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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Paul Guenther

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-08

Paul Guenther has done the rounds.

He has been a securities analyst. He has been a banker. He has worked in retail. He has led a brokerage firm. He has been on the boards of not-for-profit institutions. He has tended a farm in the Catskills.

And for the last decade, Mr. Guenther has been chairman of the New York Philharmonic.

"It's been a long journey that went very quickly," he said the other day. "My father always said, 'Do what you want to do - but do it well. I've had the chance of doing what I loved in the world's greatest and most generous city."

Mr. Guenther is expected to step down as the Philharmonic's chairman when a successor is found, possibly in September. He will, however, continue as a member of the board, which he joined in 1992.

"I feel very strongly that every institution needs change, and 10 years has a nice symmetry about it," Mr. Guenther said. "It's a good time for someone else to be the boss."

Being the "boss" at the Philharmonic means many things - savant, counselor, emollient, ambassador - but perhaps most of all it means being a raiser of funds. It is widely acknowledged that Mr. Guenther has done exceptionally well as boss.

For example, the Philharmonic's annual fund rose to $19 million last year from $8 million in 1996, when Mr. Guenther became chairman. The operating budget this year is $55 million, up by $15 million in the same period.

These figures are particularly noteworthy because the Philharmonic's fundraising is undertaken in the context of Lincoln Center's 11 independent constituencies, including the Metropolitan Opera. In effect, that means there's considerable competition among them for funds, often from the same donors. Moreover, board membership is fungible - which means that, say, a board member of the Philharmonic could also serve in a similar capacity with the umbrella entity, Lincoln Center itself.

"Lincoln Center is the greatest arts venue in the world - so some of the competition for money goes with the territory," Mr. Guenther said. "But the constant clamor for more money can be frustrating. It never seems to end."

He said that with a smile, one that suggested he took the job knowing full well what its demands would be - and also knowing full well that in asking him to be its chairman, the Philharmonic was tapping into Mr. Guenther's formidable record on Wall Street.

Among other things, he had served as president of one of Wall Street's hallowed firms, Paine Webber. (The 126-year-old Paine Webber is now part of UBS AG, a Zurich-based financial conglomerate.) Mr. Guenther had also worked with the erstwhile Manufacturers Hanover Trust.

In these jobs, he developed a broad network of contacts not only in the financial community but also ranging across New York's social spectrum. These contacts were to prove useful when Mr. Guenther joined the Philharmonic's board, four years before he became chairman.

"Why did I leave Wall Street? I'd had a pretty good run. I've always tried to do what made me happy - I do where 'happy' is," Mr. Guenther said. "So what if others had made more money? My parents gave me a strong sense of giving back."

His father, Bernard, was a successful architect, and a dedicated pianist and trumpet player.

"He also sang beautifully," Mr. Guenther said of his father.

His mother, Elsie, was an elementary school teacher.

"She was beloved by her students," Mr. Guenther said. "I still run into people who'd been her students."

While he quite possibly inherited his mother's skill with people, Mr. Guenther said that, alas, his father's talents did not seem to have made the journey to him.

"None of his musical talents were visited upon his son," Mr. Guenther said. "But that did not stop me from taking out a subscription to the Philharmonic."

Well before he signed up for that subscription, Mr. Guenther attended Fordham University, where he majored in economics. He then obtained an MBA from Columbia University. He also took piano lessons for three years.

And he married Diane Erceg in 1965; she was a neighbor of one of his friends. (The Guenthers have three children - Matthew, Elizabeth and Christopher.)

And then it was off to Wall Street.

"I found that one of my strengths was knowing what I do well and what I don't," Mr. Guenther said.

Although there were a few uncertain moments, there was mostly no doubt in his mind what needed to be done at the Philharmonic - and that he was capable of getting those things done.

"I learned from my parents that if you don't have a lot of money to give, then you should give your time," Mr. Guenther said.

"When I came to the Philharmonic, I found that, of course, its artistic record was very good," he said. "But organizationally there were some issues. But it was very exciting to work with people who were at the top of their game at an institution that was so much a part of the city's life."

The Philharmonic, which was founded in 1842, is the oldest symphony orchestra in America - and as old as the Vienna Philharmonic. Only the orchestras in Leipzig and Dresden are older. (Mr. Guenther points out that, with 14,270 performances to date, the New York Philharmonic has played far more than any other orchestra in the world.)

While acknowledging that subscriptions at the Philharmonic - as with many other orchestras - had been in decline in recent years, Mr. Guenther said that attendance at its 2,738-seat Avery Fisher Hall has been on the rise over the last three years. The hall is now regularly filled 82% of capacity, he said.

"We've also stepped up our sales over the Internet - 40% of our sales now come from the Internet," Mr. Guenther said. The total sales for 2005, including those on the Internet, were $25 million.

"If I've brought anything significant to the Philharmonic, it's that the institution is run like a business," Mr. Guenther said. "The management of the institution is very professional - there's a superb administrative and artistic team, and my successor will see how much camaraderie there is at the Philharmonic."

Mr. Guenther is on the committee that will select his successor.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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