I had never met Summerfest president and CEO Don Smiley before but he wanted to grab breakfast with me.
Seeing how Smiley has been in the news lately, naturally I agreed.
Smiley is the man behind Summerfest, Milwaukee's wildly successful summer music festival and a local gem that is always being polished. Smiley, a dynamic executive with some impressive credits on his resume including a World Series ring and numerous jobs managing big-time sporting events, came to Milwaukee nine years ago with the charge of making Summerfest even better.
By most accounts, due to much-needed improvements and renovations on the fair ground, he's been doing a great job. Most years, Summerfest remains an enjoyable experience for customers, depending on the weather. The festival once in danger of becoming too big for its own good has adjusted to create better pedestrian traffic and improve sight lines to various stages.
Much of that was due to Smiley's leadership.
But details of his salary were reported recently, along with the information that his $772,575 pay was a significance jump in pay over the past six years.
Over breakfast at an East Side diner, Smiley - a Racine native - told me he was "amazed" the news about his salary was considered front page news and above the fold in print.
Frankly, he said, the speculation over his salary was media-driven and that his compensation had been decided by the board of directors of Milwaukee World Festivals, Inc. after a compensation study of similar positions nationwide found Smiley deserving of a pay raise.
This was Smiley's official statement in regards to his salary:
"Milwaukee World Festivals, Inc. made a compensation offer to me based on goals, objectives and certain performance criteria. I accepted the offer.
"Our body of work which involves the financial results, major infrastructure improvements and the overall health and welfare of Summerfest, all speak for themselves.
"Summerfest is in the best shape it has ever been. We’re very proud of our accomplishments over the last 8 1/2 years."
During our breakfast, Smiley seemed more upset that calls for more transparency about his salary in the wake of a Journal Sentinel article cast unfair aspersions on the board members who made the deal. He also pointed out that his salary isn't paid by taxpayers and he isn't an elected official.
Smiley said he hadn't commented on the newspaper story because he felt uncomfortable talking about his salary. Instead, he preferred to extol the success of Summerfest in recent years, including his role in getting repairs done to entertainment stages in dire need and making sure the festival continued to grow without getting too big for fair-goers to enjoy the experience.
He also addressed problems with some of the ethnic festivals that have either closed down completely or drastically cut back schedules on his watch. He reminded me that ethnic festivals essentially run their own productions while leasing the fairgrounds from Summerfest.
Asian Moon Festival failed in recent years due to financial troubles and African World Festival cut back to a single day after not being held one year.
As CEO, Smiley said he was determined to continue to lend support to African World Festival because he felt it was important for it to continue. But without his help in taking on some of the massive debt, AWF probably would have been out of business for good by now.
During our breakfast, Smiley talked about a variety of subjects, including his colorful background in sports and business that has had him rubbing shoulders with celebrity athletes and visionary business leaders like Wayne Huizenga, who hired Smiley to help start of the Blockbuster Video chain, a job that eventually led to Smiley playing a key role in securing the Florida Marlins in Major League Baseball.
He has a World Series ring to show for that one but these days, Smiley is more invested in running Summerfest than any sports team. He's well paid but also pretty well qualified for the job.
And, yes, he paid for our breakfast, too.
Eugene Kane is veteran Milwaukee journalist and nationally award winning columnist.
Kane writes about a variety of important issues in Milwaukee and society that impact residents of all backgrounds.