Meetings & Conventions - Pulling Rank -July 2000
Time management: Fortune Conference Division’s Suzanne
O’Leary and Robert Hawkins plan meetings that keep pace with Time
Warner’s digital evolution. Pulling Rank
Faced with dizzying growth, planners at these Fortune 500
firms had to think fast and act faster
By Carla Benini and Martha Cooke
o compete in today’s economy, corporations
can’t afford to let growth occur naturally. Instead, they identify
a need and quickly buy a company that will fill the niche. With the
breakneck pace of mergers and acquisitions, and with technology
quickening the product pipeline, meeting planning functions are
being forced to evolve.
At Time Warner, UtiliCorp United, McKessonHBOC and Cisco
Systems, planners weathered a year of dramatic change. And they
didn’t just roll with it; they positioned themselves and their
departments as proactive forces in shaping the new directions of
their organizations. They planned more meetings, bolstered their
staffs and adapted their objectives to evolving corporate
To thrive in such fast-changing environments, “Planners really
need to understand the industry and the business they’re in,” says
Rick Maurer, president of Maurer & Associates, an Arlington,
Va.-based consulting firm. “They should be as worried about the
challenges facing the company as the top people are.”
Here’s how planners at these Fortune 500 leaders are helping
continue the upward spiral.
Fortune 500 rank: 45
Last year’s rank: 108
Headquarters: New York City
With a 63-point jump up this year’s Fortune 500 list, the
corporation behind both Sports Illustrated and the hot
television show Sex and the City is undeniably formidable.
About 70,000 employees comprise five businesses that cover the
entertainment spectrum. Within this behemoth, meeting planners at
Time Warner have had to develop strategies to cope with the
company’s rapid growth and the increasing influence of a new
Time Warner’s businesses are cable networks, including CNN and
HBO; record labels such as Atlantic and Elektra; movie studios,
including Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema; Time Inc., the print
publishing division that churns out titles as diverse as Teen
People and Fortune; and cable systems, the segment
that recently was embroiled in a highly publicized spat with Disney
over broadcasting rights of Disney affiliates on Time Warner-owned
Add to all of this a proposed merger with Internet giant America
Online, and this company clearly has a lot on its plate. The merger
that would create a single entity called AOL Time Warner actually
would be a buyout of the media conglomerate by AOL. The $350
billion, all-stock transaction will be completed by the end of the
year if the government OKs the deal.
Photo and video coverage of the merger announcement showed a
surreal spin on the old-economy-meets-new paradigm. AOL’s
fresh-faced CEO Steve Case faced the cameras in a suit and tie no
flashy colors, no Jerry Garcia prints. Following the speech, he
embraced Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, who appeared in
casual-Friday regalia, with nary a tie tack or Brooks Brothers logo
Merger aside, Time Warner planners have their work cut out for
them. Fortune’s conference programs are challenged by a
growing and changing consumer base, says Robert Hawkins, executive
director of the Fortune Conference Division, an event-planning
profit center run by Time Inc. Last month Fortune launched
a sister publication, eCompany Now, which looks at the
strategies businesses use when they go digital. Hawkins is planning
eCompany Now’s launch “extravaganza,” which will take
place later this year, with Yahoo founder (and top AOL competitor)
Jerry Yang as a speaker.
Meanwhile, attendance figures for the Fortune Conference
Division’s 15 annual events have roughly quadrupled in the past few
years, with up to 400 people attending events that not long ago
catered to 100 or fewer. No longer dominated by corporate
executives, these events now draw a broad base of consumers who are
increasingly interested in economics and the new digital media.
The team doing most of the legwork 18 staff members at New York
headquarters makes up the majority of Time Warner’s 25 event
planners. In addition to internal events, the division manages and
cosponsors a few conferences a year for outside corporate
Events manager for Fortune magazine Jennifer Mahran
says with two to three months lead time, she often finds herself
developing programs or creating brand images, aided by the
division’s in-house marketing, program development and print
production specialists. To handle the workload, Mahran outsources
certain functions to independent planners. “We send them on-site to
cut down on time spent out of the office.”
