Marty Brooks is the President and CEO of the Wisconsin Center District in Milwaukee. In this role, Marty also oversees business growth and operations for the Wisconsin Center, UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre. He works closely with VISIT Milwaukee to secure unforgettable acts and diverse conventions year-round that heighten WCD’s value and brand in the Midwest.
With his vision to be bold, proud, and experience-obsessed (BPX), Marty is an energized leader driving WCD toward strong and focused financial performance and growth that results in a thriving community. By thinking unconventionally and taking strategic risks, Brooks is elevating the WCD as a top local and national entertainment and convention center destination recognized for its captivating and buzzworthy experiences.
I loved my conversation with Marty, and I believe you will too. Enjoy!
To learn more about Marty, please visit the links below:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marty-brooks-7137539/
- Website: https://www.wcd.org
- Also mentioned on this episode: Kimberly Kane, Omar Shaikh, Peter Feigin, Kay Koplovitz, Bob Gutkowski, Raj Saha, Russ Staerkel, Scott Neitzel, Gary Witt, Sarah Maio, Jim Dolan.
And now here’s Marty Brooks.
Full transcript below
Video With Marty Brooks – Ready to Be at the Head of the Table
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Podcast with Marty Brooks. Ready to Be at the Head of the Table.
organization, people, milwaukee, madison square garden, business, marty, building, garden, convention center, years, wisconsin, thought, hartford, cablevision, job, events, money, part, work, staff
Mike Malatesta, Marty Brooks
Mike Malatesta 00:43
Hey, Marty, welcome to the podcast.
Marty Brooks 00:56
Hey, Mike. It’s wonderful to be here today. Thanks for having me.
Mike Malatesta 01:01
Marty Brooks 01:19
Wow, man, I’m done. Kimberly Kane took the company from here and then Omar just brought it way down. Wow, Mike. Oh, boy.
Mike Malatesta 01:30
Marty Brooks 01:37
Feigin brings it up. Feigin brings up but I feel like you know, when you say Omar was on the podcast, that’s like Groucho Marx would say any club that would have me as a member is not a club I want to be a member of.
Mike Malatesta 01:49
Well, let me let me tell you a little bit more about Marty so that you can get as excited as I am to have him here today. So Marty Brooks joined the Wisconsin Center District as President and CEO in January of 2018. By the way, Marty, obviously not the most ideal time to move to Milwaukee in January, I moved in January 1992. So I feel for you. And for those folks out there listening, Milwaukee is a wonderful place. But the best first impression probably isn’t in January. So thank you so much for getting that out. And we’ll learn more about that I’m sure. So Marty oversees business growth and operations for the Wisconsin Center for the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Panther Arena and the Miller High Life Theater. He’s worked previously for the St. Louis Convention and Visitor’s Commission, St. Louis Blues hockey team, Hartford Civic Center, Madison Square Garden, and you get an idea of his of his pedigree. So at the Wisconsin Center District, Marty works closely with VISIT Milwaukee to secure unforgettable acts and diverse conventions year round that heighten the District’s value and brand in the Midwest. He’s got a vision to be bold, proud and experience-obsessed. And he’s an energized leader driving Wisconsin Center District towards strong and focused financial performance and growth that results in a thriving community. And Marty with that, I start every podcast with the same simple question, and that is, how’d it happen for you?
Marty Brooks 03:44
Well, that’s such an open-ended question that you can take anywhere. I think the answer to that just popped into my head literally, as you asked the question as the question. And it happened to me that I happened to be hanging out in the first floor of my fraternity house when I was a senior in college. And I walked up to this older gentleman, who is walking around the lobby also, introduced myself and asked you know who he was and what was he doing in our frat house. Come to find out that he is an alumni who did business with the university and had just come down to his old frat house to see if it was still standing. And we got into a conversation. One thing led to another and I wound up doing an internship for him and then he was my friend. He offered me a job right out of college. It was literally for no money initially, but he was involved in sports, television, sports, radio, advertising, marketing, and it seemed like a career path that would be very exciting to pursue. I learned a lot about how to do business and was exposed to ways that I learned were not the best way to do business, and it was a remarkable three and a half years that led me to an opportunity to work for USA Network. I had met the president of USA Network, literally by picking her up at the airport and bringing her to our office at the time. You know, you meet the same people going up as you do going down. This was the president of an organization that I had aspired to be a part of, and this was in the very late 70s when cable television was in its infancy. And I got a tremendous break working in that for USA Network, which then led to a job at Madison Square Garden where I spent 22-plus years and then built and built, so it was I happen to walk into the living room with a frat house at the right time, on the right day, and it really did, next meeting my wife for the first time, it changed my life.
Mike Malatesta 06:00
And what was he fellow’s name, Marty?
Marty Brooks 06:02
His name is Lenny Columbus. He left the area. I went to school at the University of Maryland in College Park, our offices where I think Rockville Pike and Rockville, Maryland and Lenny, after many years of successful entrepreneurship in sports television, moved to Hawaii with his wife, and he was involved in the Aloha Bowl for a while, and we’ve lost touch. But he gave me an opportunity that I seized and has shaped my career.
Mike Malatesta 06:37
And before walking into that living room in the fraternity, where were you headed? What were you thinking was going to be your career path?
