“There are Going to be Radical Changes:” An Interview with The Expo Group’s Ray Pekowski

An interview with Ray Pekowski, author of Lessons of an Entrepreneur: How to Grow, Take Risks and Survive. Outskirts Press, June 2017. 113 pages. Proceeds donated to charity.

Want to master business? Be a servant. That’s the core message of Lessons of an Entrepreneur, the new book by The Expo Group’s chairman and CEO, Ray Pekowski. Like a total eclipse, a self-help book penned by a trade-show exec is so rare it’s worth celebrating. Ray’s is full of personal stories and anecdotes, which makes it breezy and entertaining. Bob James interviewed Ray about the book.

Bob: Employees, customers, and vendors encouraged you to write this book. Lots of CEOs are visionaries. What did you do so differently that they asked you to write a book?

Ray: A lot of the encouragement was due to the system we first rolled out back in the late ‘80s. Streamlining all the processes for the exhibition industry was radical back then, but I had this vision the industry needed to change. It was radical if you keep in mind the time and place—1987. Technology then certainly wasn't what it is today. So that experience lies behind the book, and so do the experiences I’ve had with my first partner and with the people who have worked with me over the years, who watched my transition and went through all the difficulties with me. Over the years, people would just encourage me, “You should tell your story.” Finally. I ran into a woman, Colleen Rickenbacher, and she, quite honestly, pushed me through it. I wouldn't have done it without her.

Bob: You describe many formative experiences. What’s one formative experience you omitted from the book?

Ray: In my first sales job, I sold women's shoes, and the owner of the store taught me how to not lose a sale. If I couldn't close, he would tell me, don't let the person walk out the door without having another rep try to sell her a pair of shoes. He was a little guy, but very successful. That's something I took away from him: just because you don't have a relationship with a customer, another person within your company might, and that can deliver a sale.

Bob: “Servant leadership” seems to be your favorite term. I know what that is, but what’s the opposite of servant leadership?

Ray: You can dictate and demand things, push down on people and direct them to do what you want them to do, or you can help them and serve them. I always found that when you dictate or demand, yes, you may get immediate results; but if people are doing things because they're directed or mandated to, and don't believe in them, it's going to be a short-term win.

Bob: How does the idea affect your customers?

Ray: I hope my direct reports, and their direct reports, and then all the way down to the people in the field, practice servant leadership every moment. Then, everybody is helping the next person—who just might be one of our customers. Everyone needs to believe: “Let’s not worry about who's right and wrong, let's just get through problems and help the customers.” That's one of the most pleasing things of all to me. An exhibitor recently lost its freight before a show, and it wasn’t going to arrive in time. Our people got involved and got the exhibitor set up so it could do business, and didn't charge anything. You can write “be a servant” in a book or a policy manual, but people won’t feel empowered to act like that unless you do yourself.

Bob: Every successful person gets a “big break.” What do you consider yours?

Ray: When I first started in the industry—I was still teaching and coaching at the time—I went to work for this decorating company that put me in audiovisual sales, because they thought, since I was a teacher, I'd know how to sell audio visual. There's no correlation, trust me. I was with the company maybe three months when my boss said, “I want you to go make a sales call. We didn't get the decorating, but the customer needs audio visual. You need to go see him today.” That scared me; but the guy's my boss, and that's what he told me to do. So, I went over to the Hilton Hotel, and picked up the lobby phone and asked for Joe O'Donnell. The switchboard puts me through to Joe's room. He picks up the phone. I say, “Hello Mr. O'Donnell, I'm Ray Pekowski. I understand you're in town for a training show.” He says,  “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and hangs up. I thought maybe this was a hazing moment for the rookie, but don’t see anyone standing in the hotel lobby laughing. So, I call again. The phone rings. He picks it up. I say, “Hello, Joe, this is Ray Pekowski. I want to see you.” He says, “I don't know who you are and I'm getting very annoyed at you for calling my room. If you keep calling me, I'm going to come downstairs and we're going to have it out.” And he hangs up. I say to myself, “Gosh, I’m going to be fired from my job because I can't even get the guy to talk to me.” I call again, but this time I say to the switchboard, “Give me Mr. O'Donnell's room, please—the other Mr. O’Donnell.” I introduce myself to the man who answers, and he says, “Great! I've been expecting your call.” There were two Joe Diamonds in the hotel that day. Long story short, I sold that customer, at which point the boss said, “We're moving you out of the audiovisual division to the trade show division.” That was the start of my career.

Bob: You write in the book, “Business is about finding a niche that provides something that either is not being done or can be done better. We had the better.” What’s the enemy of better?

Ray: Complacency. If you have a fine-running machine and you're making money, you’re reluctant to change. But even though I’m at the tail-end of my career, I am constantly looking around for new ways to fill needs in our industry. People know I'm amenable to listening to new ideas, too, so they bring them to me. Yes, we’re getting larger, but the entrepreneurial spirit still lives in our company. I'll share a story. Five years ago, the industry was asking, “How do engage attendees through social media?” Dana Freker Doody, our VP of communications, came into my office and said, “Hey, I've got an idea that could be a solution.” When she told me the idea, I said, “I like it.” When she told me how much it would cost, I fell off my chair, but said, “Let's go for it!” That’s just how we do things—the servant leadership model allows for that. Right now, I’m going through this whole experience of working with a book publisher, and it’s showing me, “Hey, there's some things they're doing that could be applicable to our company.” That’s the beginning of the thought process. We don't run with every new idea, because we don't have the finances to do so, but we encourage our people to present every new idea.

Bob: You survived a crisis that started in 2009. But you had a contingency plan that got you through. Why don’t all executives have plans like these? 

Ray: I watched Clint Murchison, the owner of the first company I worked for, lose 240 companies—fast. I learned from that experience you must have a plan in place for any contingency, and I put that in practice. We update our contingency plans when we do our budgets every year. It can help you survive. I always remind our guys, “Things are going well right now, but they won’t always go so well.”

Bob: Lots has changed in the event industry since you joined it. What is the one change you would like to see take place in the industry during the five years?

Ray: What I'm most excited about is the position we're taking as a company to help people perform at a higher level. Right now, a lot of executive directors in the association world are paralyzed: they see their shows declining, but won't take risks. We’re ready to help them. The drayage model, for example, isn’t a law—or, if it is, it’s an archaic one that I’d like to see changed. The Europeans, who don’t charge for drayage, did some due diligence on the end-costs of shows back in the ‘90s. Pulling the numbers into the US model, the bottom line comes out the same. In other words, it’s just a difference in where the dollars are being spent—there are different ways of billing the same money. We’ve just introduced a pay-for-performance model. We're saying. “We believe in you, and you believe in us. So, let's partner. And if we don't perform, you don't pay us.” It's not for every show in every sector, but we believe the idea can help lots of associations, and goes back to our mission of helping people. However, those customers need to trust us. There are going to be radical changes, and they’re going to have to give a little; so, they have to believe in us. I always say, there's two major components in any relationship: trust that there’ll be mistakes, and trust you’re going to fix them.

Bob: What would you be doing, if you weren’t helping to run The Expo Group?

Ray: I'd be coaching in the NFL. That’s what I really wanted to do. I just love coaching and football. After I graduated, I coached in three different schools. But it's a tough industry—it certainly didn't pay then what it pays today. I had an opportunity to work for the Chicago Fire—a one-season team in the World Football League—but the job paid less money than I was getting paid as a teacher, and I had two children at the time.

POSTSCRIPT: To learn more about Lessons of an Enreprenuersee Bob's review.

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