A Career of Amusement: Life on the Merry-go-round

Back in the day, most kids wanted to be president when they grew up. Or run away to join the circus. Vic Nolting managed to do both. Sort of.

The 1970 business grad grew up to become president of Coney Island amusement park, making him commander-in-chief of one of the region’s most popular playgrounds as well as one of the softest spots in Cincinnati’s collective heart.

And don’t even think of it as a job, he says. “It’s kind of a calling. Most everybody that works here are not just workers, but keepers of the flame.”

For most Cincinnatians, the flame that has attracted them to Coney for so many generations hasn’t been work but play as they sought the cooling refuge from the summer sun beating down on them in the park’s famous Sunlight Pool. It’s the center of the park’s attractions and the bulk of Nolting’s business.

But Nolting’s typical day doesn’t begin with turning on the pool spigot or making sure chlorine levels are up to spec. “When I arrive, I take a quick tour of the park and see what’s going on, see if all is right with the world. Then it’s back to the office. I kind of bounce back and forth all day long.”

Nolting’s earned his privilege of “managing by wandering around” after bringing Coney back from the brink of extinction. Because of its location along the Ohio River, the park regularly flooded, so its owners, Taft Broadcasting, decided in the early 1970s to all but give up on the park and develop Kings Island in Mason, Ohio. Rides were relocated and shows were shifted. The pool continued to operate, but Coney Island was all but forgotten.

In the mid-1980s, the park was sold and the new owners brought in Nolting to bring it back to life. “I got here in 1983 and we started renovating in 1984. By 1988 we had renovated the entire grounds. And we started to add rides back. Today we have 23 rides.”

The growth has, Nolting admits, made work like a circus sometimes. “In 2000, we had a millennium party and brought in Nick Wallenda who walked a tight rope over the pool before he ever attempted Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. We also had a trapeze act and Benny ‘Boom Boom’ Koske, the human bomb, who blew himself up three times a day.”

Still, even though his job has an amusement value, Nolting borrows a phrase from Joe Nuxhall when considering what’s next: “I’m rounding third and heading for home.” Even to the point of grooming his own replacement to ensure a smooth passing of the flame—although, he admits, it won’t be one-time headliner Santini Demon who set himself on fire, swallowed swords and made the insanity of amusement parks just another day at the office for Nolting.

Touched by an Angel Island

In the late 1970s, all the buildings that remained on Angel Island were going to be demolished because they were in such disrepair.

Then a park ranger wandered inside one of teetering wooden structures and made an amazing discovery—poetry on the barracks walls. Not written, but carved into the wooden walls using classical Cantonese techniques.

Local scholars and preservationists found out about the discovery and organized a committee to preserve the buildings—and the island with its dark history.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/McKechnie-682×1024.jpg”]McKechnie[/lightbox]Angel Island is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay and the lesser-known West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island in New York. But while Ellis was welcoming to immigrants from Europe, Angel Island became an unwelcoming place of interrogations, detention and denial for those from Asia.

In 1882, the U.S. passed The Chinese Exclusion Act that was designed to keep immigrants from China out of the United States—unless, of course, they had money.

“If you were Chinese and came in by boat travelling first class, they let you right in,” says Michael McKechnie, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and 1980 MBA graduate. “Second class, you were taken over to Angel Island and interrogated.”

While the actions of Angel Island aren’t a highlight of U.S. history, the site is an important marker of the country’s growth and worth saving. Today, Angel Island—located within view of both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge—is a state park like few others. And it’s McKechnie’s goal to save it.

“We’ve raised $40 million to renovate the immigration site,” he says. “And we’re finishing the second large building transforming it into a museum and The Center for Pacific Coast Immigration.”

Learn about Angel Island and McKechnie’s effort to save it.

It’ a challenge, he admits, but he credits the same spirit of perseverance that first brought the Chinese to America with saving the site that was created to keep them out decades earlier. “The Chinese were fearless about working hard. The members of our board are five and six generation Chinese Americans and now top attorneys in major firms.”

McKechnie can’t share their past, but thanks to the art carved from misery that has had a much bigger impact on McKechnie’s own sense of mission, he can help preserve it.

Thinking Differently

When the world zigs, Gary Sharpe zags. If someone says no, he says yes. Sell? Nope. Buy.

“I’ve been a contrarian my entire life,” he says. “I’m not sure how my parents put up with me.”

While such an opposing perspective may have taken its toll on the patience and blood pressure of his parents, looking at life through such a contrarian lens has definitely provided the 1973 MBA grad with a very clear vision of how to best negotiate the congested and cutthroat ways of the business world—and make a lot of money along the way.

