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Music Center Volunteer Rises to Paid Executive

Times Staff Writer

Esther Wachtell sits down at a booth at the Hungry Tiger restaurant for her 8:30 breakfast meeting and announces with great enthusiasm that she’s on a roll. “This is the most exciting time of my life,” she says.

And why wouldn’t it be? After working for 20 years as a volunteer for the Music Center, coordinating an army of volunteers and developing fund-raising groups, she has accepted a paid position as executive vice president of the Music Center’s Performing Arts Council.

The council’s board of governors voted last month to turn her volunteer position as vice chairman of the Music Center Unified Fund into a paid professional one, with most of her duties remaining intact.

Fund-Raising Campaign

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The Performing Arts Council conducts the annual Music Center Unified Fund campaign, which raises money for its resident companies: the L.A. Philharmonic, the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, Joffrey Ballet, Music Center Opera Assn. and the L.A. Master Chorale.

For the past two years as a volunteer, Wachtell’s main concern as vice chair of the fund has been money--how to get it and then how to get more of it. Not only does she canvass corporate leaders in Los Angeles and around the country, but she also heads up the Chairman’s Council and Cabinet, a group of executives who conduct their own fund drives. Plus, she has a hand in the center’s volunteer and outreach groups. Her staff now numbers 16.

This change comes at a critical time for the Performing Arts Council; in December the council’s president, Michael Newton, left because of illness, and in March he resigned. While the search goes on for a new president, it is hoped that Wachtell’s post will become a stabilizing influence for the council.

‘Next Logical Step’

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If success hasn’t spoiled Esther Wachtell, she doesn’t think money will, either. “I don’t think this will change me very much,” she says. “But it will be interesting for me to find out.”

So far, she says, people have responded favorably to her new job. Still, there are those who never really understood what she did as a volunteer. “I have been working in this office for two years, full time from the beginning. Everyone has known that, and yet in the last few days I have had people say to me, ‘What are your hours going to be now?’ That tells you the difference in attitude,” she says, a twinge of exasperation in her voice. “But for me this was the next logical step.”

Indeed, it is not unusual for veteran volunteers to eventually land paid positions as fund drive coordinators. Wachtell has seldom deviated from the series of steps that have taken her up through the volunteer ranks, not even to check out job offers in corporations or dabble more than slightly in political campaigns. “I turned down those jobs,” she says, “because I think what I’m doing is very important. I get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work. Would I have that same feeling working for a corporation? I might. I could probably find satisfaction in other areas of activity. But as long as this one needs me, and there’s a place for me here, why should I leave?” Although she declined to give her salary, Music Center insiders believe the amount is in the neighborhood of $100,000. (How much comes in salary and how much in benefits is not known.)

A typical day starts with the commute to the Music Center’s annex offices from her Rolling Hills home where she lives with her husband, Tom, president of Frontier Oil Co. and president of the Music Center Opera Assn. board. They have three children, now grown: Wendy, 24, a graduate student at USC; and Roger, 26, and Peter, 22, investment bankers at the same New York firm.

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This day happens to be crammed with back-to-back meetings, beginning with breakfast with Claire Segal, director of public affairs and marketing for the Performing Arts Council. Wachtell is dressed in a blue suit, pink blouse and pearls, all proportioned to her petite frame, which has never varied more than a few pounds her whole life. Her blond hair is carefully and conservatively coiffed, and she wears sensible navy-blue heels.

Going Over a Contract

Over bacon and coffee she pulls out one of her ubiquitous legal pads and discusses plans for a new brochure about the Unified Fund. Next she goes over the points of a contract from a local artist who is doing work for the center, and then asks about pitching a magazine a story about the Music Center.

After this she walks with a brisk pace to the center’s annex a block away for her 9:30 staff meeting. With the legal pad before her she asks about some administrative projects, matter-of-factly ticking them off if they’ve been accomplished.

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Then the matter of money comes up. The Unified Fund campaign for 1986, with its goal of $9.5 million, is nearing its end. Wachtell throws out some even higher numbers to her staff for 1987 and says, “We’ve got to figure out how to get there. The corporate area is going to have to grow. If people want to have five resident companies it’s going to cost.”

She is forever figuring out ways to get people to give. The Music Center and its resident companies are referred to as the “product,” as in “You really don’t stay here if the product isn’t thrilling,” and, “The product here is really unique.”

