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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Walt Ulmer, November 20, 1998. Interview S-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of rapid revenue growth

Ulmer addresses the impact of the rapid revenue growth the Center for Creative Leadership experienced from the mid-1980s through the mid-1980s. Focusing on the centrality of budget-balancing to revenue growth and forecasts, Ulmer focuses on how revenue growth led to physical growth of the Center. One consequence, according to Ulmer, was that the Center became more bureaucratic as a result.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Walt Ulmer, November 20, 1998. Interview S-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Let's talk about the Center's remarkable revenue growth and its impact in these years. First, I'd be very interested in your perspective on just—I mean I suppose there's a real superficial answer to this question, but I'm interesting in maybe your more nuanced reflection on what the impact was on the Center in various fashions of just so much more money coming in the door. I mean the revenue was really ramping up.
Well, there was a lot of it coming in the door and it was also going out! We were making as many expenditures. We dramatically—we attempted to increase staff salary levels, which I think we did. We put a lot money into a bunch of research things. I think the Center—you know, it's very difficult to compute. But the Center spends a few million dollars a year on leadership research. I don't think there's ten places in the country to tell you the truth, that together spends that much on a focused behavioral science research and stuff. But in any case, so anyway, we put some stuff there. I tell you, each of these years, the question wasn't how can we spend the money. The question was, how can we balance the budget? So remember that the staff at the Center takes about 65% I guess of the Center's revenue. So as you expand, you know, you're always holding your breath as to whether or not the up-front investment is going to turn into revenue at the end of the year. What we expanded for in my perspective had nothing to do with revenue. We expanded in order to increase our outreach and to give people greater opportunities to come to the Center and enjoy its product. And that requires increase in this whole business but revenue per se was never on my mind as a major criterion of our success. You know, different people in different parts of the Center had different concerns and perspectives regarding the financial business. Some worried about it all the time who were in the finance department or group. I guess they may be calling themselves department, but I was an anti-department. We called ourselves groups. The finance group or whatever, because I thought group was a more inclusive and malleable term than department. So, different people in different parts of the Center. Now if you are managing a branch and you have to do certain revenue in order to meet your target, they will say gee, my life is driven by revenue. If you're in the middle of the research group, you're worried whether or not you have enough money to go to your meetings and get your computers upgraded and all that other kind of stuff, that's a different perspective. So the Center has a number of foci of perceptions about this whole deal. But from mine, again, I thought we could grow. Two or three times we said we're not going to grow any further than this and the classic example is the building in Greensboro. Now when I got there, they were in the midst of adding a little wing. Well, we had to grow so we decided we were going to make one more expansion. And I said, "Guys, this is it." Well, obviously it wasn't it because just before I left, I had planned a building. Those plans were stopped when my successor came in and they analyzed whether or not they needed a building and then decided they needed one bigger than the one that we had planned. So growth at the Center is a real tough issue. People don't want to grow but they kind of want the results that only growth can give you. It's an interesting thing and there's a legitimate concern about still whether one can hold the kind of familial, collegial, really neat culture that the Center has. And I think most people still feel it's a warm and fuzzy place to work. Whether you can still do that with a staff of 100 to a staff of 500. We had the same interesting discussion at West Point. West Point used to be 2400 cadets and then the President Kennedy when he was at an Army Navy game—it's interesting how strategic decisions are made—he looked down the field and said, "Where are the rest of the cadets?" And they said, "Well, Mr. President, they're all there." He said, "They can't be. There's twice as many midshipmen." And they said, "Well, that's the way the law is. There are 3800 midshipmen and there are 2400 cadets authorized by law." He said, "They ought to be all the same around 4400 or so." And then all of a sudden all the Service Academies became 4400.
How about that.
Anyway, wherever we were.
Right. Well, you were talking about the impact of all this growth on the institutional culture. Any other things that spring to mind when you look back on that issue, on the shift in institutional culture in this period?
Well, the institution has become slightly more bureaucratic even though we all fought not to do that. By bureaucratic, I mean we do have a few more procedures now. It used to be you sort of put your travel cost in on the back of a piece of paper somewhere and threw it into someone's in-box. And when you're dealing with four or five million dollars worth of travel, you really can't do that anymore. So there are a few of those procedures which some people will always see as restrictive and others will not. I don't think that the somewhat of a disconnect from the foundation caused much of a cultural change although maybe people started to see themselves as a little more independent and they needed to be sure that they carried the institution because there was no one there to sort of back them up if they got in trouble.