Time flies. It’s been two full years since our beloved founder and my friend Rick Lester passed away unexpectedly while riding the Courage Classic in the mountains of Colorado. While it was a tragic and sad day, I’m happy to say that the firm he founded, TRG Arts, continues to thrive serving arts and cultural organizations with data-driven strategies that get results. A strong legacy he’s left, indeed.
Results. Data. These are concepts that Rick prioritized early on in his work in the theme park business and with orchestras in Cincinnati and Cleveland. Over time, that work became the firm, TRG Arts. Today, built on that work, the TRG team serves hundreds of clients in four countries across the performing arts and cultural spectrum. At this time of year when we at TRG are remembering Rick with a special focus, we think of lots of things: Rick’s sense of humor, his love of life, his courage to start a business and lead it to success. In this week, I’m reminded about all that we’ve learned as a field from his experiences and wisdom. My guess? Twenty years from now many of his thoughts and statements will STILL ring true. What follows below are some of the things our team at TRG heard most often from Rick, all of which still play a huge role in the field and our work with clients. It feels right to share these thoughts now and regularly. They include:
1. Results are what matters. In your career and in organizations.
Rick used to counsel everyone he knew that the only thing that matters is making results happen. From day one, he spoke about working with TRG (then Lester & Associates) by demonstrating the results of working with TRG. And when it came to talking to administrators in the field, he ultimately got the ambitious ones to listen to his message: campaign results—revenue results—ensure that you advance. Nothing else.
2. Follow the data.
Data always tells a story that anecdotes don’t and it’s the voice of the consumer! Rick was religious about data as the tool that can point the way toward results. He was right about this, and it made him unpopular in some circles. He looked at data the field wasn’t focused on or that made administrators uncomfortable, but it was always about one thing: achieving results. That orientation continues in TRG’s work today.
3. What is this seat worth?
Rick was famous for asking this question of an audience as he threw a chair on a table. The answer? “It’s only worth what people will pay!” This is one of the most frequent and powerful memories that people share about our founder. His point: We must constantly evaluate the data that tells us how consumers value the seating real estate available in the performing arts business. And we must price and manage that real estate accordingly.
4. The field over-prospects and under-retains.
Boy, did Rick get this right. Consider your own marketing and fundraising budgets and evaluate: how much of your investments are allocated to the acquisition of new patrons and how much are allocated to retention of existing patrons? If you look like 95% of the organizations we see, new patrons are your focus. How will we ever get ahead if we don’t focus on retaining the patrons we spend all our time and money to acquire?
5. A strong database is the glue that holds everything together.
Early in TRG’s history, we began to think about how to make patrons “sticky,” more likely to return and do more with an organization. Rick believed in the database as the “glue,” as he often said. Today, we liken the database to our rolodex. If we don’t manage our rolodex, we won’t have enough friends to invite to our parties and events. It’s an over-simplified metaphor, but it demonstrates again that Rick was right. Database management is the foundation concept for loyalty.
6. No more silos—patron loyalty is the job of marketing and development.
TRG’s early work with clients, more than a dozen years ago, focused on what we saw in the data: patron participation crosses organizational silos. Ticket buyers are also members. Donors are subscribers. School parents attend events. And the more patrons buy, the more they buy. Rick preached early on that our organizational behavior must meet the behavior of our patrons and cross the silos. Today, TRG works more than any other firm in achieving those hard-sought integrated results.
7. There is great power in communities that share databases.
TRG started providing community database services more than a decade ago, and because of point #2 above, Rick insisted we learn… about the power of trading on campaign results (positive), about patron behavior (communities where organizations trade aggressively enjoy higher patron retention rates), and about the best ways to create and sustain community data networks (this is a blog post in and of itself!). Today, more and more communities are seeing the powerful resource this type of collaboration can deliver.
As I reflect on the nearly 20 years that I worked alongside Rick Lester and think about the past two years without him, I can see how important and “sticky” his wisdom is. At TRG, we’ll still be talking about him and these thoughts for years and years. And so will the field.
We miss our founder and friend, but TRG continues to hold his counsel and wisdom at the core of what we do.
A strong legacy, indeed.
It’s nearly impossible to believe that it’s been a full year since our beloved TRG founder and our friend, Rick Lester, passed away while riding the Courage Classic in the mountains of Colorado. Many of you know that Rick was a cyclist, and on this particular ride he was supporting The Children's Hospital in Denver—an institution that had helped his family and grandchildren. In riding this ride, he was doing what Rick always did so purposefully and well: he was passing it on.
Pass it on. I’ve taken a moment this week to read the memories and thoughts offered up by all of us after Rick died, and I’m reminded how much he did just that
. Our business—TRG Arts—is a metaphor, a day-in-and-day-out practical application, of that phrase. Rick’s intent from the get-go was to pass on knowledge, understanding and insight in a way that would sustainably impact the arts and cultural field. Our goal now is to continue passing it on, for years to come, in honor of Rick’s legacy and intent.
Rick also “passed on” other things: enthusiasm for things he loved; experiences, which he drew people into so that they could share in his fun; and people, whom he viewed as treasures to be loved by everyone around him. Courage. Inspiration. There’s more, documented by so many in our blog post, “In Memory and Appreciation: Rick Lester.”
The Courage Classic is taking place again this year on the weekend of July 19-21. In memory of Rick, and in the spirit of passing it on, we invite you to join us by donating to the team on which Rick participated last year: the Gene Team. His son-in-law, Chris Wilkerson, is racing on the team again this year and celebrating Rick in the process. You can donate and honor Rick here.
Together, we’ll celebrate Rick’s legacy to our field, as well as his impact on the world around him.
I feel no differently now than I did last year when I closed my appreciation to Rick
by saying, “Rest in peace, friend. We’ll keep going, but the journey’s going to be less fun without you.”
Indeed. But to that I’d now add, “…and we’ll keep passing it on.”
Lessons Learned from Rick
by Jill Robinson, President, TRG Arts
In July, I lost my long-term business partner, Rick Lester. I also lost one of my closest friends. Since 1995, I—and everyone who knew him—has been graced by his enormous intelligence, generous sense of humor, and unequivocal interest in living life.
The road of our particular partnership and friendship took us many places, which I’ll cherish forever and ever. Along the journey, I learned many things about my friend Rick, and about life. They include:
1. Be an optimist. The alternative—worry—is useless.
2. Think big. So few people do.
3. Communicate openly. Trust people—and more often than not you won’t be
4. Keep your friends close. And treat them like family.
5. Dive in. With confidence.
6. Have fun as often as you can.
7. Take time—to interact…and teach.
And that’s what the company he founded and I’ve had the pleasure of helping lead is, and will continue to be, about. As his son Will (who possesses much of the same strengths and makes his father proud) said, “We’ll come back doing what Rick taught us: discover the best practices in the field and share them.”
Rest in peace, friend. We’ll keep going, but the journey’s going to be less fun without you.
Read messages of condolence and memories of Rick in the
comments section of our blog post "In Memory and Appreciation".