Marty Brooks 06:45
I didn’t know. Unlike most of my fraternity brothers in college friends — they were pretty well thought out as far as what they were going to do. Some were committed to going on to professional school, be they lawyers, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, or had strong financial background, we’re going to either be accountants or work in the finance industry. At that time, the major accounting firms were known as the Big Eight. Don’t think that many of them are in existence any longer. I was doing on-campus interviews for really anything. I had majored in journalism, started out as a radio and TV major, but thought the classes were too big and didn’t think that was really going to be a career path that made sense going to college for four years for Journalism. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I would have been lost if I had not happened upon the living room on that one day.
Mike Malatesta 07:49
What fraternity were you in, Marty
Marty Brooks 07:51
Chi Epsilon Phi at the University of Maryland.
Mike Malatesta 07:54
Okay. And Lenny, so you started an internship with him, then you went to work with him, you said for no money. What does that mean?
Marty Brooks 08:05
No money. I was graduating college, I was fortunate that I didn’t have any debt from college, okay. And I saw his business and it was small, entrepreneurial, as a way to get into an industry that I thought I’d enjoy without having any experience in it. And it wasn’t until I think six months in, he agreed to pay me something. We did a lot of work for the University of Maryland that was a client of his and we wound up getting $7,500 from the University of Maryland and $7,500 from his company combined. And so I was making $15,000 a year and not much more for the first two or three years out of college, but then that led to job as I said with USA and what have you, and really the first 8-10 years of my career I wasn’t focused on making money, only to the extent of hoping I can make enough to pay my rent, food, utilities and maybe have a little bit for a date once every week or so, but it wasn’t money that has ever really, it didn’t then, it doesn’t really now, motivated me being a commission person. You probably make a lot of money, but that’s not what gets me going. It’s really enjoying what I do and who I do it with. And that was my motivation then and continues to be my motivation now.
Mike Malatesta 09:44
I love the serendipity of those two stories. So the living room at the frat house, guy walking around, you’re like, hey, what can I help you sort of thing? And then the airport pick-up? It always strikes me as amazing like the convergences in life, you know, you don’t see it coming at all. And then all of a sudden, boom, it’s like, wow.
Marty Brooks 10:10
Well, it’s also, I think I’ve always felt, when I was younger, felt that way. And really, it’s part of a BPX, that you mentioned a little bit, people will be probably be experience-obsessed. And that’s don’t look at anything as far as is that’s beneath me or not, if it needs to be done, you do it and being told, hey, I need you to go pick up so-and-so at the airport. Okay. I didn’t say Well, that’s not my job. I’m given a test. Yes, you do it. Same type of thing where I tell the staff when we have big town hall meetings, if you see a piece of paper, look, we have a department that does housekeeping. But if you see something, pick it up, you know. You don’t have to, it takes more energy to call somebody on the radio to send someone, but if it’s something that you can do, regardless of what it is, do it. And it’s all part of what’s important for us to succeed as an organization, regardless of what that organization is. And the woman that I picked up, her name is Kay Koplovitz. She was, at the time, one of the very few women presidents of an entertainment company. She was so approachable and an extremely influential individual, someone who I, to this day, follow on Facebook and admire her accomplishments and her philanthropy and her involvement in nonprofit organizations. And I still look back and remember picking her up at National Airport and just not being in awe of her, but just wanting to take the opportunity of spending that half hour in a car. Small talk, getting to know her, finding out about her career. She asked me about my aspirations. I remember she asked me, What is it you want to do? I didn’t know what the frick I wanted to do. And I said, I want to be a director. I didn’t know what that meant. But it sounded good. But I remember that conversation as if it were this morning. And I just think it’s so important. And I live the same way today, try and make the most out of every moment. Learn something every day. Everybody wants to get something accomplished. But I also want to learn something and hopefully, influence or impact other people in their professional growth and development.
Mike Malatesta 12:31
I think that’s a really necessary belief system, especially when you’re starting out to say yes to everything that you can do. If someone is asking you to do something, and you can do it, now’s the time, say Yes. And you never know where that’s going to lead you to. Say yes, I’ll go pick her up at the airport. And all of a sudden, there’s my next opportunity. And I follow this person for the rest of my life. That was the impact that she had on me. So yes,
Marty Brooks 13:05
I think it’s, and one of the things we use one of our lines in the organization, the District, is how do we get to yes, that we may not be able to get to yes or get to the end result the way you think we should. But the most important thing is how do we get to the end solution? And it’s through give and take and not saying we know better than you. It’s okay, you think we should go this path? Maybe this is a better way, or it could get us there faster or cheaper. So it’s yes, it’s yes, it is saying yes. But in addition to that, it’s also not waiting to be asked. No matter what your position is., if you see an opportunity where someone might need help, even if they’re not asking for it, hey, need any help? Anything I can do for you? Fast forward a number of years, and I remember this because it was a pretty stupid offer in hindsight, but working at Madison Square Garden, my boss at the time was another very dynamic man named was Bob is Bob Gutkowski. And Bob was an executive with NBC Sports. He went on for a number of years to be a senior executive at ESPN in its infancy, and then became my boss at Madison Square Garden. And he was president of Madison Square Garden, and then he went on to become President of the Garden itself. And he was a big boxing fan. And he was bringing boxing back to what used to be called the Felt Forum, a small theater that we had as part of the Garden. Bob and I worked very closely. I really admired him. And when I heard that they were booking boxing, I was not at that point in my career in the venue business at all, but I remember going to him not thinking about the sophistication of another side of our business. I said Bob, I understand we’re gonna go on sale with a boxing event. Look, if you need anybody to take tickets or be an usher that night, you know, I’m here if you need me. He did not take me up on my offer, the Garden is a union organization, even if you wanted to, it would have been difficult for me to work at. But even though it was a naive offer, it was a genuine offer that if you need help for something that the organization is taking on, I don’t know how hard it is to take tickets is, I’d never taken them before. But it just hit me offer, ask, look to be a part of something that might be outside of your box, you’re going to learn something. And by the way, if you have aspirations for a career beyond what you’re doing today, it’s demonstrating that you’re taking the initiative that you’re not just sitting back, waiting for someone to come to you with an assignment. It’s important to say yes, when asked. But I’m also the mind, we affect a lot of our own destiny so as to help others.