“The world does not run in straight lines,” he says, “so you’ve got to think differently. The way I see it, if the herd is going in one direction, there’s money to be made going in the other direction. Or as companies get bigger, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that is going to fall off their truck that you can make money on.”

This combination of professional revelation and personal self-awareness became apparent to Sharpe early in his career, shortly after he graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in economic geography with a specialty in thematic cartography.

Wait. A degree in what? 

Sharpe laughs. “There was one job in the world I was qualified for, and it was taken.”

Still, armed with a degree and eager to get out in the real world and make his mark, he grabbed the first job that came his way—developing government contracts for Philips Electronics in its human pharmaceutical branch in Columbus, Ohio. The position reported directly to the CEO and was open for good reason. “It was the job no one wanted.”

Sharpe took it and ran. After a few years, he approached his boss with an idea of how to grow the role: He repeatedly heard talk from his customers about products they needed to help them do their jobs but couldn’t find anyone who had them or could produce them.

“Not interested,” his boss told him. “Just sell what we’ve got.”

That wasn’t the answer Sharpe wanted to hear. Go with the flow? No way. And he couldn’t just let the opportunity to meet so many needs go unfulfilled.

So he did what every good contrarian would do: He quit and went out on his own, creating Health Care Logistics, a one-man-enterprise headquartered in the spare bedroom of his house. “The garage was my warehouse,” he says. It didn’t take long, though, before the business was booming and the bedroom was too small.

“I went on a sales call in Dayton, Ohio,” he says. “The director of purchasing was known to be really mean, and before my butt could hit the chair, he said, ‘OK, what are you selling?’ Sometimes I talk before I think, so I said, ‘What are you looking for that you can’t find?’ He told me. I said, ‘Give me a week. I’ll either find one or make one.’ It evolved from there.”

Today, the company’s a multimillion-dollar enterprise with four warehouses in the United States and one in England, all filled with unique or hard-to-find health care products. Often new innovations make older products outdated, but not every hospital has the newest innovation and still needs to support the older technology. The massive product list includes a handful of products that Sharpe holds the patents on.

“The patents are mostly defensive,” he says. “There have been a number of times I helped others create a product and then they would come back and undersell me. I got tired of that. But we’re always creating new products. We’ll get a customer’s request and create something. Or we’ll make a product on our own and throw it against the wall. If it sticks, it stays in the product line.”

Sharpe’s love of innovation and entrepreneurship has prompted him to support the Critical Making Program, a new effort within the Williams College of Business that blends innovation with Ignatian values. 

He also endowed an academic scholarship at Xavier—not for the best and brightest, but for those who may not have the best GPA or SAT score coming out of high school but deserve a chance. A student, he says, like himself.

“I graduated from high school with honors and an award in science,” he says, “but I was crappy at taking standardized tests. When I went to OSU’s orientation, I was told that I should drop out now because based on my test scores I would flunk out my first quarter or the spring quarter at the latest. I thought, ‘They have to take me, so I’m staying.’”

He stayed, of course. What else would a contrarian do? And he’s been proving to them and everyone since that success sometimes comes from the other direction. 

 

Hola Cuba

For decades it has been the forbidden island.

Just 90 miles off the shores of Key West, Florida, the outcast and ostracized country has been so close and yet so far away.

For the first half of the 20th century, Havana was an American playground. It was Las Vegas before Las Vegas. Entertainers packed the clubs. Gambling and drinking filled the hot, steamy Cuba nights. Rum flowed and music played.

When the Cold War got hot and the efforts to control the country sank into the Bay of Pigs, everything changed. Fidel Castro took over, Cuba went communist and relations—both diplomatic and economic—ground to a halt. A wall was built—not the physical kind that separated East and West Berlin, but an economic one. The U.S. placed an embargo on both visiting the country and doing business there. Nothing in, nothing out, no exceptions. As the second half of the 20th century grew near a close, the world began to change. The Soviet Union, which had long supported the Cuban economy, collapsed and suddenly Cuba was both literally and figuratively an island alone. Castro, who long thumbed his nose at the American authority, grew old and weary. And then…

In 2000, Congress passed reforms to that embargo allowing U.S.-based companies to export approved products to Cuba—albeit under strict guidelines. According to one estimate, U.S. exports to Cuba peaked in 2008 at $711 million, making the U.S. Cuba’s 4th- or 5th-largest trading partner. But that could soon change. The transition the country makes after Castro’s death will be the deciding factor. Will another general take his place and maintain the status quo? Or will the country move to a more democratic and free-market economy?