Another major initiative is the Time Warner Event Council, an
effort to synergize the company’s various meeting planning
departments by sharing information and maximizing negotiating
clout. Improving communication is a primary objective of the
council, says Suzanne O’Leary, associate director of customer
services for the Fortune Conference Division. “I’ll be in a hotel
and someone will say, ‘People [magazine] was here last
O’Leary hopes to establish a presence for the council on the
company intranet by late summer. Plans call for quarterly meetings
to foster discussion and information-sharing. Checklists for
functions like hotel contracts will be provided, although the
company has no plans to create a boilerplate contract, says
O’Leary, since Time Warner’s events have such diverse criteria.
The first council meeting drew 18 Time Warner planners. O’Leary
hopes all 25 eventually will take advantage of the council’s
resources, although participation will not be mandatory.
Fortune 500 rank: 38
Last year’s rank: 59
Industry: Health care
Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.
In 1833, when John McKesson opened the doors to a storefront
drugstore in New York City, few could have guessed the company
would become a world leader in health care. Today, McKessonHBOC
employs 22,000 people in some 150 offices and 11 countries. Many in
the health-care industry consider the San Francisco-based firm the
dominating force in supply management and health-care information
technology, a force that became even more powerful when it acquired
small but successful HBO & Company in January 1999.
The merger made headlines, mainly because Atlanta-based HBOC
occupied different niches in the health-care industry. Experts
applauded the partnership and forecasted success. Last year,
revenues for the health-care powerhouse rose by more than 45
percent over 1998.
The meetings department is running in high gear. “The
environment is so fast-paced that if I have more than a week to get
together 90 managers, I’m feeling good,” says Evie Jett, executive
director of the marketing department for Information Technology
Business, a division of McKessonHBOC. Commonly referred to as ITB,
Jett’s division is basically the old HBOC and still is based in
Atlanta, while its parent remains in San Francisco. Jett, an
18-year veteran of HBOC, is responsible for all trade shows,
marketing events, internal meetings and incentive programs for the
Surprisingly, the merger has barely been a bump in the
professional road for Jett. Yet, she admits there is a chain of
command to which she is still acclimating. “We used to be king of
the hill,” says Jett. “I was the corporate marketing group. There
was nobody else to approve and review my contracts. If I needed to
do an executive meeting, I didn’t have to call out to
Now an employee of McKessonHBOC, Jett has inherited a logistical
support system for trade shows and meetings, run by San
Francisco-based Susan Thompson, CMP, director of meeting services.
Despite the need to check in, “it’s very helpful to have that
support,” Jett acknowledges. “It’s almost like hiring a meeting
Thompson’s well-oiled department is in its infancy at
McKessonHBOC; meeting planning was consolidated in June 1999.
Before the merger, there was no central meetings department not at
McKesson and not at HBOC.
“Planners were spread throughout the company, but there was no
department,” says Ron Powell, vice president of travel and meeting
services and a 10-year veteran of the company. Powell was concerned
about the status quo, which had employees with various job
functions negotiating and penning hotel contracts for meetings. “I
don’t even know what practice they were using to review the
“There was a definite need to have some consistency and control
on the contract,” reiterates Thompson. “All businesses are in flux.
You never know what will happen.” Recently, the firm had to cancel
a $5 million event. But luckily that was post-consolidation, after
an addendum was attached to all hotel contracts. “We were able to
save the company $1.1 million in cancellation fees,” says Thompson.
The addendum also requires hotels to call McKessonHBOC if one of
its competitors is to be meeting there at the same time.
Now, all hotel and vendor contracts that involve more than a
$2,000 outlay must be reviewed by Thompson’s department. From
these, she can monitor and track spending and, ultimately, better
leverage buying power.