Mike Malatesta 16:04
So this is a stupid little story, but I’ll share with you anyway, because you said to pick up the paper, one thing that I do, and I don’t know why I do it, but it’s just because it’s there, but when I go into a bathroom, like at a restaurant, or even at, you know, the convention center, if there’s, you know, papers around the trashcan where people have missed, or, you know, I pick all those up, and I put them away, and I know that the next person is going to throw it on the floor. But I just feel like that’s leaving something a little bit better than it was before you showed up. Right? And that sounds like how you think like, I can make this a little bit better or a lot better. Because I’ve shown up so why wouldn’t I take that opportunity?
Marty Brooks 16:52
It’s also that, and I think this is even more so as I’ve gotten more responsibility over my career, is, like it or not, people are looking at those above them within an organization, and how they behave. And I treat my office and our buildings and all our space, whether it’s public space or back house space, as if I own it, as if it’s my living room that you’re coming in. So when I come to the restaurants, and by the way, thank you for picking up trash in our building. I truly appreciate that. Thank you. But when I use the restroom here and other places, I hate it when the sink top is wet. So I’ll take some additional hand towels, wipe it and I’m doing it for the next person and also it makes me feel good that I’m leaving the place orderly and clean for the next person. I look at it as just being considerate for everyone else around you. And again, that ties back to or ties directly to the mindset we’re trying to cultivate. And I’m very proud of how we’ve changed the culture at the District by having these types of very simple values, but it’s having people respect one another, but also respecting the facility that we work in.
Mike Malatesta 18:13
So I want to dig into that a little bit. But first, I want to ask you this. Most people that are listening probably have some awareness of Madison Square Garden as the arena. You know, where concerts are, where basketball is played, that kind of stuff. But it sounds like it’s part of a much bigger sort of organization. You mentioned the Felt and you worked in concert in Hartford, I think as part of your work with the guard, could you just give people a sense of what that organization is actually like? Sure.
Marty Brooks 18:45
I will happy to do so. But I have to qualify that I left Madison Square Garden in 2007.
Mike Malatesta 18:54
That’s fine, just what it was. Just so people know.
Marty Brooks 18:57
So it was, and I’m sure it’s still referred to it this way, it’s known as Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. It’s located above Penn Station in Manhattan between 31st and 33rd on Seventh, and Eighth Avenue. So it’s a great facility. It’s a garden of many gardens for over 100 plus years. So we own the building. The garden owns the Knicks, the Rangers, they used to own the New York Liberty, the WNBA. I don’t know if they still do. They own the minor league hockey team affiliate of the New York Rangers, which is called the Hartford Wolfpack. They have a practice facility. I believe it’s in Rye, New York. They own and operate Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. And since I left the organization, I believe they’ve also gotten involved in venue operations in Boston and a couple of other cities as well. But when I was there, we were owned by Golf and Western, which then was bought by Paramount, which was then bought by Viacom, then bought by ITT, then bought by Cablevision, who is their current owner. So I had the really good fortune of being exposed to real corporate America, I went from a five-person entrepreneur shop out of college to an organization that had 1000s and 1000s of employees around the world. That’s when we were owned by ITT. I remember being at a management meeting, and there were representatives from Sheraton and ITT and all of these other unrelated businesses. But it exposed me to some great educational opportunities. At the time, we were part of Paramount, going out and having functions out of the lot out in Los Angeles, just an incredible experience.
Mike Malatesta 21:09
And as I recall, part of your responsibility while you were there was that they own the Miss Universe business.
Marty Brooks 21:18
Yeah, I had 22 years at the garden, I had a number of different jobs. I was hired initially, to be the Director of Programming with Madison Square Garden Network, which at the time was the largest and oldest regional sports network. We did a lot of great things there. Elevated ultimately to senior vice president in charge of programming and production, was involved in the team that acquired the New York Yankees rights back in the late 80s. And at the time, it was the largest rights deal for a regional sports network, we paid $500 million for the 10-year contract, great, great stuff. There was some management change at different parts of the Madison Square Garden organization, and through Paramount, Paramount used to own and operate the Miss Universe beauty pageants, which is Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss Teen USA. As part of the development of Madison Square Garden, that business was transferred from Paramount to the Garden. There was a change in Garden management, the person who had been president of Miss Universe was let go, and my boss who I mentioned previously, Bob Gutkowski, called me into his office and said, Look, I know you don’t know this business, but I know you and I’m pretty confident you can do things, so I became president. Among my MSG network responsibilities, I became president and executive producer for Miss Universe, which we did three pageants a year, all televised at the time by CBS and distributed worldwide by Paramount International. I learned a lot about live event production, working with CBS. In, we would take the pageant, like they do major sporting events, and we would go to a CVB [Convention & Visitors Bureau] and a market and say, Hey, we can give you this television exposure. These are the in-kinds and the cash payment that we need. So it’s a really neat experience. And it was working with some really talented individuals based out of Los Angeles and the creative community, working with nationally known announcers and on-air talent to be part of our shows. And as part of the continued growth of Madison Square Garden, we were bought by ITT and Cablevision. And as a lot of companies do when there’s an acquisition, they look at the core, look at the businesses, and decide what they want to keep and what really doesn’t fit the core businesses. And the determination was made by ITT and Cablevision that the Miss Universe pageant really wasn’t a strategic, didn’t have a strategic fit with the company. So we put it up for sale. We met with a number of different entities to look at the business and possibly buy it, and at the time, our cohost of the pageants was a very terrific woman. Very talented. She was a Broadway star in the Will Rogers Follies named Marla Maples, Trump. At the Miss Universe pageant that was held in 1996 in Las Vegas at the old Aladdin casino, Donald Trump came out, heard that we were ahead of the property at presales. We came out and saw his then-wife working the show with us, asked me and my wife to fly back with him on his plane back to New York after the next day, after the pageant. And ultimately, we sold the organization to Donald. After many discussions, it became apparent to both of us that I was not the right fit for him nor his organization the right fit for me. So when we closed on the deal, it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 1996. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we closed on the deal. And I had left for Los Angeles not to return again as part of the Miss Universe Organization. So I spent six months during the transition from accepting his offer to buy the organization till the time we sold it dual reporting to both Donald Trump and the Garden because we were still the owner at the time. And it was, it was a wonderful experience, spending that six months with him. And I don’t regret for a moment going my own way at the end of that period of time.
