Taking the lead in challenging times

June 28, 2010
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Peter Kjome traded the principal oboist’s chair he so dearly loved for a Steelcase Inc. Leap model in the president and CEO’s office of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The recession has challenged nonprofit arts organizations in general and performing arts organizations in particular.

“Some orchestras have found it necessary to suspend operations in the last year,” Kjome said. “We not only been able to continue providing the full range of programs for our community, but we have been able to achieve a financial improvement to project a balanced budget this year.”

Kjome said the symphony is determined to follow the vision its founders embraced when they started the GRS in 1930, despite the Great Depression. It celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

“The community in 1930 decided that it would help strengthen the city and region to have a symphony,” he said. “So the reaction to the stock market crash was to still move forward and incorporate a symphony so that this community would have a fine orchestra. That type of response to adversity and that steadfast commitment to maintaining a vibrant arts community and maintaining institutions like the Grand Rapids Symphony has continued.”

In the 2008-09 season, the GRS, which employs 110 people, had expenses of $8.7 million and a deficit of $493,000. In the current fiscal year, which ends Aug. 1, expenses have been cut to $8.1 million and a “modest surplus” of $65,000 is anticipated, Kjome said.

“We have done that without reducing the concerts or education programs that serve the community,” he said. “We did not want to — as some organizations have found necessary — have to cut back on our programs.”

The positive margin is the product of grit and innovation, he said.

“It has come with some sacrifice,” Kjome said. “Compensation of our employees has been reduced from 5 percent to 22 percent.”

The GRS employs 50 full-time and 30 part-time musicians as well as 18 full-time and 10 part-time staff. Another 80 musicians are on contract.

Musicians are represented by the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians Local 56, part of the American Federation of Musicians. Pay cuts of between 9 and 14 percent were negotiated with the union last year, as well as suspension of 401(k) employer contributions and a reduction in the season length from 42 to 40 weeks.

“Discussions about these compensation reductions were done with great reluctance,” Kjome said.

“We have gone to virtually every vendor and partner of the symphony and talked about cost reductions. We have gone to our guest artists and asked them to consider accepting a reduced fee. We have also looked at other costs and done our best to manage those — costs such as health insurance, rental fees.”

Kjome said the symphony is committed to boosting income, as well, relying on artistic excellence, creative programming and carrying a message of its value to the community to financial donors.

Revenues took two major hits. The rough market in late 2008 and early 2009 hit the symphony’s endowment fund and reduced the annual draw.

In addition, state funding was slashed from a budgeted $224,000 in the previous fiscal year to $11,200 in the current fiscal year.

Two challenge grants, one of $100,000 from the Wege Foundation and a second of $300,000 from an anonymous donor and aimed at increasing gifts of $1,200 or more, have put some spark into the organization’s development efforts this season, he added. The board also has re-energized its development committee.

Tickets sales this year have been flat, Kjome said. The average annual attendance is about 100,000 people from 15 West Michigan counties, with about 77,000 of those attending educational programs.

In an effort to boost sales, the symphony is trying to reach younger and more diverse audiences as well as families, he said, with additional programs. “We are working hard to welcome a broader range of people to the symphony,” he said.

Kjome said that typically a symphony’s revenue is about 50 percent donations, 35 percent concert income, 10 percent endowment income — although that can vary widely — and the rest from government and miscellaneous income. Two decades ago, about half of a symphony’s revenues came from concerts and half from other sources.

“Over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual shift, on average, and we happen to be very typical of our peer orchestras,” Kjome said. “Our endowment income right now is just over 7 percent of the budget.”

Even though financial challenges were looming, the symphony board adopted a new five-year strategic plan last year.

“The simple act of adopting a five-year plan last year, I think reflects the positive and hopeful attitude that we all have. People ask, ‘How were you able to achieve these financial improvements and achieve these improvements as an organization?’ I believe, fundamentally, that attitude — despite difficulties we may have had in achieving cost reductions and so forth — this positive and hopeful attitude is underlying all that we have done, and a feeling that we can do it together.”

