Kerry Painter with son, Garrett.

Kerry Painter, assistant general manager, Cox Business Center, Tulsa, Okla., is addicted to grand openings. It started early in her career when she moved quickly from Joe Louis Arena and Cobo Hall in Detroit to helping open Fox Theatre, Atlanta, and then to Tiger Stadium, Detroit, where she helped change it over to new ownership. As Olympia Entertainment acquired each venue, she moved from one to the next.

“It’s crazy addictive,” said Painter. “I love that you make a miracle for the place you’re in. By the time I get there, they’ve spent years trying to make it possible, trying to find the money, trying to convince people it should exist. I get to come in and turn that miracle to figure out what it’s going to look like, get it open and launch it. It’s fantastic. Then you leave this place with this building that lives there forever.”

Painter’s passion for opening venues and making them live forever helped her win the 2015 Venues Today Woman of Influence Award, which will be presented during an Aug. 2 reception in Baltimore.

Also on Painter’s roster of buildings she helped open are the Detroit Opera House, San Francisco City Hall, Northshore Harbor Center, Slidell, La., and Scotiabank Convention Centre, Niagara Falls, Ontario. And she’s not ready to stop there, hoping to be part of at least one more building opening in her career. While some may describe the process and three-day grand opening formula as exhausting or stressful, Painter thrives in that environment.

“It’s funny because some people go through it and say it was the most stressful thing ever, I could never do that again,” said Painter, “and I get to the other side and go, ‘OK, I’m ready, let’s do one more!’”

With nearly 30 years of industry experience, Painter has held positions in a variety of venues including convention centers, theaters, arenas and stadiums. And though she’s served as assistant general manager for over a year now, Painter started off in security. 

“It was kind of ridiculous because I had a friend who had a friend who hired all the staff, and they offered me a job as security back in the day when if you put on a suit coat you were security,” said Painter.

Her very first day on the job, Painter acted as a bodyguard for Prince. “Thankfully he was really tiny, and I felt like I could manage him. I could take anybody who jumped in front because I was bigger than him,” she said.

At one point, Painter decided she was going to move to the South. She called up building managers in 10 Southern cities just so she could learn about the city and what it was like living and working in the South. When the general manager job opened up in Louisiana at Northshore Harbor Center, she called Marco Perez, general manager, Lakefront Arena, University of New Orleans, and talked with him for two hours about New Orleans.

“She’s the type of person who wants to make a difference in everything that she does and not just complete the assigned task,” said Perez about Painter. “She prefers exclamation points rather than simple punctuation marks.”

Needless to say she got the job, and Perez and his wife even threw Painter a baby shower, because she was new to the area and didn’t know many people.

“We have worked on various committees together through the years and while we were certainly effective and efficient in achieving our goals, we had fun working towards them,” said Perez. “Everything we ever did together was a pleasure because it was an enjoyable experience.  She’s a good friend and I do miss interacting with her as regularly as we once did, but I am happy that we have managed to stay in touch through the years.” 

In the past year, Painter has also started teaching for various organizations and schools, including Oglebay, Certified Exhibition Manager classes and an online crisis management course at Niagara College. She said the thing she tries to leave with her students is the habit of saying yes, something she often exercised at the beginning of her career.

“Just do it,” said Painter. “Jump in. Take a risk, even if it’s scary, because you don’t know where it will take you. That’s really how I moved from city to city. Often I just walked in to places or was offered and said yes. I was much more naïve and said yes to things that now I’m like, oh I don’t know, and I find all those reasons not to. But don’t do that, just go.”

Recently, Painter was digging through a box of old photos and found a copy of a commencement speech she had given years ago. She found that the message of the speech was one she had also used on her staff when opening a building. 

“I said to them, this is like a roller coaster, and you’ve reached the top,” said Painter. “You’re about to go flying down, so put your hands up and scream and go. When I opened that last building that was the speech I kept giving the staff. The whole time they were like, I can’t wait until this is over, this is so crazy. And it’s like, no! Because when it’s over, it’s over, so every minute matters. Just be in that minute and love that minute and don’t wish it away. You’re going to fly down that coaster and when you’re done, you’re done, and that six-second ride is over.”

Coming in as a close second to opening buildings is sparking change. Painter said she loves being ahead of the curve.

“I like to continuously try to be leading the way, the one everyone else is copying, if we can,” said Painter. “To be that building that people remember or talk about when they leave. I love when you’re that spark. I love to start the fires and then back away and watch them go. Then, it becomes something else you didn’t even imagine because they took it to the next level. And you get to do that in my spot. I start the fires with all of my staff and they do things they didn’t know they could.”

Throughout her career, Painter has observed certain changes in the industry, one of which she is part of as young people can now study the business in school and people are teaching it.

“It’s so different now,” said Painter. “You can sit and hear the stories about how everything was handshakes and conversations and relationships and what went on backstage at arenas. It’s become so much more of a business, I think. People now know we exist; I don’t think people really thought about who ran the buildings in the old days. But now, it’s a real profession and I think that the younger people have changed it.”

Painter said a major way in which the younger generation has changed the business is the idea of work-life balance. She said they’ve figured out how to wrap their business life around their personal life to enjoy the best of both worlds.

“People achieve but they also have a life, and we try to make that possible now,” said Painter. “I think that matters. You hire whole people. You don’t just hire a worker and then work them until they drop and then hire a new person. It’s a whole person, and they have families. I think all that matters now.”

Though Painter said she “fell” into the industry by mistake, she quickly realized how amazing the job and people were. Though she’s been known to be found on top of grand pianos or riding elephants in arena basements, the people and connections she’s made over the years are a part of why she loves this industry and has continued in it for so long. The other part has to do with the patrons she is able to touch through her work.

“Right now there are 1,000 wrestlers in our building, and that’s 1,000 moments and 1,000 memories,” said Painter. “They’ll remember when they won or lost or what they did. It’s so much bigger than the actual thing we’re doing at the moment. I love that. And it’s never the same. You don’t really know what will be that moment, so you just try to find them and be extraordinary and step up and do that thing that might be the moment. Whenever I tell people what we do, I say we make a legacy of memories that we hope will go on.”

Interviewed for this story: Kerry Painter, (918) 894-4220; Marco Perez, (504) 280-7171