Mike Malatesta 25:58
So we’re recording this on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, which is gives you reference for Marty’s comments about the date. So there you are 20 years later, this person that you sell The Miss Universe Business to is the president of the United States, that’s got to be a little weird, right? Like, I’m sure you weren’t thinking that’s going to happen. Right?
Marty Brooks 26:29
Well, you know what, I live by something that I call the shave test. And that is, it used to be every morning, and now it’s every other morning. After I shower, I’ll shave. And while doing so, first to make sure from a safety standpoint I’m not cutting an artery is something, but also it gives me an opportunity to look myself in the eye and I do some introspection and real soul-searching. And to me, the shave test is you can look yourself in the eye in the mirror and be comfortable with the decision you’re making. And I will tell you, I probably could have been clinically diagnosed for depression. For a year and a half after we sold the Miss Universe pageant business because, I loved, I adored the people I worked with, I traveled the world first class, the Miss Universe Organization, at least back in the earlier days, it was very highly regarded, and the delegates were put on a pedestal. And it was a nice gig. Like I say traveled the world first class, met great people, did enjoyable events, one site that we also did the television production for. But I knew after six months that the way Donald Trump did business, without passing judgment on it then or now, was different than how I did business. And in the last meeting I had with him in person, we were talking about a business deal. And I’m not going to go into the conversation, but I walked out of his office at that point. And at that time, I had a Startech flip phone. So that tells really how old I am. If you haven’t figured out, it’s a really archaic phone, you don’t even think you do text messages on. But I remember calling my wife as I was leaving his office going down the elevators atTrump Plaza on Fifth Avenue telling her this is not going to work. Because one of two things will happen if I stay with this organization, I will either die from a heart attack because of the stress or I’ll get fired for insubordination, and I am not by any means saying I’m right and the way Donald does business is wrong. Nothing to do with that, it was just very different. So to your point, fast forwarding another 20 years, my assessment was validated 20 years later, and I still miss that job. I miss those people. But when he bought the organization, it became a different organization. I also don’t look back with regrets because it doesn’t do any good. I try and learn from things. I learned a lot about myself and about others when I left that job. But 20-plus years ago, I did the razor test without being in front of a mirror and missed the job and missed the people, but I had no assurance that not taking the job with Miss Universe, I didn’t know that I was going to still have a job with the Garden because they were selling the asset that I was running. They were really terrific with me and kept me employed for another 12 years doing something else. So getting back to the Garden, just putting a bow on that, it was a great 22 years, I never thought I would not be working at Madison Square Garden. It was a great place. Again, we caught lightning in a bottle there, there was a great team of people that I worked with. And I’ve taken the love and passion that I had at USA Network, at Madison Square Garden up in Hartford with Madison Square Garden, and I am committed to building great teams wherever I work, because if you’ve got a great team and you have everyone’s back, and everyone has your back, there’s nothing you can’t do. And I think that’s what I’m so proud of and so energized trying to bring this to the present day is we put together a great team at the Wisconsin Center District, I’ve got a great group of people that I work with, and we have a common goal, and that is to do the best possible job with one another and make anyone who comes to our building, whether they’re a guest or an employee, feel special and it may seem hokey, but I never thought in my life that I’d visit Milwaukee, move to Milwaukee to work in Milwaukee, and have probably the most gratifying life experience while being here. And it’s been a hell of a ride for my career. And the past five years for me have been nothing I could have imagined.
