New Cherry Blossom CEO not new to festival

lfabian@macon.comMarch 20, 2013 

Being tapped to run a 10-day festival five months before it begins is a lot like coming in to coach a football game already in the fourth quarter, said new Cherry Blossom Festival CEO Jake Ferro.

He may be the new man in a pink blazer running the Cherry Blossom Festival, but Ferro’s no stranger to the annual celebration.

Getting involved in the festival was one of the first things Ferro did when he moved to Macon from the Chicago area in 1986.

His neighbor at the time, former Macon State College President Aaron Hyatt encouraged Jake and his wife, Michele, to be co-hosts of the Cherry Blossom Ball.

Before they knew it, they were auditioning bands, picking out centerpieces and becoming entrenched in the community as Ferro worked his way up to president of J.M. Huber’s kaolin clay division.

Under his leadership, Huber sponsored festival events in Central City Park and a Ukrainian dance troupe, he said.

The Ferros opened their Country Club Estates home for the Cherry Blossom Tour of Homes twice, and even agreed to lend their golf cart for the parade.

The couple’s willingness to volunteer delighted festival event planner Connie Thuente, who retired a couple of years ago but has agreed to help through this year’s staff changes.

“When I read in the paper that he was going to be (CEO), I thought, ‘Lord, why didn’t I think of that?’ ” Thuente said. “He has class and he’s run a business and he’s raised quite a bit of money for the festival.

Thuente has worked for every Cherry Blossom CEO except Richard Brewer, who left last fall after just four months on the job.

She thinks Ferro is perfect for the job.

“He has all the qualifications,” she said.

Ferro, who had applied for the position last year before Brewer was hired, was originally tapped as an interim CEO for six months, but accepted an offer to stay on.

The man who once managed thousands of workers at a steel mill outside of Chicago now supervises a staff of seven full-time employees, plus seasonal and temporary staff.

He’s anxious to start fresh in planning for the 2014 festival with his own team and game plan.

Ferro’s football analogy comes naturally for the Ohio native and Youngstown State University Athletics Hall of Famer, who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1967.

He didn’t make the team. Instead, he put his business administration degree to use at the steel company and went on to get his MBA in operations management from Loyola University.

By chance, he met an executive with J.M. Huber at a University of Chicago competitive edge seminar and was wooed for a visit before being offered a job.

The Ferros and their two children headed to the South and fell in love with Macon in the spring.

During the kaolin company’s reorganization, Ferro moved to Charlotte, N.C., in 1996 to become president and CEO of the Bonsal American Inc., where he managed an $85 million budget and grew annual sales from $65 million to $91 million, according to his résumé.

The Ferros moved back to Macon in 2003 and started their own business restoring and selling antiques.

He loves rummaging around garage sales and looking for unusual pieces.

While cleaning off a painted vase he bought for a few dollars to put in his garden, Ferro noticed some sort of porcelain underneath. Bit by bit, he removed more of the paint to reveal an 1865 piece from the Paris Exposition.

The $6,000 find stumped appraisers on the televised “Antiques Roadshow,” he said.

He loves working in the yard, pruning trees and shifting things around in the landscape. His friends tease him that he’s transplanted his bushes so many times that he’s stunted their growth.

He’d even be talking to the Yoshino cherry trees, if he thought that would really encourage them to bloom before the festival ends Sunday.

Although he beefed up to about 240 pounds of muscle during his football and weight lifting days, Ferro also has his artistic side.The 69-year-old loves art and considers painting and drawing a semi-hobby.

Ferro says he’s indebted to his wife of 40-something years for her support and his favorite pastime is playing with his seven grandchildren -- including Hadley Neal, the 2006 Little Miss Cherry Blossom.

At opening ceremonies this year, the Cherry Blossom royalty was clumped together with dignitaries on the right end of the stage.

Ferro was alone on the other side, holding the pink bow and its trailing sash for the ribbon cutting. But he realizes he’s not by himself putting together this festival or future events.

He’s amazed by the league of volunteers that keeps things running and a staff that rises to the occasion even in a year plagued by personnel changes.

“I tell the staff, you don’t become a great sailor unless you’re on rough seas,” Ferro said. “We will be stronger now for the things we stumbled on this year.”

He’s looking forward to putting together a three-year festival plan and gearing up for Macon’s bicentennial celebration in 10 years.

His philosophy calls for treating everyone with respect, identifying the customer base, seeking to please them, striving for excellence in everything and having fun.

“The journey’s the fun part.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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