The Louisiana Superdome in 1978, soon after Skinner arrived to run it. (Getty Images)

Friends and associates remember the man who helped create private facility management

Denzil Skinner is remembered as a pioneer in facility management. Skinner, who died April 4 at age 91, was instrumental in launching Facility Management Group, which introduced a new business model for privately operating arenas, stadiums and convention centers.

The model stands strong today. Skinner’s influence can be seen through facility management firms SMG, AEG Facilities, Spectra, VenuWorks and OVG Facilities, plus all the major league teams that run venues through their respective sports and entertainment subsidiaries. 

Two years ago, SMG sold for $1 billion to a private equity firm. Most recently, SMG merged with AEG Facilities, pending regulatory approval. Together, they manage 300 public assembly venues. Much of it dates to FMG.

Denzil Skinner.

“When you think about all the companies that have taken off from there, it was all based on Denzil’s vision,” said sports consultant Tony Tavares, who worked with Skinner in FMG’s early days at Nassau Coliseum.

“Denzil was an innovator,” said Frank Russo, an executive vice president with Spectra. “I look at him like I look at Bill Rasmussen, former PR guy with the Hartford Whalers. He invented ESPN. Denzil was one of those guys.”

Skinner grew up in Normantown, W.Va., during the Great Depression and graduated from high school at 16. He joined the Army, serving in the Pacific and supporting occupation forces in Japan. After leaving the military, he became a teacher in the same one-room schoolhouse where he had been a student, then joined the Boy Scouts of America as a field director. 

In 1960, Skinner left the Boy Scouts to become assistant manager of the old Charleston (W.Va.) Civic Center. Six months later, he took over as general manager after his boss died, said David Skinner, Denzil’s son and GM of the Smart Financial Centre at Sugar Land in Texas. 

Denzil Skinner went on to run the Norfolk (Va.) Scope and the old Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Back in the 1970s, both arenas had tenants from the freewheeling American Basketball Association, the Virginia Squires and Indiana Pacers, which helped fuel Skinner’s love of basketball, his son said.

In 1977, Denzil Skinner took over operation of the Louisiana Superdome, now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in a critical move that would change the course of his career and the industry in general. At the time, the new home of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints was losing millions of dollars a year and engulfed in allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

“The first year, the city ran it and they lost a ton of money,” David Skinner said. “The state said, ‘We’ll take it over because we can do better.’ They operated the second year and they did do better — they lost even more money.”

The Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, the Superdome’s owner, turned to the private sector for help, specifically Chicago’s Pritzker family, which owned Hyatt Corp. and ran a hotel next to the dome. A.N. Pritzker, the patriarch, had met Denzil Skinner, and he reached out to him about running the dome. Skinner initially turned him down, recognizing the venue’s poor reputation.

“When the Superdome opened in 1975, it was regarded in our industry as a big mistake,” David Skinner said. “It was too big, overbuilt and was never going to be successful. The first two managers that went there were gobbled up and spit out and were never heard from again.”  

But as father told son, everybody has their asking price. Denzil eventually accepted the position before persuading David, who had followed his footsteps in the business, to become his assistant manager in New Orleans. 

They were part of a new entity, Hyatt Management Corp., which later became FMG. Together, they rolled up their sleeves to clean up the Superdome’s mess. They started a new marketing campaign to repair the dome’s tattered image and eliminated shady subcontractors, taking those services such as janitorial and field conversion in-house.

Most important, Denzil gained the confidence of Gov. Edwin Edwards, which in turn enabled Skinner to do what it took to push the Superdome in a positive direction, said Cliff Wallace, a veteran of 57 years in facility management and the dome’s GM from 1981 to ’86.

“Denzil had the ability to play a role depending on the person he was dealing with,” Wallace said. “If it was a politician, a staff member or a crook, and he had to deal with some in New Orleans, he could play that role and it was pretty amazing. He was a thespian; he could play any part in any movie.”

The Rolling Stones concert July 13, 1978, at the Superdome was a turning point. Skinner wanted to prove to the local community that big shows would work at the stadium and he got Pritzker to spend $250,000 upfront to secure the date and fill the role of co-promoter.

In New Orleans, though, people knew the dome was “so damn big” that they could wait to buy tickets at the door, David Skinner said. The break-even point was $400,000, which was a lot of money back then, he said, and the daily box office reports Pritzker received didn’t look too promising until three days before the event.

In the end, the show turned out to be a moneymaker for the Superdome. The Stones grossed more than $1 million on attendance of 80,173, which at the time was the largest figure for an indoor concert in the U.S., David Skinner said.

“Typical of the dome’s crowds, they waited until the last minute to buy, but they did buy,” he said. “We made about $250,000, and the day after the show, A.N. calls up and says, ‘Can these guys play again next week?’” 

As the Superdome turned the corner financially, other municipalities took notice and contacted Denzil Skinner, asking if he could take over their money-losing venues, starting with Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., FMG’s first account outside of New Orleans. Skinner and Pritzker made the decision to expand FMG and opened a corporate office in suburban Washington, D.C. Over time, FMG took over management of facilities in New York, Miami, St. Louis, Baltimore and San Francisco, among other cities.

Internationally, FMG signed consulting agreements in Hong Kong; Sydney; Auckland, New Zealand; London; and Oslo, Norway.

“Our phone was constantly ringing, but we made a decision early on that we were going to focus on major markets,” David Skinner said. “We put a threshold that if we couldn’t make at least $250,000 (a year) we weren’t going to look at it. Unlike contracts that are fee-based with incentives, ours were entirely incentive-based. If we lost money, it came out of our pocket.”

The Pritzkers sold FMG to Spectacor Management Group in the early 1990s, which was owned by Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. By that time, Denzil Skinner had retired. He remained active as a consultant and mentored hundreds as a board member of the International Association of Auditorium Managers, now IAVM.

Looking back, David Skinner said he probably quit about 50 times before going back to work for his father the next day. Sometimes that’s just how it goes with family business, he said.

“We may have had our disagreements on the philosophy of operating venues, but that’s 18 years of my life that I treasure the most,” Skinner said.