Buffman transforms RPC into Mecca for performing arts
By Matt Weafer
Greater Owensboro Business Magazine
In 1993, Zev Buffman found himself exhausted in Owensboro’s RiverPark Center between flights, about to take a nap during a free symphony by the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra. He had driven to Owensboro from Louisville to check out the new performing arts center that was built in a small western Kentucky town.
But as he stretched out in Cannon Hall prepared to catch some shut-eye, the orchestra struck the first note.
“I hear this sound coming off the stage,” Buffman said. “It was a great sound — not what you expect from Owensboro.”
He listened to the entire performance then strolled out to the balcony while the sun began to set. “It was a big ball of a sun in fluffy white clouds,” he said. “I leaned on the concrete and watched the whole thing disappear. And I thought, I would really like to settle down in a place like this.”
That was 15 years ago when Buffman was running 14 performing arts centers, half of which he had built, and was involved in many other projects around the country.
Now, as Buffman has settled comfortably into his new position, and with a fresh contract extending his stay until 2012, he has tied with Kevin Schwartz at Schwartz CPA group as the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Zev Buffman has done more with the RiverPark Center than I think anyone ever imagined possible in the past five years,” Jody Wassmer, President of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, said.
Buffman started work as CEO at the RiverPark on October 1, 2003, and has transformed the non-profit performing arts complex into a factory that not only creates its own successes with Broadway shows and festivals but shares that success with the rest of the city as the RiverPark brings in thousands of tourists a year — a western Kentucky Mecca for the performing arts.
“I thought this theatre was a fabulous factory,” Buffman said about his initial reaction when taking his position. “I saw endless opportunity.”
And he has capitalized on many of those opportunities.
Now the RiverPark Center builds more Broadway shows than any other city on the Broadway market, Buffman said. “We’re building Broadway shows at half the price as my colleagues in New York.”
The RiverPark Center has also added Winter Wonderland, the International Mystery Writers’ Festival and increased activity in the Young Adult Theatre Academy.
The success of Winter Wonderland has brought the RiverPark to extend its duration for the 2008 – 2009 season, staying open through the first few weeks of January.
“We’re raising the stock of Owensboro by doing extraordinary projects like Winter Wonderland,” Buffman said.
The International Mystery Writers’ Festival brought in several thousand tourists from all over the country and Canada. Of the Mystery Festival attendants, Buffman said, 50 percent were from cities outside the Kentucky region that never would have come to Owensboro.
The Young Adult Theatre Academy has grown over the past four years and will continue to grow in great strides, including a new four-story classroom/studio complex on the RiverPark’s campus that will offer hands-on experience and college classes to theatre and broadcasting students at local colleges.
For the next four years, and hopefully more, Buffman said, the RiverPark Center will continue to grow, cultivating more festivals and programs, further developing downtown’s attractions and the Owensboro economy.
Buffman said that when word spread in 2003 that he took a position in Owensboro, Ky., many of his colleagues and acquaintances called to ask why he moved to such a small town.
Buffman replied, “Just wait. You’ll hear all about us.”
Kevin Schwartz uses success to serve community and create opportunity
By Matt Weafer
Greater Owensboro Business Magazine
As a track star at Apollo High School in the early 90s, Kevin Schwartz learned the importance of endurance. Then after graduation, he saw the importance in supporting one’s community and country as he served in the Air Force.
After moving back to Owensboro, Schwartz applied those values to his new business, Schwartz CPA Group, which led him to a tie with Zev Buffman, CEO of the RiverPark Center, for the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year.
“Kevin Schwartz took a chance by leaving a nice position with a large company to start his own firm because of his entrepreneurial spirit,” Jody Wassmer, president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce said. “He should be an inspiration to others who dream to grow their own business.”
Schwartz left Pricewater House Coopers in St. Louis, Miss., and returned to Owensboro with no clients; a small office; a computer loaded with software; and a fear that despite his newspaper ad, his phone would never ring.
“Fear is a great motivator,” he said. “It really gave me a feel for what it means to be a small business.”
For the next six months, Schwartz devoted his time to learn software and meet people, developing a client base and deepening his knowledge about small businesses, both through experience and education.
“I understand where (small business owners) are coming from because I’ve been there,” he said.
Establishing that foundation required the tenacity and endurance he trained for with his track team at Apollo.
“As a long distance runner that consistency becomes a part of your being,” he said.
With a cot in his office in the Midtown building, Schwartz worked for days as his only employee. But slowly his client base grew as did his personnel.
Now Schwartz has moved his office to a larger complex with rooms for his many employees to 1735 Frederica St.
“We are probably one of the faster growing firms in Kentucky,” Schwartz said. Clients span as far north as Indianapolis and Detroit and as far south as Texas and Florida, he said, representing more than 500 corporate and independent clients.
In just a few years, Schwartz grew his infant practice into a successful firm with a knack for giving back to the community.
At Schwartz CPA Group, Schwartz requires every employee to donate 20 hours of work back to the community a year. Schwartz pays his employees for that time, too.
Some employees join organizations or work on boards or with CASA. “I do not tell them what to do as long as the put in 20 hours,” he said.
Schwartz takes part in the community service as well, serving on many boards in the community, donating time when possible. He also oversees that the office recycles.
“I’ll take the cans and soda bottles to the recycling center,” he said. “In leadership, it’s important to serve. Small businesses really do put a lot back into the community.”
Though success seems to be sitting at Schwartz’s door step, he is still moving forward to create opportunity, give back to the community and further his role as a leader in his field.
“I’m by no means where I want to be,” Schwartz said. “I’m not resting on my laurels yet. I want to build an organization that provides opportunity.”
Schwartz said he prefers to hire graduates out of school and train them, mentor them to function on a team.
“It’s not about financial rewards as it is to provide opportunity to help people improve on themselves. Then I feel like I’m being successful. To me that’s more than a big paycheck.”
Reprinted with permission from the Messenger-Inquirer