Staying on the leading edge of business trends is a key component to business—and business education. The most dominant trend in business over the past decade or more has been the emerging global economy, which is why the Williams College of Business has, for years, mandated international business trips for its MBA students. The best way to understand the differences and nuances of international business is to experience them firsthand. So when the opportunity came up to take students to what could potentially be the next emerging international market—Cuba—the College jumped at the chance.

For nine days in March, students toured the island country, immersing themselves in the complex, social, political and economic reality that is Cuba today. They explored the country’s changing and emerging business models and contrasting economic systems and views. They became familiar with the nation’s economic and business development, tourism, legal and banking systems, methods and sources of foreign investments, trading partners and relationship with the U.S. government.

In the end, they were put in a position to better understand what could very well be one of this country’s biggest new business markets, which gives them an advantage over graduates of other business schools. Now with news of the United States normalizing relations with Cuba, more such opportunities will be available for future generations of students.

 

Former Bengals QB Virgil Carter found a home off the field teaching statistics at Xavier

Most avid football fans know that one-time Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Bill Walsh, under the tutelage of Paul Brown, was the “Father of the West Coast Offense”—the high-powered, short-pass game that Walsh eventually took with him to the San Francisco 49ers and used to win three Super Bowls. But few people realize that the first quarterback to run the West Coast Offense wasn’t Joe Montana but a one-time, little-known Xavier statistics teacher.

After the 1969 season, the Bengals secured a backup quarterback from the Chicago Bears named Virgil Carter. Carter was the beginning of a line of great quarterbacks from Brigham Young University that included Jim McMahon, Steve Young and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. At BYU, Carter set six NCAA records, 19 Western Athletic Conference records and 24 BYU records and finished 11th in the 1966 Heisman Trophy voting. But his best numbers came in the classroom. As a mathematics major, Carter was BYU’s top Engineer Science student and was a two-time Scholastic All-American. He prepped at Sacramento’s Folsom High School and actually attended BYU on an academic scholarship.

The Bengals already had a great quarterback named Greg Cook—whom Walsh, in his autobiography, said had the most talent of any quarterback he ever coached, including Hall of Famers Montana and Young. Cook was named American Football League Rookie of the Year in 1969—ahead of OJ Simpson and “Mean” Joe Green.

Virgil-Carter

While he had a stellar rookie season, however, Cook also suffered a shoulder injury, and when he could not come back from the injury at the start of the 1970 season, Carter became the Bengals’ starting quarterback by default. At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds with a mediocre NFL passing arm, Carter was no Greg Cook. But he was quick, nimble and could read defenses like an IBM mainframe computer.

With Carter in mind, Walsh went back to the drawing board and created an offense that revolved around quarterback movement and precision short passes to the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. What made it different, though, was the passes weren’t just thrown down the field but went horizontally, from sideline to sideline. The Carter and Walsh combination was so successful that in its third year of existence, the Bengals went to the playoffs after winning the AFC Central Division with an 8-6 record. They eventually lost to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts, who were led by Johnny Unitas and Bubba Smith.

Unlike professional football today, though, in the 1960s and 1970s, NFL players worked or went to school in the offseason. During his two years with the Bears, Carter secured a master’s degree in mathematics from Northwestern University. When he was traded to the Bengals, he contacted Xavier about a part-time teaching position. Jane Klingman, who ran the statistics program in the College of Business Administration, was impressed with his background and hired him to teach Bayesian and Classical Statistics during the spring semester in 1971.

Carter was confident in his ability to successfully teach the subject, but he had a big problem. He had just had surgery on his right wrist. He handled the situation as adroitly as he did the West Coast Offense. Until he learned how to write on a chalkboard left handed, he employed his wife, Judy, and Bengals rookie Ken Anderson, who was a math major at Augustana College, to be his helpers.

Steve Busam, a 1972 marketing major and member of the men’s golf team, remembers having Carter for class. “I did a paper for the class, which I based on taking 1,000 3-foot putts. I made 997 of them, or 99.7 percent of them. In statistical terms, my made putts were within three standard deviations from the mean. The class later became invaluable to me when I later ran DuBois Chemical’s application engineering lab and we had to meet the automotive industry and GE’s Six Sigma standards.”

Fellow 1972 marketing major Bob Sherman also remembers taking Carter’s class—although not necessarily for the statistical lessons. “I never missed a class,” he says. “I liked statistics OK, but XU had about 50 women on campus at the time, and Judy Carter had been the head cheerleader at BYU.”