Mike Malatesta 31:56
So the shave test is very interesting. Thanks for sharing that I, we probably don’t have time to go into it now. But I’d be really interested to talk to you about how many times you can recognize change in yourself as a result of growth or, you know, just the difference, like you just said your life has changed you know, that kind of thing. It’d be interesting to have that conversation with you. And by the way, none of that stuff sounds hokey, and we’re going to talk more about it. That’s how unhokey it is. So I’m going to skip over this St. Louis experience in the interest of time unless you want to go there, or bring it in as we talk about some other things. But I am curious, I grew up in the Philadelphia area and moved to Milwaukee in 1992, as I’ve mentioned, and I know what my experience was like, and Philadelphia is not the same as New York, not the same as Hartford, not same as Baltimore. But, you know, it’s generally lumped in, you know, as similar I guess, and I’m wondering, first of all, how you felt when you moved here, but secondly, how different was it when you went to look at building the team at the Wisconsin Center District from the Madison Square Garden culture, let’s say
Marty Brooks 33:34
I became aware of the opportunity in Milwaukee through a friend who was doing work with the Bucks. Peter Feigin, who is the president of the Bucks, and I worked at the Garden, our careers overlapped for about three or four years. I knew each other. Peter was in New York, and at that point in my career at the Garden, I was in Hartford. So I knew Peter because he was a colleague. And something he would have either annually or bi-annually, off-site retreats, where we would, you know, go out, team build and discuss how do we do better, do more with less and so we knew each other, but we weren’t by any means close friends. I had talked to Peter about that time, they had gotten a commitment to build a new building. I came up and met with Peter just because he wanted to talk to me and I wanted to talk to him about, you know, was there an opportunity with the Bucks organization, and they had already brought in Gas consultant right. I don’t know if you if you ever had the chance to meet Raj, really terrific, very talented guy, left the organization a year and a half, two years ago, but really talented, very, very diverse background and I also knew Raj from the Garden when he was a kid, he was in guest services and took care of complaints anyway, I get off course. But when things at the Bucks didn’t seem like they were going anywhere, I was made aware that they were looking to make a change at the Wisconsin Center District in their senior leadership. And the fact that they own the convention center, they own and operate the Miller Highlight Theater and the UW and Panther Arena really fit the last 14 years or so no, I’m sorry, more than that, the last 20 years of my career in the venue business where for the first 16 years of my career was in sports, television, and then Entertainment Television. The last 20 have been in venue management. And I didn’t know anything about Milwaukee, didn’t know anything about the Wisconsin Center District other than what I could see online, the three properties. I interviewed for the job, a couple of months went by, they finally reached out to me again and said, hey, we’d like you to come out here and meet a couple people. So I had an interview with a group, they narrowed it down to three people, brought me back again, and offered me the job. I didn’t know anyone within the organization, and just the way that they did the hiring, I wasn’t introduced to any of the staff at all. And in fact, I accepted the job before even walking around any of the three buildings. I was brought up the Friday before Christmas when the office was closed. And the gentleman who was then the President, Russ Staerkel, and Scott Neitzel, who was DOA secretary at the time, walked me around the convention center. I didn’t know what I was getting into as far as what the organization was really like, what anyone thought of the organization, but I accepted the job, based on the challenge of, we want you to come up here and improve the P&L, we want you to come up here and get more engaged in the community because they didn’t feel that the District had a real presence outside of its walls. And the third objective was, we want you to get immersed in the idea that we’ve had for the past 20 years, and that’s an expansion for the convention center. We’ve spent a lot of money on consultants, but we’re no closer to making a decision than we’ve ever been. So we need you to take a look at and make a recommendation at some point. Do we need an expansion? And if so, what does it mean? And if not, let’s put it on the back burner for another 10 years or so, and we’ll revisit it, as opposed to it simmering every couple of months. And that’s what excited me, the challenge just seemed extremely exciting. I came up here and I met with the staff the first week, I had my car scheduled for service in St. Louis, I changed it to be serviced up here. And I was in the dealership waiting for my car to be serviced. And this is the first Saturday I’m up here, my wife is still in St. Louis. And Scott Neitzel calls and says Hey, Marty, just checking in, want to see how you’re doing. And I didn’t know Scott that well, but I used a couple of four-letter words as expletives with a smile on my voice and said, If I would have known how four-letter word this place is, I don’t think I ever would have taken this job, Scott. But you couldn’t have known how it was because you’re not here every day. You know, I’m not accusing you of misrepresenting, but there’s no way you could have prepared me for what I’ve assessed in the past week.
Mike Malatesta 38:47
And so right off the bat, you’re like, Did I make a mistake? Is that what you’re saying?
Marty Brooks 38:50
I never thought I made a mistake. I didn’t expect the organization to be the issue, you know. I thought it was more we need to have a little bit more experience in booking shows or maybe there’s a better way to do things, and what was so out of sorts was the organization needed to be shaken up. And that doesn’t mean mass firings or promotions or demotions, it means that there were a lot of people who this was their only job and they had been here for years, decades even. They had never obtained any other life experience other than working here. And this organization, prior to becoming the Wisconsin Center District, was a department of the City of Milwaukee so it evolved from a bureaucracy, a governmental bureaucracy, and the people in the key positions weren’t in the sports entertainment venue business yet they were the ones running the organization.
Mike Malatesta 40:06
They were in it but they weren’t in it. Correct.
