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Pittsburgh Symphony's new president ready to tackle financial, attendance issues

| Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012

When symphony president Larry Tamburri resigned abruptly on Nov. 14, the symphony was already facing multimillion dollar deficits and attendance issues. Suddenly, it also needed a leader to handle those problems.

Filling the top administrative post at major American orchestras has become increasingly difficult. Less than a week after Tamburri resigned, The New York Times reported that six people had turned down offers to be president and chief executive officer of the New York Philharmonic in New York City. That post, which paid its last occupant more than $800,000 a year, has been open since 2010.

Yet, within 90 minutes of Tamburri's resignation, board chairman Dick Simmons tapped James A. Wilkinson to be Tamburri's successor. Wilkinson, a lawyer and businessman, had served on the symphony's board since 1984 and the executive committee of the board since 1988.

"There are many attributes that Jim has that I'm impressed with and caused me to reach out to him after Larry Tamburri resigned," Simmons says. "He's honest. He's intelligent. He knows more about the symphony and its workings than anyone else. He has great credibility with everyone he works with, particularly the orchestra."

Wilkinson is a soft-spoken man, calm yet intellectually decisive. His first work for the symphony was as a labor negotiator, beginning in 1976, but his role soon expanded.

"I think I got involved with the symphony to the extent that I have because I've had such a diverse background," Wilkinson says. "I became very useful for the managing director, whomever that was at the time. Marshall Turkin, Gideon (Toeplitz), Larry (Tamburri) -- for each of them I became a confidante. I've genuinely enjoyed being involved over the years."

Business background

Wilkinson was born in Cumberland, Md., and earned his bachelor's degree in the foreign-service program of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After serving in the Navy from 1968 to 1971, he worked in President Nixon's administration in the Office of Management and Budget and the Cost of Living Council.

His business career had three main phases. At USX Corporation from 1974 to '82, he was manager of product and supply labor relations and a senior financial analyst. He earned his law degree at night at Duquesne University during his early years at USX.

Wilkinson worked at Buchanan Ingersoll law firm from 1982 to 1988. As chairman of its health-law division, he was counsel or special counsel for many Pittsburgh hospitals and was local counsel for IBM Credit and GE Credit.

Finally, he became chief financial officer, then part owner and executive vice president and general council for Meritcare, a company that operated more than 50 long-term care facilities in 11 states with 2,000 employees.

"He's absolutely one of the very brightest people I've ever been around, and I've been blessed through my career to work with some incredible intelligent people in various organizations," says Mike Cervo, who was chief financial officer at Meritcare after Wilkinson moved up. He's known Wilkinson for 22 years.

"Jim takes a second seat to no one," Cervo says. "He keeps calm and plows ahead. He plans for everything, even the unexpected. Don't ask me how, but he does.

"Jim has a gift for be able to iron out very difficult situations without offending the other side," he says. "A lot of people can do the first part, but not many the second part."

A second act

Wilkinson's life nearly ended in April 2005 when he was in a horrific car accident on the way to San Francisco airport from a business meeting. He was in a coma for four months and took a year to recover, the last four months at Harmarville Rehabilitation Center.

In December 2005, Wilkinson had another close brush with death from an infection he acquired while in the hospital.

"When I left his room that Saturday morning, I thought I would never see him again," Cervo says. "He obviously proved me wrong, and countless others, much to our joy. He's a fighter of the old school. He's worked his way to everywhere he's gotten in life. This was a bit of a rebirth for Jim."

Since his recovery, Wilkinson has continued to be active as a volunteer on the boards of many Pittsburgh organizations, including the Carnegie Institute, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Andy Warhol Museum.

He's been vice chairman of the symphony board and a member of its executive committee since 2003. This summer, he served on an ad hoc committee of the board that re-evaluated the symphony's strategic plan and its implementation in the light of financial pressures.

Progress in subscription and ticket sales has been stalled for the past three years. The symphony's financial picture has darkened in recent years, along with the general economy. It has run $2 million deficits each of the last two seasons, which would have been higher except for use of unrestricted portions of the endowment.

Attendance was often problematic this fall, which, of course, affects the bottom line. There were many entire rows of empty seats at some subscription concerts, although music director Manfred Honeck's concerts in late November and early December were very well attended.

Wilkinson says that the symphony board agreed at its November meeting that the strategic plan was the right way to go and that what is needed is a financial framework to assure its success.

"My job as president of the PSO is to work on the development of that financial framework and the implementation of various tactics that have been agreed on by the staff and ad hoc committee of the board," he says. "The challenge is to think about the future and the changes we need to make in the organization."

He says his personal decision-making is "extremely dependent on quality accounting and financials."

Asked about his artistic vision for the symphony, Wilkinson says, "I don't think my artistic vision for the organization is rooted in trying to re-create what it was like in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I really think we have to modify the artistic vision to deal with the world the way it is today and the way we're going to see it in the future. We need to think of new approaches to young audiences to try to get them to come to the hall. ... Every once in a while, we have a concert where you see young and middle and older people and everyone is having a wonderful time. I think my artistic challenge is to create that more often."

Wilkinson says his management style is different from Tamburri's. He's not into days filled with meetings and says he is "far more inclusionary. I have established a committee under the aegis of Michael Bielski, who carried the title of chief operating officer but has not been COO, to bring together all the responsible heads of each department that has anything to do with attendance. A group of people who know the organization who work together have a better chance to be successful than people working independently toward a common end."

While Wilkinson's salary was not revealed, his predecessor's total compensation for 2010 was $359,249.

When Simmons introduced Wilkinson to the orchestra as the new president, the musicians applauded. They've come to know him well through arduous contract negotiations over decades.

"Jim's the straight shooter, the guy who thinks things through, who may be tough but is fair. These characteristics give him a lot of credibility," says symphony musician Joe Rounds. "That's where you get trust. In the sparring of negotiations, he has the ability to run the show. He's large and in charge."

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