Although the Bengals managed just a 4-10 record in 1971, Carter had a great year—statistically speaking, anyway. He had the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the NFL and ranked No. 3 in overall passing statistics.

After the season, Carter not only continued to teach undergraduate statistics, but he also started teaching a course on quantitative methods in the MBA program. Carter and Klingman began collaborating on a statistics book that used NFL situations and football and sport permutations and combinations to enliven the subject. However, the book was never completed. Anderson, who was bigger and had a stronger arm, took over the starting quarterback role for the Bengals.

Carter went played for the World Football League’s Chicago Fire before returning to the NFL in 1975 with the San Diego Chargers and 1976 with the Chicago Bears. In seven seasons in the NFL, he passed for 5,063 yards and 29 touchdowns. Today, Carter lives with his wife, Judy, in Helendale, Calif., where he runs an insurance business. They have two grown sons.

Future’s Market: Mentoring neighboring school children

It’s an early spring afternoon and Bryan Cannon, principal of the Alliance Academy charter school, hits the streets with about a dozen seventh and eighth graders in tow. They turn right on Montgomery Road, then hang a left onto Dana Avenue.

Their destination—the polished wood, widescreens and brushed steel of the Fifth Third Trading Center, crown jewel of the Williams College of Business. Scheduled is a biweekly meeting with the student managers of Xavier’s D’Artagnan Capital Fund to discuss all things financial. And yes, there is pizza.

The meeting is part of the Financial Literacy Program, a student mentoring program masterminded by associate professor of finance David Hyland. For the past two years, he’s partnered with Alliance Academy to introduce middle school students to college students—and to the world of commerce. Together, they cover everything from balancing a checkbook to maintaining a stock portfolio.

“We get neighborhood kids who go by this place all the time and see this imposing thing they could never think of,” says Hyland. “We invite them on campus and tell them, hey, there are real people here, too, and there’s no reason why you can’t come here, or somewhere like here.”

“Last year my kids learned about stocks, investment and even basic things about banking and budgets,” says Cannon. “It was so beneficial for them to learn something they weren’t familiar with.”

The program is run by the Xavier students who also manage roughly $1.6 million of the University’s endowment through the D’Artagnan Capital Fund, which Hyland also oversees.

Why mix college business majors with middle school city kids? One reason is to add a human touch to a world that’s typically perceived as being driven by numbers and a bottom line.

Plus, Hyland clearly enjoys his role of mentoring mentors. “I’m a big believer in delegating. I view my role as more of a facilitator.”

But Hyland had only just begun to facilitate. Amid the professor, principal, middle-schoolers and college students, he added real-world experience in the person of Robert Donelan, a retired Fidelity Investments executive. Hyland wanted Donelan to bring his street-level perspective on finance to the pizza party.

“[Hyland] was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing something with the Alliance Academy, would you like to help me put something together on financial literacy?’ So I put a course curriculum together, which included things like: What are the basic things to do to get a job? How do you manage money? How do you invest money?”

They arranged for the kids to go to Fidelity’s operations in Covington, Ky., where most of its U.S. transactions are processed—a facility large enough to warrant its own zip code and where the glamour of Wall Street meets the reality of the back office. It was a trip, Donelan says, that gave the kids insights that everyone could use.

“You’d be surprised,” he says. “There are doctors and lawyers who haven’t got a clue as to how to manage their retirement savings. And the earlier you start kids, the better.”

The Alliance/Xavier partnership began in the spring of 2012 as, of all things, a simple stock market game. Cannon picked students from his own after-school male mentoring program to go to Xavier and play. Hyland, though, found himself looking forward to these meetings as much as the students.

“Every week the kids would come over, we’d have pizza or snacks, then fire up the computers and start looking at the stock market.”

With programs like Squawk Box on the wide screen, plus the dedicated D’Artagnan Fund streaming ticker, it felt like a real trading floor. “It’s fun for our Xavier students, because they get a chance to teach. For example, last year, one of the eighth graders wanted to buy stock in the Army.”

While trying to buy stock in a branch of the armed forces and field trips to massive fulfillment centers constitute—especially to an eighth grader—the glamorous side of big business, at the end of the school day, it’s becoming comfortable with the working world that’s most important to Hyland.

“We talk about budgeting and looking for a job and what kind of place might hire somebody their age,” he says. “And get the kids interacting with the college kids. We’re trying to get them to think about building a résumé, what sort of things can we do in the next four to five years that’s going to help them in college and with their careers.”