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THE MBA HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD

Alumnus of the Year Matt Gillam turned his GGU project into a $90 million company

By Susan Fomoff

Photos by Ed Ritger

 

Matt Gillam had no reason to go back to school for his MBA. As an account executive for a prominent event management company in San Francisco, he enjoyed an exciting career traveling the world for as many as 274 days of the year, charming senior executives and CEOs with his 110 percent service commitment.

So what on earth was he doing in Phuket, Thailand, faxing a term paper back to an instructor at Golden Gate? And why was he on a plane, buried in books, while his first-class seatmate, then-client and now good friend Raphael Che, made merry with fellow travelers?

“His job was not easy — it was a big job,” Che said. “When people go to school and they are also working, they have two very serious jobs. But he was very highly motivated.”

Gillam didn’t know it at the time, but his work at Golden Gate would have a powerful impact on the direction of his career.  In fact, it produced the business plan for a then-fictional startup, which today is Enterprise Events Group, a 90-employee, $90 million company that is the biggest privately held event-management company west of the Mississippi.

Using its innovative, ever-evolving proprietary software platform, EEG provides full-service management for events ranging from a 10-person board meeting to a reward for a company’s top 1,000 performers to a conference for 15,000. Flight reservations, hotel bookings, ground transportation, logistics, entertainment — even welcome gifts — fall under its purview.

“We didn’t have to write a thesis for the MBA program I was in,” Gillam said in a sit-down at EEG’s ever-expanding San Rafael headquarters. “But I took it upon myself to do some sort of project. … I told myself, I’m going to write a business plan, a marketing plan, forecast, budgets, everything. So the whole concept of EEG started at Golden Gate. I still have the paper somewhere. I turned it in.”

He showed the paper, some weeks later, to colleague Rich Calcaterra. The company they were working for, Creative Marketing Incentives, had been sold and was beginning to lose the personal stamp of its leader, Joyce Clark. One of Clark’s partners, Dick Hodge, had hired and mentored Gillam and was not the least bit surprised when Gillam and Calcaterra struck out on their own to create a competitive venture built on their years of experience and deep industry knowledge.

“No more than a month after I hired him, I could see he’d have his own business,” Hodge said. “He’s a charming guy who is smart and high-performing. I understand what entrepreneurism looks like and what those genes are. And I think the MBA gave Matt the confidence to do that.”

Not that anyone would have described Matt Gillam as lacking in confidence. As a child, he built forts and then made pitches to his grandfather for toy soldier funding; by age 7 he was working in the family bakery business, stemming strawberries and assembling doilies. And when he graduated from high school, he became a full-fledged German baker for the Santa Clara bakery.

“I baked everything from cakes to cookies to pies, you name it. My specialty: breads and cookies,” he said. “Then I woke up one day, I was 19, and I thought…”

There he was 19, getting up at 4 every morning to go down to the bakery, open it up, start the ovens and make bread. In that kind of equation, 19 and 4 simply don’t add up.

“I went to see my mother in Honolulu and started at the University of Hawaii,” he said. He would have stayed there, except that his mother advised him to return to the mainland.

Gillam, who loves to swim and has classic blond California looks, left Hawaii and went to UCLA. It was the Reagan era, his life was good and banking beckoned.

He trained at Bank of America as a lending officer and ended up opening the company’s first loan center, in San Mateo. And soon enough, there he sat in an office, surrounded by stacks of paper. Once again, he thought, “I hate this, I’m bored, this is not what I want to do,” he said.

So, what did he want to do? He remembered a college girlfriend whose mother had worked for Sheraton in Hawaii. Now that, he thought, would be a great job — hotel pools, fine dining, what a life.

He sought out a manager’s job, dropping off his resume with every big hotel in the Bay Area. Finally an HR person told him to start at the bottom and get some experience, and that was how he began a hotel career that started at the front desk on the graveyard shift and led him up the ladder to Hyatt and sales.

He was on the team that opened Hyatt Waikoloa, the Grand Wailea and the Hyatt Kauai. And it was in that job that he crossed paths with Joyce and John Clark, whose Creative Marketing Incentives worked with world-class resorts to plan meetings, events and incentive trips for companies large and small.

The Clarks brought Gillam back to San Francisco to be their first account executive, and soon hired Calcaterra to work alongside him.

“I had come from a competitor and was very familiar with the industry and how companies became successful,” Calcaterra said. “And Matt came from the hotel side, so we were just sort of a natural fit.”