She gets stood up (a rare occurrence) for a lunch meeting with the L.A. representative of a New York-based firm, one Wachtell convinced to donate money to the Music Center. The lunch was to get to know him and thank the company for its contribution. Wachtell is visibly peeved until she knows that the no-show is an honest mistake.

Mercado Business

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At 2 p.m. she interviews a potential intern, and an hour later she meets with Sandra Ausman, co-chairman of the Mercado and the county’s chief of protocol, and Joseph Pinola, chairman of this year’s Unified Fund and chairman and CEO of First Interstate Bancorp. (The Mercado is a huge open-air market held on the center’s plaza every two years.) They update each other on the Mercado’s progress and then Pinola and Wachtell get down to the business of corporate donations: who has come through and who needs to be prodded before the campaign ends.

At the beginning of this year’s campaign Pinola and Wachtell formed a hard-hitting team, going to every major corporate head in Los Angeles asking for money. He was the door-opener, and she was the pitch-maker.

Selling seems to come as naturally to the 50-year-old Esther Wachtell as breathing. Pinola agrees. Of her technique he says, “She combines a whole lot of lovely femininity with a lot of business personality. She’s a no-nonsense person, yet very feminine. I think she’d probably work superbly well in a corporate structure. That’s what we look for in women executives.”

She explains it this way: “All my life people put carrots under my nose and I would follow the carrot. In school you were supposed to get A’s and I got A’s. When I rode horses, I was supposed to get ribbons and I got ribbons. I’m very goal-oriented, and now nobody sets those goals for me so I set them myself. If I set a goal and achieve it, it’s very satisfying. It’s thrilling, as a matter of fact. It’s a high.”

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The idea that she had a way with a sales pitch didn’t hit her until 1982 when she was co-chairman of the first Mercado. “I realized that fund raising was really marketing and selling. When I did the Mercado, I got to know two groups of people who were doing pro bono services. They taught me about marketing, and I listened to them and did what they told me to do and listened to the reasons why you did what you did. I (had) studied marketing at UCLA so I didn’t come to it completely cold. Suddenly I became very aware of what I was doing as a fund-raiser.”

Gerald McGee, senior vice president and managing director of Ogilvy & Mather, was one of her advisers then and recalls that “at that particular time, she was primarily involved in fund raising. Now she is concerned with the whole process (of fund raising, marketing and selling). I think she’s getting a sense of how important a person like her can be, within the whole fund-raising community, if she has a better understanding of all aspects of the process.

“Is she a powerful person? I don’t like the connotations of powerful,” he says. “She is a very dynamic woman, and yet thoughtful. She gets the best out of people who are working for her. She’s all business, but she is a kind person. She really has a thankless job, going out there trying to convince people to give money to the Music Center.”

Does Wachtell, with her serious style, come off to people as too abrasive? “Some people might think that,” McGee says. “But I believe that the Music Center is at a point in time when it needs a strong person. There are definitely politics involved. There are people who disagree with Esther’s approach. But you have to measure that against the accomplishments she has made, and see if she’s had a positive effect. I think she certainly has.”

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Growing up in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, her parents, Rhoda and Victor Pickard, were active in the community. Victor, who ran a hardware store, was a “very big Republican” and Rotarian who helped build the YMCA in nearby White Plains. Rhoda devoted her time to raising Esther and her brother John and volunteered for the Metropolitan Opera.

When Esther was 11, she worked with children who had cerebral palsy, and continued to volunteer through high school and her years at Connecticut College and graduate school at Cornell.

Esther, husband Tom and their children moved west in 1964 when he took a job with Occidental Petroleum. Although her family was her first priority (and still is, she says), she still wanted to volunteer. “When you’re a very goal-oriented person and you’re home raising kids, you can do one of two things. You can lay those goals off on your children and insist they meet them, rather than their own, or you can satisfy that need some other way and and allow your children to develop their own goals. I consciously made the decision not to impose that on my 5-year-old.”

Instead she devoted time to the L.A. Philharmonic, which led to her involvement with the Music Center.

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When asked what her plans are for the future, she talks in general terms about the Music Center’s growing needs, and about bringing it into the 21st Century. She has a few tricks up her sleeve that may bring in megabucks, but she’ll tell you with a sly smile she’s not quite ready to talk yet. And when you ask her why she is doing all of this, she has a ready answer. “People ask me why all the time. I asked myself why and decided that I was busy accomplishing goals, and one day when I wasn’t so busy accomplishing goals I’d lie down on a couch and figure out why. But I’m happy, I like what I do, I feel successful and so I don’t really ask too many whys.”


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