Stabilizing Force

Villanova’s Natalye Paquin gets down to business as the Kimmel Center’s COO.

Kimmel Center COO Natalye PaquinNatalye Paquin is quite comfortable touting her achievements. After all, you don’t get to the top by downplaying your assets.

Technically speaking, the top position at Center City’s much-revered Kimmel Center is president and CEO. But since Paquin did fill in at that post during her first 10 months on the job, no one’s splitting hairs in an effort to dethrone her—even if she’s now the Kimmel’s executive vice president and COO, the job she was hired for.

And those who question whether that truly equates to being at the top have got a lot to learn about Philadelphia’s standing in the arts. Since opening in December 2001, the glass-encased, 40,000-square-foot Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts has garnered international raves. One of the top five venues of its kind in the country, it features countless performers and productions from all over the world. The Kimmel Center and the affiliated Academy of Music are home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsyl-vania Ballet, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, American Theater Arts for Youth, PHILADANCO, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.

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The Kimmel Center’s spectacular facility houses the cello-shaped, 2,500-seat Verizon Hall, the smaller Perelman Theater, the 150-seat Innovation Studio, an education center, a rooftop garden terrace, a café and restaurant, and a gift shop. It employs 100 full-time staff members, along with 140 part-timers and 150 volunteers. Its annual operating budget: $35-$40 million.

If all that makes your head spin, join the club. As for the 48-year-old Paquin, she’s a wiz with numbers—and other things, too.

“I like people,” she says. “And I know that there are a lot of things you can’t do by yourself. If you’re properly networked, you’re two telephone calls—three at the most—away from getting anything done.”

Paquin’s career trajectory began in civil law. From there, she became managing deputy commissioner for transportation in Chicago before taking the job as chief of staff for Paul Vallas, Philadelphia’s school district superintendent.

“When he was appointed CEO of the Philadelphia schools, he called me one Sunday afternoon and asked if I would consider joining his team,” Paquin recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, will you come with me to Philadelphia to help fix the public schools? It’ll be fun.’”

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Back in the Windy City, she’d advised Vallas as an associate general counsel in the Chicago Public Schools’ legal department. And as his chief purchasing officer, she oversaw $1 billion in annual expenditures. After two years in Philly, Paquin was appointed COO, overseeing a $400 million budget and 4,700-plus employees.

“I’ve always been a leader,” she says. “I finished high school when I was 16 and college at 19. I finished the curriculum in three years, and took management and business classes in my fourth year.”

Paquin grew up in Miami, living in a racially isolated area with limited opportunities. Thanks to desegregation, she was bussed to a school in the white section of the city. There, she studied a foreign language and played viola in the orchestra. Her parents paid for piano, ballet, tap and jazz dance lessons, which inspired an appreciation for the performing arts.

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When Paquin arrived on Broad Street in June 2006, the Kimmel Center was still in the red and straining to build up its endowment. A month later, president and CEO Janice Price resigned—and Paquin stepped up.

“Working in education and nonprofits requires similar skill sets,” says Paquin. “They’re both mission-driven. They require working with boards, a willingness to be flexible and transparent, and an innate enthusiasm for the mission.”

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Over the next 10 months, as Paquin juggled her own position and that of acting president, she achieved an operating surplus that exceeded the planned budget. It was a major coup, laying the groundwork for current president and CEO Anne Ewers, who arrived in July ’07. Together, Paquin and Ewers began to make serious headway in eliminating the nonprofit’s $30 million construction debt.

By early 2008, the Kimmel had finished the fiscal year with a $1.2 million surplus on the operations side. Today, its endowment stands at a healthy $72 million in pledges.

Over the past three years, Paquin has taken the lead on several initiatives. She formed a committee to devise a five-year plan for the Kimmel Center and spearheaded the PennPraxis forums, which included community discussions about use of the center’s public spaces. She settled the labor negotiations that came with managing the Merriam Theater and closed the deal with Citi that secured a multimillion-dollar, five-year corporate sponsorship.

“I saw an article in one of the papers discussing Citi’s desire to give money to various organizations. But when I scanned the list, we weren’t on it,” Paquin says. “I pulled together a team, and we enticed the mayor into pitching Citi on behalf of the Kimmel Center. It worked because I pulled the right people together—and because we had a clear strategy.”

All of this while overseeing the complex operations of the Kimmel Center.

The Kimmel’s next big thing is the 2011 International Festival, a monthlong, citywide arts festival celebrating the center’s 10th anniversary. Supported by a $10 million grant from the Annenberg Center, the event will take place April 7-May 1.

Then there’s the Kimmel’s continuing efforts to reach younger audiences. Arts Partners is one program that’s showing promise, distributing over 1,000 free tickets last year to the African Cultural Alliance of North America, Centro Nueva Creacion, Taller Puertorriqueño, Destiny Productions, and all 13 chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia.

Like most high-profile career women, Paquin has to make her share of tough choices daily. Looking back, she credits a supportive husband, mother and sisters for her ability to find balance in her life.

Perhaps the toughest thing was trying to find the right time to start a family—and finding a job compatible with raising children. But then, Paquin has been juggling the personal and the professional for as long as she can remember.

“Even as a little girl, I was focused—and I was a joiner,” Paquin says.

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Whether it was sports (she played competitive tennis throughout college), arts or music, she honed in on what interested her—and she got involved.

“When I first moved here, it was a politically appointed position, so I needed an exit strategy,” says Paquin. “I had an affinity for the arts. And while working for the schools, I’d seen the lack of emphasis and resources. This motivated me to get involved with different arts and culture organizations, and lay the groundwork for a position like this. You have to use the things you’re passionate about to gain experience. I always had a plan. Nothing has seemed by chance.”

For anyone seeking a professional mentor, look no further: Paquin’s got a tried-and-true blueprint.

“Find the most talented people to join your team, and respect and value the contribution of others to every process and project. No one can succeed alone,” she says. “Exercise discipline—success comes with hard work, sacrifice and being prepared. Be an active listener—learning from your environment allows you to adapt and maintain relevance. And, finally, exploit technology. That’s a no-brainer.”

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