Marty Brooks 40:09
I never faulted the individuals, you can’t fault somebody for getting or being in a job. It’s the people who hired them you should fault if they’re the wrong person for the job, so it caused me to pause and go, Okay, I gotta learn more. And I spent the first three months that I was with the organization more outside than inside, because I needed to know what people thought of us, those people that did business with us, those that didn’t do business with us. All of our board members, our competition, I met with people who said, Why are you meeting with me? I’m your competition, with Gary Witt, who has a number of very successful promotions in Milwaukee , I wanted to meet with them, because I needed it. I didn’t come in here to blow anybody up, I came here to help develop and elevate the Wisconsin Center District, and after three months, it became apparent to me that we had a real attitude problem, meaning that we were not thought of well, if anyone thought of us, and most people didn’t. If you thought of us at all, you thought ill of us. You saw us as this monolith, it sat in the middle of the city that waited for people to call them that didn’t really care about customer service. And it prompted us to put together in the fall of 2018; so I’m here six, eight months, we put together the first-ever Employee Engagement Survey. If we’re going to grow as an organization, we have to know who we are from the inside looking out and what we learned. And we did a survey for all full and part-time people. And what was uncovered was that most people didn’t know, outside of their very narrow scope of daily existence here, what the organization did, what our core values were, if we had them, there was no communication within the organization, everyone operated in a silo. And as such, there was a real distrust of management. Well, this doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for success. The great thing is, it set the benchmark of where we were at the time, and we spent the next couple of months developing, where we wanted to go and we created a CEO Vision, it was a mission statement. We want to be the best venue in creating memorable experiences, that Milwaukee is a not-to-be-missed destination, we’re going to think unconventionally, and you know, all this great stuff. But it got very verbose. And we
Mike Malatesta 42:57
Like platitude stuff, yeah.
Marty Brooks 42:59
How do we take this vision but then cull it down to something, the Kool Aid that we can all drink, and it became, what are the attributes we want to exhibit and it became Be Bold, Be Proud, Be Experience-Obsessed, which is what I have on my water bottle, BPX. And it really is our way of life here. And everything that we’ve talked about thus far, as far as teamwork and having each other’s back and supporting one another, working outside of your box and asking if someone needs help, getting to yes, is all part of our core values. We want our employees to be proud of working here and telling people that they work here, we want to make decisions that are good for the business, but also in the best interest of our employees and our visitors. And at the same time, we may not be able to control the show that has come in and what they’re exhibiting. But we can control the environment in which that show takes place, whether it’s the people working the show coming in to load in or the attendees. And it’s all about people, colleagues and guests, having a great time here. And it also became important, and we realized that I could sit in my office, we can make deals for events, and you know, that’s all great, but the people who have the biggest and most immediate impact on either the event promoter who’s staging their event here or the attendee coming to a convention, or the auto show. is our guest services and our security staff and our concession stand. They’re the ones that interact frontline and we needed to make sure that that we created an environment that showed the staff we respect them, we care for them, we’re here to support them. We looked at the wage rate, two years ago this July we increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We recently implemented an employee assistance program for all employees, full and part time. We have quarterly townhall meetings now where we reach out, and some of these meetings offer some training, leadership advice, motivational speakers. And other times it’s just information. This is what’s going on with the expansion. And it’s a culture and we talk about it. We haven’t talked about it yet, but we’re a year into a $456 million expansion project that we broke ground on October 28 of last year and will be ready to open up in May of 2024. But I truly believe that the most influential factor that our board considered when approving us to move forward in April of ‘20, which was in the height of the pandemic, you may recall, was the organization that was in existence in 2017 and earlier, had transformed to a different organization and that there was trust from the board, that not only me as the president and CEO, but that staff that we had, full and part time, management and line staff could be entrusted to oversee a project of this magnitude, and deliver a final product that everyone would be proud of. And, look, we had a lot of things aligned that got the project approve, but I truly believe the most influential component after Can we afford the debt service — I mean, clearly, that’s a component Can we afford the project — but putting that aside, we got the trust of the board, and hopefully the trust of the aldermen and the people, David Crowley and Chris Able prior to him and Governor Walker at the time and now the governor so I give a lot of weight to building trust and confidence, and the staff here has been remarkable, and the change we’ve seen in this organization in the past four years, you truly can’t appreciate if you weren’t here before now.
Mike Malatesta 47:28
The way you took me through that reminded me so much of the conversation I had with Peter Feigin when he first joined the Bucks organization with the new ownership team. You know, people, all good people, everybody in this part of the country is good. But you know, people that have been doing the same thing for the same leadership for a long, long time, and not being rallied to be special, not being rallied to be, you know, increase their capabilities, not being rallied to have autonomy or ownership or whatever you want to call it. That sounded very similar. And it got me thinking, Marty, do you? So I’m wondering if both of you both you and Peter, but I don’t have him here. So I’m going to ask you, this BPF thing, if you’ve been practicing that your whole career, but just didn’t have that kind of name for it, or is it something that is a little different? Based on you know, what you came into, that you developed? Tell me, I’m really interested by that?
Marty Brooks 48:34
Well, I think that’s interesting. I’ve never looked at it that way. I think Sarah Maio, who is our VP of Marketing and Communications, has been a big influence on me and opening my eyes to looking at the organization as a whole, and Sarah has been with me, she was here when I got here, and we’ll hopefully be here together a very long time. But I think what’s so easy for me with BPX is people being experience-obsessed, is how we were able to verbalize the mindset we were looking for, but in speaking with you and I don’t know if you are a psychologist, a psychiatrist by education, but you’ve taken me some places in this call that I was not prepared or given any thought to going into during this conversation. We talked about Kay Koplovitz and Bob Gutkowski and all these wonderful people in my life. I don’t know where you pulled them out of, but this was really down memory lane for me. Anyway, we’re talking about what’s important to me and my career for picking up K ayat the airport and asking Bob if I can help take tickets. That’s just how I — that’s me. That’s my character. And I am a very passionate person. My work for my entire life has been my identity. I’m not looking forward to a day I retire because my life is the organization I work for, which is why it was easy to leave Miss. Universe when Trump owned it. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t represent that organization. That’s not me. It’s not being true to me. And so BPX, I think, the employee engagement survey and then brainstorming with Sarah and others over how do we create something that the staff can rally behind. It was organic, if we were able to bottle if you would, by coming up with BPX, but it’s really making sure you’re surrounded with people that are of a common mind. And, and I will tell you, I think another big part of it is, morally, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such strong people, whether they’re religious or not, it’s really, that’s not the point I’m talking about. We have a group of very good people, I never have to, and have never questioned, I’m speaking for the team in Milwaukee, I’ve never questioned anyone’s motivation, or their ulterior motive. And we, by the way, I don’t want to make it sound like we’re, you know, in a love fest here. We have a lot of strong personalities, and we are very expressive, but that’s healthy. You know, let’s get it out. Let’s talk about it and get through it. But I spend more time at work than I do with my wife and my family. And I’m not demanding that from others. And I want the staff to like me, and I want the staff to like each other. But most importantly, we need to respect one another. And we have that here. And it’s very special. I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not, but I will say this, and then you can take this where you want. I’m very blessed. I am very blessed, personally, and very blessed professionally, and being able to talk about it with you is very cleansing for me, because it makes me realize, especially this time of the year, how thankful I need to tell everyone I am for their support.
