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Through the Looking Glass
Observations from a man who "fell into" the career of a lifetime
An interview with Rich McAdam, President of MC˛
Quick! Raise your hand if you're in a job you never aspired to as a kid. If your hand's in the air right now, it's not surprising. For example, a career in exhibits and events isn't something many people think of when they go off to college. And it's no wonder. Few people outside the business really know what it's about. Even those who attend trade shows on a frequent basis have no concept of what goes into pulling together an exhibit or event; they choose to believe some kind of magic makes everything appear.
But we all know working in the exhibits and events industry is stressful and satisfying, demanding but rewarding, and something you can easily get hooked on, although it might not have been something you planned to do.
Rich McAdam, president of MC˛, didn't consider a career in this field, but one day he got into it quite by accident. Twenty years later, he's a veteran and leader in the business. In the following interview, he shares his observations on the industry, where it's been and where it's going.
e-Connections: What drew you into a career in the exhibits and events business?
Rich McAdam: I actually found it by accident. I was going on a job interview and went into the wrong building. Twenty minutes later, I had a job as a carpenter with Impact Exhibits. Later, I became a field supervisor and project manager with the company.
e-Connections: What's the most memorable, fun or exciting project you've participated in?
McAdam: World Telecom '98 in Geneva, Switzerland, is the most memorable, although I can't say it was the most fun. Our company had 20 exhibitors at the show and we built three- and four-story exhibits for them, including elevators and restaurants. It was a nine-week install, and we hired 2,000 people to pull everything together. We had translators who spoke four or five languages to communicate with the workers.
The most fun I had was working in the AT&T pavilion at the America's Cup Village in San Diego for 90 days. I put in six-hour days and met a lot of people in the boat racing business. It was like a 90-day vacation.
e-Connections: Of all the companies you might have joined, why did you come to MC˛?
McAdam: Exhibitgroup/Giltspur was process-driven, and the privately held companies it bought were process-driven, too. MC˛ is driven by a salesperson, Gary Benson, our CEO, so there's a different mindset here. The company's more flexible. We have processes but will veer off them to help a client. I can do things my way without someone looking over my shoulder. Our salespeople and other managers also stay here because of this flexibility.
e-Connections: What are the biggest challenges facing custom fabricators today?
McAdam: The erratic nature of the calendar, from peak busy periods to times where we have little to do. It's also extremely competitive; every client we go after is a bid situation. And it's challenging finding talent, since most people come to the business by accident. Time and materials are problems, too. We often don't have enough time to get the materials. We used to have five weeks or more to put together an exhibit. But today, clients want them, on average, in three weeks because of their own internal decision-making processes.
e-Connections: How is MC˛ facing these challenges?
McAdam: We stay lean and don't have a big management staff. We're flexible, and we put our clients first. We think of what's good for our clients and how to meet their needs.
e-Connections: You've been in the business long enough to comment on trend changes. How has the role of the exhibit manager evolved from, say, 20 years ago?
McAdam: When I first got into the business, more men than women worked as exhibit managers. The guys wanted to stop by the shop and see how things were built, and that was about it.
Today, the field is more female dominated, and I think that's a good thing. The women are more organized and better at deciding how an exhibit should be put together. They're more involved from start to finish and understand how to manage budgets. They're better educated and more market-savvy. They know an exhibit is more than just a booth and a product.
e-Connections: Given the demand for measurement and the fiscal accountability of many exhibit and event programs, how does a company like yours maintain growth and meet tough analysis on spending?
McAdam: The business has become more competitive in the past five or 10 years. We know we're under scrutiny and must meet our customers' expectations. Consequently, we've become better at purchasing and letting our designers know how and when to spend money. We know the results we produce will be a deciding factor for the next job. Clients' budget concerns have made us look at our own processes and spending, while we also search for ways to help them stretch their dollars.
e-Connections: Do you see this business as a good opportunity for young people?
McAdam: Absolutely. It's not boring, you get to travel and meet people, there are probably more opportunities than I've ever seen, and an exhibit job can open opportunities on the client side. Once you're hooked on this business, you don't get out. But unfortunately, not as many young people work in this business as they used to.
e-Connections: If you were to counsel an events or exhibit manager with little or no experience, what would be your top words of wisdom?
McAdam: There are too many things you can't control when managing an exhibit, and things often look like they're going awry until they're put together. So stay flexible, be patient and don't panic. Also, since you can get hit from all sides, be organized, and use your suppliers and exhibit companies for their experience. They've "been there" many times before.
e-Connections: How does the MC˛ sponsorship of education fit into your company's long-term plan?
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McAdam: We're committed to education -- internally and externally -- and we spend a good deal of money supporting EXHIBITOR FastTrak. We also spend time and money training our own people for their next jobs. Each year, we bring in our employees to talk about their current job, the next job they might want to hold and other departments they can work in. Exhibit jobs need to be learned, so you often need to "grow" your employees.
e-Connections: If you could change one thing about this business, what would it be?
McAdam: The inflexibility of show managers. They work with associations and contractors to put up hoops we all have to jump through, and this results in a lot of unnecessary costs. It makes exhibiting expensive for our clients and difficult for us to maneuver. I'd like to see exhibitors and exhibit companies get together to work toward changing show managers' attitudes.
e-Connections: Given the fact you're a very busy man, what do you do to relax and unwind?
McAdam: I live at the Jersey Shore, so I'm a real beach bum. I like water sports and kite flying. I also enjoy reading and woodworking. I worked in carpentry to get through college, and it got me my start in the exhibit business -- quite by accident.
Rich McAdam joined MC˛ in November 2004 as corporate vice president, Production. An industry leader, he began his career as a carpenter with Exhibit Dynamics and worked his way up through the ranks to become the company's senior vice president, Manufacturing, before accepting the position of senior vice president, Eastern Operations, with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur. During his 20-plus years of exhibit and event industry experience, McAdam has been involved with almost every aspect of production and planning.