The effort has taken considerable manpower. When Thompson joined
McKessonHBOC seven years ago, she worked in the travel services
department, handling some 75 annual meetings with the help of one
other person. By 1998, she was planning about 150 meetings. This
year, she’ll do close to 600. When the department was consolidated,
she was able to hire two more planners. Another two heads could
easily be kept busy, says Thompson.
The number of meetings Jett’s division plans also is on the
rise. She attributes this to new, post-merger senior executives.
“Their attitude is that we need more frequent communication,” says
Jett, who describes her old bosses as more autocratic and less
likely to invite the opinions of management.
Another cultural change: Jett has had to break a habit of
planning budget- driven meetings. At HBOC, the bottom line was her
starting line; she planned the meeting around a budget. Not so now,
she says. “To me, it’s frightening. I would rather have someone
tell me up front how much money I have.” While the number of
meetings is on the rise, the company’s trade show presence has been
scaled back, says Jett, who figures she will exhibit at 16 in 2000.
Just two years ago, McKesson ITB participated in 30 national shows.
“When you’re at a trade show, so are your competitors,” she points
Jett has seen her own responsibilities grow from planning
logistics to plotting strategy, determining how best to deliver
ITB’s message. That could come in the form of a trade show, ITB’s
own client event, or what she calls “webinars” Internet-based
seminars designed to entice potential clients who might not pay a
personal visit to ITB.
Fortune 500 rank: 90
Last year’s rank: 132
Industry: Utilities gas and electric
Headquarters: Kansas City, Mo.
“There’s not enough of me to go around,” complains Marge Leaders.
That sentiment probably is shared by many in Corporate America, but
Leaders’ predicament seems particularly dire. She is the manager of
industry relations at UtiliCorp United, a Kansas City, Mo.-based
utility company. While its industry is not making the headlines
like biotechnology or computer software, UtiliCorp has soared into
the international market since gas and energy suppliers were
deregulated in the mid-1990s.
“Eight years ago, we started out with two trade shows and one
customer event,” says Leaders, a 14-year veteran of the company.
Now, she handles an annual average of 50 conferences and
Once a Midwest regional company, UtiliCorp has merged with or
acquired nearly a dozen companies in the past few years and has
international holdings in Germany, Scandinavia, Spain and the
United Kingdom. Growth into new areas of the business has forced
corporate planners like Leaders to refocus marketing efforts and to
plan events that are better suited for Utilicorp’s new clients. For
example, Aquila Energy, a subsidiary that handles most of
Utilicorp’s trade shows and customer events, has drastically cut
the firm’s presence at trade shows, where potential customers are
exposed to competitors. Instead, Aquila, also based in Kansas City,
is focusing on individual customer events where executives from one
firm are invited to familiarize themselves with Aquila
Leaders’ position was created last year specifically for these
customer-focused events. The new responsibility required Leaders to
learn fast. The challenge is even more “interesting,” she laughs,
when her lead time is two months.
The dollars she deals with can be intimidating, too. For a
recent golf gathering for 12 executive clients, Leaders’ budget
topped that of most events she has planned throughout her career.
She turned to the expertise of an outside planning firm that
specializes in golf meetings to pull off touches like hiring chefs
to cook at private homes that had been rented for the occasion.
Sheer volume will increasingly force Leaders to outsource
functions like site inspections and on-site logistics. “I recognize
my limitations,” says Leaders, but slowing down the growth in
meetings is not an option. “With the emerging global marketplace
for energy, I have to [take advantage] of this deregulation.”
Her new focus has enabled Leaders to play the role of
consultant. She often finds herself recommending to executives the
best clients to invite to various events. “I know the buzz in the
industry,” she says. “I read the trades. I pay attention to
mergers. I’ve got my finger on the pulse.”
Leaders also has set up an internal speakers bureau to “manage
the intellectual capital” and assign internal experts to customer
events and conferences.