Mike Malatesta 52:38
And our viewers as well. So I want to get into something else about being the CEO of this kind of organization, sure, you’ve got the employees, and you’ve got lots of employees, and you’re going to have a lot more employees, and they have to be working and all. You got a lot of challenges there. But you also have a board of directors that is made up of people that are in the private sector and people that are in government, and the balance is definitely towards people who are elected officials as I went through the list, and I wondered to myself, that alone probably creates a lot of panic. But I wondered Marty, at any of the other places that you worked, I guess, St. Louis, maybe? I don’t know. Did you have something similar? Have you ever worked for a board that was, you know, that kind of had that kind of makeup to it?
Marty Brooks 53:46
When I was in St. Louis working with Explore St. Louis, I was the executive vice president and General Manager of the America Center, which was their convention center, and then what used to be called the Edward Jones Dome, where the Rams played. We were governed by a board that was volunteer. But I reported to the president of the organization. And while I was at the board meetings, I was at the end of the table and spoke if spoken to. Now it’s very different. I’m frontline. I’m at the head of the table at our board meetings. And that’s also part of what attracted me to this job is that I believed I was ready to be at the head table, be at the head of the table and the experiences that I’ve had in my different careers, or my different jobs, I believe, has given me the calluses and the scars to be able to deal with the challenges that reporting to a public and private sector board requires you to do. I will tell you working at the Garden when I was up in Hartford, I would have to come into New York once a year to go over and present my budget to Jim Dolan, who is now president of Cablevision, a very dynamic, colorful individual. A lot of times in the New York papers, he gets things unpleasant or written about him and his personality. And Jim can be a very difficult individual. And I remember going into the budget meetings and the tone of the budget meeting, without regard to what the bottom line said how we’re going to make, was often determined by whether the Knicks or Rangers won the night before, that’s a very volatile environment, and that was even before Cablevision bought us. But when you work for an organization that owns the sports team, and owns your organization, wins and losses, you may make as much on a losing game night as you do on a winning game night. But ultimately, it’s about the playoffs in the championship and it’s, it’s there, they’re great highs, I was in the Garden the night the Rangers won the Stanley Cup Championship in ‘96, I have a Ranger Stanley Cup Championship ring that I’m so proud to own. And that was a fabulous night, weeks afterwards went to Gracie Mansion, and we went in the parade, it was just spectacular. But we could have just as easily lost the championship game, and it would have been horrible. So in Hartford, our client was the Connecticut Development Authority. So I would have to go in. And while I reported to the Garden, our client was a state agency and I would have to go and work with them, The Office of Policy and Management was my client in a football stadium that I built for the University of Connecticut up in Hartford while with the Garden, so I’ve had different degrees of experience. This one is unique, and I’m learning from this one,
Mike Malatesta 57:01
okay. It sounds like a shave test moment, every time there was a budget meeting.
Marty Brooks 57:07
I don’t know about the shave test, but you know what, the owner of an organization has the right to tell you how they want to do business because they own it. And you can either accept that and be on board and do the best job you can, or you need to get out. Now we’re a public entity. So we don’t have an owner per se, but I may have disagreed with some of the decisions or direction that Cablevision was taking the organization. But it was the organization and I either endorsed it and did the best job I could for them, or you leave because it’s not fair to them, to not give 100% And if you’re not happy, then you’re not happy, your families aren’t happy, your friends aren’t happy, you don’t win the fight. When ownership is driving the bus, you either accept it or you have to move on.
Mike Malatesta 58:03
Right. So 2024, May 2024, the expansion will be done, the idea here is that the convention center, it’s got to be able to handle much bigger conventions, more conventions simultaneously. Just, you know, just attract a lot more attention and dollars to Milwaukee than the present Convention Center. Does that sort of boil it down?
Marty Brooks 58:38
I tell you what, you’ve done your homework, and somebody has prepped you well, because you’ve said it, it’s the opportunity for the expansion, while we can get bigger conventions, the real opportunity is to be able to do more convention simultaneously and overlapping. One of our driving forces and is to, along with VISIT Milwaukee, bring people from out of town into downtown Milwaukee and into Milwaukee County, to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, go to our bars, go to our stores, rent cars out in General Mitchell Field, and leave Milwaukee with a lot less money in their pocket than when they came. And to do that, we were turning away as much business as we were booking because our existing facility has one ballroom, 28 meeting rooms 188,000 square feet of exhibition space. And once that’s booked, we can’t do another event. And so by example, a big convention that would come to our building may be four days in length and its economic impact is four days. But to get those four days of convention activity, they’re loading in for a week. So we’re busy but there aren’t a lot of people in town yet. Then you have the four days of the convention. And then there are two days to load out where we’re still busy, but all the attendees have left. So you’ve got seven 11, 12,13 days of which we’re busy, but the economic impact only four of them. So now by having a second ballroom, 24 more meeting rooms, adding another 112,000 square foot exhibition hall, we can literally divide the building in half and have two events going on either staggered, or simultaneously. And that’s going to be the true economic driver come ‘24 and beyond is being able to have the hotel rooms busy, 7, 8,10, 12, 13 nights out or 13 and not just 4.