Joyce Clark had a company incentive program in those days. She would subsidize advanced degrees, paying 100 percent for an A in a class, 75 percent for a B, and 50 percent for a C, though Gillam noted, “She said, ‘Don’t come to me with any Cs.’”

He had been out of school nearly 10 years by now, yet felt a compulsion to go back. “I just always felt in my gut I needed to go,” he said. “I didn’t really have a specific thing in mind at that time, I just felt that I needed it. I’m always looking at ways in which to learn or grow. I believe in constantly learning. Who said it — Bob Dylan? That he who is not busy being born is busy dying? It’s that sort of thing. I’m constantly looking for ways to push.”

He looked to Stanford and Berkeley immediately, but then thought, “I can’t do that! Not with my job!”

 

 

Discovering GGU

He found Golden Gate in the neighborhood of his office at 1 Sansome, and met with counselors.

“They stressed things like, ‘We’re a lot more flexible for the business person who’s working; we know you travel and we make arrangements for that,’” he said.

Thus, the faxed tests and book-buried flights. He never took a C to Joyce Clark and rarely had a B. Hodge watched as the degree took effect.

“Number 1, it gave Matt more confidence, not that he was lacking any,” Hodge said. “Second, he developed a broader understanding of business that helped him also understand his customer. And third, it gave him the foundational skills that would help him start a business.”

And in the end, he went to Calcaterra with that school project.

“I always felt bad for Elvis (Presley) because he had no one to talk to,” Gillam said. “The Beatles had four guys to talk to. I wanted a business partner. Rich had just married Wendy and she was pregnant. Why would he want to do this? We had high-paying jobs, we were established, we could have easily stayed.”

“Honestly,” Calcaterra said, “I thought it was kind of a no-brainer. The company had been sold; it was changing. And we both were really ready to roll.”

Che’s Genstar Container Corp. was their first customer. “Our first trip for them was amazing,” Gillam said. “We went to the Four Seasons in Paris and bought out the Four Seasons, and then chartered the Orient Express and took it down to Venice, where we bought out the Danieli hotel for another five nights.”

Gillam says “we” because he and Calcaterra make a point of providing personal service. They divide the clients 50-50, and even today leave their families to hit the road at least a couple of times a month. (Gillam and wife Shawn have a daughter, Ari, in first grade and a son, Jackson, in third.)

Now in its 17th year, EEG has had to weather turbulence that was unimaginable when Gillam drew up that business plan.

 

Weathering the Storm

There was the dot-com implosion blip and later a recession in which businesses were publicly flogged for taking employees on anything remotely resembling a junket.

The partners had to consider the possibility that there might not be anything for their employees to do. They let a few go, and made 2009 the only year of their 17 that they did not increase salaries. In fact, they cut them.

Yet they made it through, and recently expanded their headquarters.

Here are a few of the secrets to the Gillam-Calcaterra success story:

• A diversified customer base. “You could just focus on tech, but the problem is when tech goes off the cliff, you go with it,” Gillam said. So there are clients in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, transportation, energy and retail — including some smaller and younger companies with growth potential.

• Living within their means. “We run a very conservative company,” Gillam said. “So we have a lot of cushion to take on longer periods of downtime than a lot of other people can.”

• A concentrated customer base — focusing on doing good work for 30 to 35 clients rather than spreading thin across 100.

• An emphasis on the kind of service that guarantees repeat business and word-of-mouth endorsement. “We’re interested in the whole relationship, not just the pieces that are profitable,” he said. EEG hasn’t even done sales, in the traditional sense.

 

The aspirations of Gillam and Calcaterra seem modest. They’ve hired an account executive, readied a new software launch and set a growth goal of 20 percent, to a $110 million company.

Gillam, who gets particularly animated and talks even faster than his usual 1,000 words a minute when he talks about his time at GGU, remembers sitting in class with other working professionals like himself and having this argument:

“You gotta grow your company,” they’d insist.

“Why do you have to grow your company?” he wondered. “Why couldn’t you choose to be the best in your space, and only be about this size, and just dominate the space? Why couldn’t you be happy doing that? No one really knew the answer.”

But of EEG, he said, “That’s kind of where we are now.”

 

Special thanks to the Hiller Aviation Museum (www.hiller.org), where we photographed man-on-the-move Matt Gillam.

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