How Denzil Skinner’s example helped government-run venues evolve

Denzil Skinner’s influence was felt across the facility management industry. As co-founder of FMG, among the first companies to privately operate public assembly facilities, Skinner helped steer others toward that business model, including Frank Russo.

Skinner died last month of cancer at age 91.

Russo, now an executive vice president with Spectra, ran the Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center, now XL Center, for nine years. The city-owned arena opened in 1975 as the home of the old Hartford Whalers hockey team. For Russo, originally trained as a city manager, what started out as a temporary assignment turned into a full-time job.

“I found out how difficult it is in many cases for a city to run a business function of government,” he said. “When I saw that Denzil was privatizing buildings, it got me looking into ways that we could, if not privatize, at least professionalize the operation in Hartford.”

A photo from a meeting of building general managers at San Francisco’s Moscone Center in the 1980s includes David and Denzil Skinner (bottom row center) and Cliff Wallace (top left). (Courtesy David Skinner)

Russo clipped stories about FMG taking over management of arenas, stadiums and convention centers and sent them to the appropriate officials in local government. Russo also consulted with a University of Connecticut professor who helped draft legislation to develop the Hartford Civic Center and Coliseum Authority, which evolved into what is now the Capital Region Development Authority. Spectra runs the 16,300-seat arena.

“Long story short, we were able to convert it from a department of city government to an authority, which was much more businesslike, much more entrepreneurial and more bottom-line focused,” Russo said. “It made life so much easier.”

Over the past 45 years, dozens of cities and teams have formed similar groups to oversee sports and entertainment venues. The authority model is a “halfway step” between public and private management, freed from the restrictions tied to city purchasing and hiring regulations, he said.

“Denzil’s breaking into the private management industry really caught my attention and proved to be a benefit for a lot of people,” Russo said. “It’s a different way of doing business than putting the venue into a straitjacket of bureaucratic rules that are counterproductive.”

Cliff Wallace has been in facility management for 57 years and ran the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 1995 to 2012. Earlier in his career, he worked for FMG and ran the Louisiana Superdome, now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, for five years in the 1980s.  

Wallace first met Skinner in 1973 at one of the first forums sponsored by the International Association of Auditorium Managers, now IAVM. At the time, Skinner was established in the business and Wallace was just starting out at a small venue in Greenville, S.C.

The two got to know each other at that conference and Skinner kept track of Wallace’s career path. Skinner hired Wallace in 1980 as his deputy manager at the Superdome before Wallace took over as general manager a year later.

“He was running the dome and a company in heavy expanding mode,” Wallace said. “I was amazed at his ability as a leader and to nurture the people working for him. He always knew what was going on, but I wouldn’t say he was a micromanager. He would give people responsibility and expect them to be accountable. I always admired that leadership skill he had.”

Apart from his pioneering role in facility management, Denzil Skinner was a huge baseball and basketball fan, said David Skinner, his son and the general manager of Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land, Texas, a 6,400-seat arena run by the Ambassador Theatre Group.

Denzil Skinner also loved golf and got to play Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, on two occasions, David said.

In retirement, Denzil lived with his wife, Maxine, on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

“I was up there in January to keep track of all his medical appointments, going through his calendar and taking pictures so I could have reference,” David Skinner said. “I looked at the month of March and he had the date circled for baseball’s Opening Day. That was important to him.”