Mike Malatesta 1:00:41
And so when it’s done, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of competition to put a name on this building, That’s what I would be thinking at least. So is that in the plans you have? I mean, I’m assuming it’s going to be named something that other than the Wisconsin Center District
Marty Brooks 1:01:12
It’s going to be the Wisconsin Center is what it’s called. And that is a terrific name. And it’s memorable. I think one of the things that we’ve been very fortunate, as far as how we’ve developed the economics of this expansion, is unlike some sports arenas, or other properties, a naming rights sponsor has been necessary to fill the void in a budget to bring it to completion. So we’ve put pressure on ourselves, to find the right partner, because we believe that with the change of our, I’ll call it infrastructure, but the people who work in the building, and then the physical building improvements that we’re doing to the existing building and the expansion, we’re a desirable entity. And we’d like to find an organization that has similar type of values as we have willing to spend a respectable amount of money to promote the their organization on our organization. So it’s something that we’ve been working on for the past year. We’ve had some terrific conversations with some very impressive organizations. And I’m hopeful that long before we open in May of 24, we will have a naming rights partner and having their name secured on our building. But we’re not at the stage yet of being able to go public with anything because it’s premature at this point with the individuals we’re speaking
Mike Malatesta 1:02:59
Okay. I was just trying to lay it down for the future. So, Marty, this has been so much fun. Is there something you would like to leave me or us with before we end today?
Marty Brooks 1:03:21
Well, a big part of the design approach that we’ve taken with the expansion and then looking at the modernization of the existing building is how do we connect more with Milwaukee? The original convention center, and I think most convention centers in urban settings, are these monoliths that I don’t want to say break up the city but aren’t welcoming to the residents and workers of the city, our primary customers, our visitors, not local people from Milwaukee, although a good portion of our business does come from organizations and associations within the state. But in the design of the new building, we’ve been very deliberate in having it be very open, a lot of glass. We have this beautiful rooftop ballroom, it’ll be part of it with an outdoor terrace. We’ve got a significant amount of money earmarked for interior art being commissioned by Milwaukee and Wisconsin artists primarily. And our management team has gotten very involved in different nonprofit organizations, that we serve on a number of different boards. But what was, and I say this because when we’re doing the lobbying of our board and looking to get support in the community in 2019 and 2020 to do the expansion, it was a little disappointing to find out how few Milwaukeeans had any familiarity with the convention center, because they’d never been in an event in our building, whether it was a gala or the auto show where we have a lot of public events other than just the conventions that we have. And in fact, one of our most successful events ever last year was we had Beyond Van Gogh, which was the immersive experience. And the one thing during COVID, that we had plenty of which was space.
Mike Malatesta 1:05:28
It was a wonderful show, by the way.
Marty Brooks 1:05:31
Mike Malatesta 1:05:34
And your people, courtesy, and everything that you were talking about with your people was so on display when we went through that exhibit.
Marty Brooks 1:05:43
That’s good, it’s great for you to share, thank you. We have from the same promoter an event through January 8, in our building called Beyond Monet, the immersive experience, we’re looking at some things for the future. So like our core business is conventions. But getting back to one last thing, we are bringing in content that’s as much for local people. And I’m really hopeful that in the years to come after we open that we can have events in here that attract people in Milwaukee, from Milwaukee, to come into the building and share the pride. This is a public building, we want people to come in, we want people to enjoy themselves here. And we want people to take pride as we do in this building. So not scripted to want to talk about and I’m not looking for anybody’s money unless somebody wants to be our naming rights partner, that’s still open right now. But we want to make sure we are more front of mind than we’ve been as an organization and as an asset for the city because we are an economic driver. We’re not looking to be in the spotlight. But we just want people to know we’re here and we’re here to grow the city and make this a better place to live, work and play.
Mike Malatesta 1:07:01
Well, thanks for wrapping that up. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you chose to come to Milwaukee, it is a wonderful place, you know, as I mentioned a few times. I’m also transplant, have been here 30 years, and it’s been coming from like I had no idea where it was when, you know, when they told me Hey, you’re going to Milwaukee. I’ve created a couple of businesses here, my family has grown up here, I’ve met so many wonderful people, I’m as used to. as you alluded to, I mean the work ethic, the work ethic of the people that live here and just the goodness of almost all of them is just something you don’t run into very often, you just don’t run into it. So we’re glad you’re here, Marty, and thank you so much for leading us on this project, and maybe we can chat again when it opens or gets further down the line or when you get a naming rights partner and we can go into all kinds of shave test moments in your life.
Marty Brooks 1:08:07
Mike, thanks for your interest today, it’s been exhausting for me. I am wiped from this conversation, but it’s been very enjoyable. I really enjoy the way you lead the interview today and look forward to getting to know you a little bit better myself. I’m exhausted. You killed me today.
Mike Malatesta 1:08:52
Thanks Marty All right. I hope that’s a good thing