New Macon symphony CEO focuses on marketing, growth

Sheryl Towers’ approach to the Macon Symphony Orchestra is simple and straightforward: For the symphony to thrive, it has to continue to grow.

With the symphony already in midseason, Towers mostly is focusing on marketing and finding a way to get young people interested in attending the symphony and becoming members.

“What I’m looking forward to is growing our organization,” said Towers, who was hired last month. “One of my top priorities is to create a strong marketing plan, including a close relationship with the media. I’m focusing on audience development. We want to expand on whom we appeal to with a more diverse audience. We’re already talking to focus groups of people 40 and under. We’re listening to what they have to say.”

With the nation in an economic slump, most symphonies across the United States are feeling a pinch. But Towers said she has been surprised and encouraged by the midstate’s response so far. She pointed to the success of this past weekend’s pops concert, featuring a Neil Diamond tribute act.

“It was the most successful and biggest ever,” she said. “We’ve also had people meeting their pledges, which is very, very exciting.”

The symphony hired Towers in December, despite her having no formal background in music. But what she may lack in music knowledge, she more than makes up for in marketing the symphony and trying to strengthen its base of supporters, board member Gene Dunwody Sr. said.

“She really hit the ground running,” he said. “She’s generated a lot of enthusiasm among the board members.”

The board moved quickly after former CEO Gene Carinci, who was named CEO in May 2007, resigned because of personal reasons last November.

Towers is the founder and owner of Life Enrichment Skills, a consulting firm that specializes in teaching the principles of personal effectiveness and wellness to corporations. She was considering other job offers when Carinci left the symphony CEO job.

“It’s been one of the most tremendously exciting experiences,” she said of her symphony job. “I enjoyed the symphony but do not have a musical background. My first reply (to the board) was ‘I don’t know anything about music,’ and they said, ‘Look, you know something about growing an organization.’ ”

Dunwody said people have “raved about her ability.”

“(Board president) Katherine Walden suggested we interview her,” he said. “(Towers) is a workaholic and has good people skills. We felt like we needed her expertise.”

Walden said she told board members the symphony is a business and needs someone with a business understanding to lead it.

“I think we hit the jackpot when she became available,” Walden said. “We were competing with a company that was offering her more money, but she chose us. She brings along so many wonderful assets.”

Gail Pollock, vice president of the board, said Towers has lived up to her reputation so far.

“She’s been as fantastic as advertised,” Pollock said. “She’s going to be very good for us.”

With Towers in place, Walden and Dunwody said the board is now turning its attention to finding a replacement for conductor Adrian Gnam, who is stepping down when his contract expires at the end of the 2010 season.

“We want him to go out with a bang,” Walden said. “He’s now in his 26th year here. ... We’re looking for someone to take his place. Whoever that is, they will have some big shoes to fill.”