Even though negotiations with the musicians’ union were difficult last summer, Kjome said, the existence of the strategic plan helped to keep all eyes on the ultimate goal of a strong symphony.

“There’s a really hopeful attitude underneath there that says, ‘You’re going to do it. You can do it.’”

That is the countenance that has been the engine behind Kjome’s forays into music and business.

Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Kjome grew up there and in Laramie, Wyo., the eldest child of Norman Kjome, an atmospheric physicist and professor, and Linda Gjerdrum, who taught piano. He has three younger sisters.

“I started playing the piano when I was 5 years old,” he said. “I remember being taken to a piano recital at the University of Wyoming and hearing that recital and telling Mom that I would like to take piano lessons.”

He moved on to the saxophone in the school band. “I chose that because I thought that it was cool,” he said. “I was a terrible saxophone player. I also started the violin and played that for a few years. I was a poor violinist.”

His mother suggested he pick up his father’s old oboe in the basement. “Within a year, we began to realize that I had a particular talent for the oboe,” Kjome said. “The oboe teacher’s reaction was quite surprised at what I was able to do when I actually practiced. And I was, too.”

Kjome left his Minnesota high school for Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. By the time he was 14, he had decided he wanted to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music with John Mack, a renowned and accomplished oboist and teacher, now deceased, and pursue a profession as a principal oboist. He graduated from Interlochen in 1985 and went on to study at Cleveland, nabbing the lone opening at the time.

He started his professional career in Cleveland and Pittsburgh before being hired in 1990 as second oboist in the Grand Rapids Symphony, then under the direction of Catherine Comet. Two years later, he was promoted to principal chair oboist, where he had several opportunities as a soloist. “That was a thrill for me.”

Kjome became one of two musicians invited to join the GRS board of directors as a voting member. “It was very good experience. The challenges of thinking about the overall health of the organization were quite interesting to me,” he said.

Then the medical problems started, a musician’s ailment related to the force required to tease emotion out of the double-reeded oboe, day after day. In 1998, Kjome was forced to set aside the career of which he had dreamed. It was a bitter turn that took some years to heal.

“I talked about wanting to go into orchestral management and how difficult it was for me to stop playing. But as a former player who desired to continue to be on stage, I was not suited for orchestral management. That took some time.”

Kjome decided to follow the latent interest in business that had been highlighted by his time on the GRS board. With a recommendation from associate conductor John Varineau, he was accepted at Northwestern University.

After receiving his MBA in 2000, Kjome spent eight years in strategic planning and business management at the 3M Co. The job took Kjome back to Minnesota. He started out in marketing and moved to strategic planning for consumer products, such as Scotch Tape, sponges and the ubiquitous Post-It Notes. His suitcase got a workout, as he visited 3M subsidiaries around the world. He also served on the 3M Foundation’s Arts Advisory Committee.

While at 3M, Kjome came across an opportunity to save the company millions of dollars. With the support of his mentor, Kjome moved forward with that opportunity, and now recalls it as a highlight of his time at a company he grew to appreciate.

Slowly, the pain of leaving the stage began to subside in favor of a desire to return to music. Kjome had kept in touch with his friends in Grand Rapids and heard about the opening for the GRS leadership post.

“I feel fortunate to be able to combine my music background and my business experience into one job. The role requires both,” Kjome said.

Kjome said that when he looks back at his experiences, he sees a group of cheerleaders behind him carrying words of encouragement. From the first glimmer of his talent on the oboe to returning to the GRS, Kjome said he can point to specific supporters and mentors who helped him to move through both success and loss.

“It was a real break to have so many people supporting me and advocating for me at a time when my world was crashing around me and I couldn’t play my beloved oboe anymore. Sometimes, success comes from how we meet our challenges and how expansive our thinking can be.

“That’s exactly what’s happening at the symphony today as we face a difficult economy. People now are saying, ‘You can do it. We can do it together.’"

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