails, no Internet per se or Facebook and to see how they have come into play with computerized ticketing. Watching that change and how we use that technology not only in our industry but in our daily lives. It’s been pretty incredible to see that stuff affect the industry.
What challenges do you still see in the industry?
There are always challenges whether it is attracting people or events, staying current, or trying to distinguish yourself from the competition. Those are daily challenges that have to be managed. Every day you have to do your best. You’re only as good as your last show or event so you can’t rest on your laurels or believe all your own propaganda. You have to keep moving forward and improve yourself every day.
What is your key to success in the facility management industry?
I really think that staying focused is key. Once I decide that I was going to do this, I read everything, I talked to everybody, and still think it’s a job where you have continuous learning. You have to always keep abreast to what’s going on, watch different trends, and talk to experts on what’s going on. That’s what makes this industry great; you have a great network of people to use as a resource about any situation. The most important key is that you have to be yourself and keep your word, have integrity and compassion. Those things are really unbreakable.
What is something that you know now that you wished you had known starting off in the business?
I wish I had probably learned earlier to not take myself so seriously. I think that’s something that we all kind of struggle with. While this is a serious business and we can have a lot of fun, sometimes we can take our selves too seriously. Now I’ve known that for a good period of time, but had I known that earlier I think I would have had a lot more fun. That being said, I don’t know if there’s much else I would do differently. It just takes what it takes and it happens the way it’s supposed to. I have a great job, a great family, and I’m grateful for having good health. I mean, what else is there?
What do you envision for the future of IAVM and the facility management industry?
There are so many great young people, and we have so many great educational opportunities and venues. In my view, I think there will always be a desire for live entertainment and sporting events. I think it’s part of our DNA and our culture—even going back many years when you think about places like the Coliseum in Rome, which is kind of like the Mecca for us building managers. Ever since the person who drew the circle in the sand and started performing, there’s something about being able to present that and bringing people together and watching them share in the whole process whether it’s a concert, convention, ballet, sporting event, or an opera. It’s those types of activities that are social and bring people together where they can exchange ideas and compete. I think that’s really the coolest part and brings me a lot of satisfaction.
What advice do you have for IAVM’s future industry leaders and other young people who are just starting out?
Network, network, network, and network. Take advantage of the vast knowledge that people have in this industry. Take advantage of every learning and educational opportunity you can. Read everything. Talk to people like Russ Simons, Brad Mayne, Michael Marion, John Graham, Greg Davis, Larry Perkins, Carol Wallace, and Robyn Williams, and take advantage of having access to those people and their knowledge. These people are some of my contemporaries but I remember when we were all in your shoes and younger. We were all kind of wide-eyed about the business but there wasn’t any of the so called “established people” who were not willing to help and guide and lead us.
Of the several hundred (if not thousands) of shows you’ve seen, what has been your favorite?
Oh jeez, I knew that one was coming. It’s almost like asking which one is your favorite child. I think that some have impacted me more than others.
Well, which show has had the greatest impact on you?
One of the most interesting events that we ever did was presidential visits and heads of state visits. I think meeting performers like James Brown and all of those highlights in my life like seeing Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Who, and Paul McCartney. I think of all of those events and shows, meeting the Dalai Lama and seeing him speak and seeing his absolute grace was one of the highlights of my career.
What was your first reaction when you heard that you won the Charles A. McElravy Award?
I got the call from Karen [Totaro], who’s our chairman, and I told her, “You’ve got to hang on a minute.” I was speechless; it was an overwhelming experience. Our industry has a lot of neat and really dedicated folks. I’ve done some wonderful things for this industry and have been very committed. To be in the same company as people like David DeWald, Dean Justice, Ray Ward, and some of the industry stalwarts—those people were icons in my early career. Some of those people were always accessible and they left a mark on the industry that was duly noted and to be a part of that is a very humbling experience and I am deeply gratified by it. FM
(Images: Ralph Arvesen and Randall Chancellor)