Her mission is supported by UtiliCorp’s CEO, Richard C. Green
Jr., who says meetings are the key to managing rapid growth. Says
Green, “While technology offers significant gains in personal
productivity, the direct human contact provided by in-person
meetings and conferences will continue to be the heart and soul of
successful business relationships.”
Cisco Systems Inc.
Fortune 500 rank: 146
Last year’s rank: 192
Industry: Network communications
Headquarters: San Jose, Calif.
At last count, Cisco Systems Inc. had acquired 59 companies in six
years, but by the time you read this, the software giant surely
will have snatched up a few more. A titan among its Silicon Valley
brethren, Cisco has spent more than $31.2 billion in the past six
years on acquisitions. It has announced another 10 for this year
alone, “and it’s only May,” says Maryann McLaughlin, human
resources manager for corporate acquisitions.
To call Cisco a fast-growth company is like calling Bill Gates
“comfortable.” The firm doubled its employee count to about 30,000
in two years. Ralph Colunga, manager of global TMME (Travel Metro
Meetings Events), predicts it will double again in 18 months.
“Cisco hires 100 people a week,” says McLaughlin. “It’s pretty
Perhaps even more incredible is that three years ago there was
no meetings department to speak of, says Colunga, who was hired
around that time to consolidate meetings, travel and expense
management functions. “Meetings were happening, but there didn’t
seem to be a consistency. We needed service standards, consistency
and some accountability for providing management with reports,”
says Colunga. He now heads up a team of 11 U.S.-based planners who
will handle the logistics for an estimated 600 meetings and events
The sheer number of meetings was the paramount reason for
organizing the planning process. According to Laura Mann, manager
of corporate events and meetings, the two conference centers on
Cisco’s San Jose campus and one in Research Triangle Park, N.C.,
are running at 98 percent capacity. Many departments are booking
after-hours time slots because it’s the only way they can get the
internal meeting space.
While Cisco seems to do everything else almost overnight, the
meetings consolidation process took a little longer. One of the
first projects for Colunga and Mann (who at the time comprised the
entire meetings department) was to leverage purchasing. “We went to
a hotel down the street to ask about partnering,” says Mann. “The
catering manager said, ‘I work with 250 administrative personnel
within your company.’ We were shocked.”
Mann’s vendor consolidation project continues even today. “We
have identified thousands of vendors, from hotels to theme parks to
T-shirt companies.” She plans to approach each one individually to
negotiate bulk deals. Already, Colunga estimates this year the
department will have saved Cisco $3.3 million.
It wasn’t hard to convince management consolidation was the way
to go. The greater challenge has been to market the service
internally. Meetings and travel services are explained during
Cisco’s Monday meetings for new hires.
“The company is moving so fast, the way to get information out
is to get them as they’re coming through the front door,” says
Mann. Colunga and McLaughlin also visit newly acquired firms to
explain the department’s services and savings opportunities.
To communicate with the company’s massive administrative force
who often are most resistant to consolidation Colunga holds brown
bag lunches. “Sometimes they want to maintain control. They don’t
want to feel left out,” he says. “We keep them informed so they
feel a part of the planning process.”
The meetings department even prints magnets and spearheads a
worldwide poster campaign, called Frugality Facts, touting its
Frugality is a word Cisco employees can relate to: This is a no
frills, no perks environment. Everyone flies coach, everywhere. “I
just came back from a 17-hour flight from Tel Aviv,” says
McLaughlin, who was there to present the Cisco culture to a newly
acquired Israeli firm. “I lived the definition of frugality.” While
the culture might be difficult for some corporate road warriors to
embrace, every employee is a shareholder and ultimately benefits
from such cost savings.
With a cohesive meetings department in place in the United
States which is likely to double in size over the next two years
Cisco is taking its meeting and travel policies overseas. Mann
plans to meet with her European counterpart this summer to discuss
ways to synergize. “We’ve only just started this,” says Mann. “We
are at the very tip of the iceberg.”
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C