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Posted: March 01, 2012

Executive edge: Gene Sobczak

Colorado Symphone CEO has conducted the fix-it movement before

Cathie Beck

Patterson, N.J.-born Gene Sobczak, Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s CEO, admits that his birthplace did not necessarily instill music and the arts into his DNA.

Be that as it may, Sobczak says music, culture and the arts are organically and deeply embedded into his soul. "Patterson’s definitely not a wellspring of arts and cultural activities," he says. "But I knew as a young man that I would always be in a career where I’m advancing the arts.

"The good news is that I was schooled in New York and Los Angeles," says Sobczak, 48. "And I’ve lived and worked all over the world — from Asia to the U.K., from Australia to Japan and many places in between."

As the CSO’s new, economic fix-it, man, Sobczak’s days are spent ensuring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra is not just alive and well, but that it is blossoming into a model of financial stability, presence and growth, one that is a 21st century world-class art institution. "These days are spent in a duality of purpose," he says. "We first needed to understand how we got to this place, and we do understand that because we hyper-engaged in the analysis.

"The second function is taking what we’ve learned from these past months of analysis and experience and, in an incremental and progressive manner, articulate a forward-moving plan that is sustainable. We’ve done that as well."

In summer 2011, the CSO came close to extinction. With $1.2 million in debt, a cash reserve of $16,000 and a deficit of nearly $650,000, the symphony’s financial crisis provoked an 11-member emergency committee meeting. Sobczack came on as a volunteer to help steer the CSO out of near financial death in fall 2011; he was officially appointed executive director of the CSO in January.

How a musician and arts lover comes to be the economic savior of a struggling, 90-year-old symphony is simple: He’s done it before. "I’ve executed ‘change management’ and fixed distressed situations before," he says. "The Los Angeles Philharmonic hired me as director of marketing in the late ’90s, though I had no background in that kind of a position.

"When I asked the executive director why he hired me, he said, ‘Because this place is a mess, and you’re going to fix it.’"

Ultimately Sobczak landed back on the East Coast in the thick of the finance worlds. That’s when the September 2001 attack ignited Sobczak’s ache to relocate to Denver. "In September 2001 I was working in senior level positions in the worlds of finance, real estate, marketing and operations," he says. "I knew then that I needed to return to work in something I cared about."

In an ironic twist, it was the CSO’s marketing needs 10 years ago that helped Sobczak find his way to Denver. He oversaw marketing for the CSO from 2002 to 2007; in 2007, he became executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

During those two tenures, Sobczak further rooted his presence into Colorado, first as a musician, then as a volunteer. "I spent eight years performing in Sts. Peter and Paul Church choir," he says. "It was also during this period that I learned of ‘Shoes That Fit,’ an organization that puts new school shoes on children.

"Who can’t relate to children?" he says. "We all were children. We all went to school. We can understand the feeling of needing and then wearing new shoes to school. I looked around and said to myself, ‘This is a winner of an organization.’"

In the midst of all other endeavors, however, Sobczak’s eye remains firmly on the prize: getting the CSO to a winning place and keeping it there. "To have this opportunity to create a new success model for not just our organization, but for the entire industry is my driving purpose," he says.

"Though I’m the first to admit that my path to this place is definitely a nontraditional trajectory."

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