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March 1998

The Maestro Of Business


Give Joe Goodell a business challenge and it’s like a complicated puzzle in the hands of a gifted child: Take a look, get the pieces in order and it’s solved. In just such a way has this graduate of MIT (B.S., Mechanical Engineering) and Harvard (MBA) shepherded the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra over the past two years as executive director and now president.

Acting in an unprecedented volunteer capacity, the former president and chief executive officer of American Brass Company (from 1985-1994) has pulled the orchestra out of its recent morass of financial and labor troubles, setting it firmly on the road to continued success. The Texas native, possessing none of that boastfulness Northerners tend to associate with denizens of his home state, states clearly that it’s all been a team effort.

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CEO of American Brass 1985-1994.

“First, you assemble a strong staff,” he says. “Then you get the staff to focus on the fundamentals, which in this case is selling tickets. In this kind of organization, a zillion ideas come through the door. I said, none of that right now—we’re going to sell tickets.”

Goodell is a strong proponent of getting the details down. “You’ve got to block and tackle before you start throwing passes,” he says. “When you’ve got the details down, you’re not running around at the last minute to take care of them. You become more efficient.”

The biggest “detail” for the orchestra, of course, is a group of musicians who are content and ready, willing and able to play. Goodell, who characterizes himself as a longtime fan of classical music despite having had, early on, a piano teacher who called him “hopeless”, has made it his business to champion the musicians. “I believe we have the labor problems ironed out. I get along with the musicians, and they get along with me. I have their confidence.”

Goodell’s highly vocal complaint about a closed-out concert a few years back was the indirect route to his BPO leadership role. “It was maybe three or four years ago,” he recalls. “I went to a concert and found Kleinhans Music Hall locked. I complained loudly enough to get my money back.” Several years later, the most recent Chairman of the Board, John Reinhold, called Joe and asked if he would help run the orchestra as interim Executive Director.

“I was at loose ends professionally, with some time on my hands,” Goodell says. “I thought I’d help out for a short time while an executive search was conducted.” The “short time” turned into more than two years, when no suitable candidate was found, and first, the board, then the staff, asked Goodell to stay on.

Max Valdes (then music conductor) and guest conductor Doc Severenson courted him over dinner. “Finally, when the musicians asked for me, I agreed,” Goodell says. By then, a new contract was about 8 months away. Joe felt that a new person would have a tough time getting up to speed for those negotiations.

Under his leadership, the BPO has concentrated its efforts on marketing and operations. The positive turnaround is evident to Western New Yorkers who’ve had the unfortunate experience of growing inured to what appears to be the orchestra’s chronic crisis state.

It now looks as though the state of affairs has stabilized enough for Goodell to move on, and a search is on for a new executive director. A five-year strategic plan will be prepared shortly with strong outside financial support hopefully following.

Goodell expects to stay on the board and help orient the new director. “I’ll be close enough,” he says. “If the wheels start to come off, I can come back in.”

It’s fitting that he should use a transportation metaphor, as Goodell is a railroad buff. When he leaves the orchestra, he and his wife Mary Ellen Hager will have more free time to spend on their private railroad car. The Dagny Taggart, as it’s called named for a character in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged), was born in the late 1940s as a bedroom-observation-buffet car for the New York Central railroad. After long and varied service under different names, the car was sold to Goodell and his West Texas & Buffalo Steamship & Railway Company in 1989 and rechristened for the Rand character.

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Joe and his refurbished 1940’s private railroad car “The Dagny Taggart.”

The car was refitted with new mechanical and electrical systems and entered service again in 1991. Its lush interior, designed by Paula Coons and featuring artwork specifically commissioned for the car, sleeps eight. There are four bathrooms, and a combination dining and living room. Each room is named after a place where Goodell and his daughters have lived throughout his professional career. The dinnerware used when entertaining guests is a reproduction of a Frank Lloyd Wright design commissioned for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.Goodell uses the car to take friends and family on jaunts around the country. “Wherever Amtrack goes, I go,” he says. Pleasure trips are an antidote to all the years of corporate traveling he did, although, in typical Goodell style. His office at Philharmonic House is decorated with huge color prints of wild animals he photographed in Australia—another hobby for a man who is never idle.    

Goodell has four grown daughters. Marian, with a Masters in Fine Arts, works for a San Francisco company developing material for web sites. Peggy, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England, is a geneticist at Baylor Medical School. Martha, an M.B.A., works as a management consultant with Ernst & Young in Chicago. Melly is a family practice physician in San Diego.

Joe met his wife Mary Ellen Hager, a Buffalo native, 7 years ago. She was a Senior Vice President at Blue Cross & Blue Shield. They were married 5 years ago.

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Mary Ellen and Joe have been married for five years.

Joe and his four daughters left to right Marian, Peggy, Melly and Martha.

What lies ahead for Goodell? Many folks at this stage of life look to downsize their living quarters, but he and his wife are building a new house on the lakeshore. “I’ve enjoyed living here in Buffalo and having a chance to contribute to the community,” he says.

It’s a philosophy he advocates as crucial to the survival of our vaunted cultural institutions. “You can’t leave it all to the city fathers or big banks and corporations,” he says. “Everyone, from small and medium-size businesses to individuals, should recognize how important the Philharmonic is to our community.”

“People come up to me in the grocery store and thank me for turning things around at the BPO. I say, ‘Have you bought your tickets?’”

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.

Photos courtesy of Joe Goodell.


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