"Be careful not to confuse motion and progress", is a quote that Charles "Chuck" Pesano, the current Executive Director of the Florida State Fair Authority, uses quite often. As the head of the Florida State Fair, Pesano has righted the bottom line on a fair that had a net loss of 9 million dollars before being hired in October 2004 by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson. Eight years later, the fair is operating in the black with a record 4 million dollars in net revenue.
Located on 330 acres in Tampa, the Florida State Fair is ranked in the MCW Top 50 Fairs in North America. The 2013 edition of the Florida State Fair took place February 7 - 18 and celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce De Leon in Florida. It was the 109th annual edition of the event. The unaudited attendance number from the 2013 Fair was 443,000. The number was a bit short of the 480,000 reported in 2011 but a slight increase over the 2012 fair. Pesano said "Agriculture is still a very strong part of the State Fair. We have the largest agricultural fair in Florida with 6,000 or more animals being shown during the event.
The Florida State Fair features an independent midway managed by the fair. Competition is fierce among the independent ride, food and game operators for highest grosses and most efficient operations. During the 2013 fair, the following lists were compiled to highlight the top grossing rides and food at the Fair.
The fair had a total of 112 rides from 14 different owners.
The top ten rides were:
1. Sky Glider (Sky Fair Inc.)
2. Giant Slide (Florida State Fair)
3. Hit N 2000 (Wade Shows)
4. Giant Gondola Wheel (Wade Shows)
5. Super Himalaya (Reithoffer Shows)
6. Stinger (Reithoffer Shows)
7. RC48 Coaster (Wade Shows)
8. Magnum (Michael Woods)
9. Vertical Swing (Reithoffer Shows)
10. Himalaya (Dreamland Amusement)
CLICK HERE to download a complete list.
New rides for 2013 were The Big Bamboo and The Fun Factory from McDonagh's Sky Attractions and the Air Race from Kyle Brady.
The top foods this year were:
1. Fried Lobster, Redneck Burger
2. Red Velvet Funnel cakes
3. Sirloin Tips
5. Amish Donuts and Pretzels
6. Gator Bites
Grounds improvements included new paving in the parking lots, new restrooms in the Expo Hall and a new electrical infrastructure on the midway and throughout the grounds.
Having lived in Tampa as a kid, Pesano said that a lot of things have changed with the Florida State Fair and the industry as a whole. He had never considered the position of CEO of the Florida State Fair, since his background is predominately in finance. He lived in Tampa through his teens and remembered going to the fair to see the Joey Chitwood Thrill Show and riding all the attractions on the midway. "Fairs today provide much more value for your entertainment dollar. Over the last 40 years, fairs are offering a wider diversity of things like more free shows, producing much friendlier fairs and the entertainment is more robust. Advertising is now more of a necessity; 40 years ago there was no competition for the leisure dollar. The Fair was the only thing to do in February. You now have to compete with many other quality events. We grew up in an era of one wage earner families and when the kids came home from school, mom would bring them to the fair. There wasn't soccer, cheerleading and baseball to compete with the Fair."
Mr. Pesano has an entrepreneurial mind-set, thanking his dad for teaching him so much about life. What is his management style? Pesano says "I want my team to have vision and take responsibility. I don't want to micro manage but my team leaders need to have my trust. They have to confirm that on a regular basis through the quality of their work." He describes himself as a "Type A" personality and says "nobody is going to work harder or smarter than me". He then adds "I know that may not be true, but I will work my hardest every day to achieve that goal". That is why when asked about what he is proudest of in his career he says "That where ever I've gone or worked, I know I've left it better than when I started".
In talking about the dramatic financial turnaround, Pesano said that he was more than prepared for the position as he had just come from Milwaukee where he had helped raise money and structure a capital plan that required 175 million dollars to build a new convention center. He was able to assist as a new Wisconsin Center District was formed and funded by bed tax dollars, seeing the new Convention Center through Phases I and II. At the Florida State Fair, he had to change the prevailing culture on the fairgrounds. He is at work by 7-7:30AM and noticed staff coming in late starting about March after the fair was wrapped up. He also noticed they were leaving by 4pm or so and asked his comptroller about the behavior. He was told that this happened every year after the fair. It was referred to as non-fair office hours. He then wanted to know if they still got paid as if they were working normal business hours. He also noticed how the facility and event side of the fairgrounds was not as heavily worked on as the annual fair. After evaluating these pieces he went to work with his staff to get them to think in terms of the fairgrounds' total profitability. He did have to make some personnel changes but eventually got the facility moving in the right direction. He knew he had to enhance revenue, and work on decreasing expenses.
Pesano said "I built my own houses (2), rebuilt motors on my boats and those things change your perspective and give you a better understanding of how to come up with solutions to challenges and that help in building success."
Pesano also said that the fair is working on their very first self-promoted event; "Rockin' The Midway at the Funshine Music Festival" May 3-5 at the Florida State Fairgrounds. This inaugural music festival features bands like Styx, Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Train, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Good Old War, The Wallflowers and many more all on 6 stages. "There is one more group coming that I am not at liberty to divulge right now because of contractual restrictions but they are bigger than anyone else on the agenda", added Pesano. Wade Shows will provide carnival rides and the midway experience for festival guests. The Tampa Bay Times is the presenting sponsor of Rockin' the Midway at the Funshine Music Festival. The fair is partnered with Live Nation on the show.
Pesano says that he learned about doing successful music festivals while in Milwaukee from the people at "Summer Fest". Pesano said "Diversified music is the answer along with a management team that understands festivals". They must be creative, control expenses, have vision and understand that marketing is extremely important for the event to succeed.
Pesano said the Florida State Fair does not receive financial assistance from the State of Florida so it must support itself from operations. This is the main reason they are moving into producing their own shows.
On the personal side of his life, Pesano is most proud, "to be able to be there to support and be involved with my family as well as be part of their success". He has been married to his wife, Phala, since 1973. They have a daughter, Jessica, who is 30 years old, and is a partner and designer in her own local swimwear company called JesAla Couture Swimwear. In his leisure time you can find him either golfing or helping his wife and daughter manage JesAla.
"My wife, daughter and niece have just recently launched 7th Ave. Apothecary, a hand poured food grade soy candle, winning the award as best new product at the Tampa Jr. League Gift sale in December after selling $12,000 worth of candles. These candles feature 17 different scents and everything in them is American made. They are growing rapidly", the proud father said.
Looking at his tenure at the fair, Pesano is proud of the turnaround at the fair and the changes he has made to bring the fair to profitability. "You can't keep doing the same thing everyday and expect different results", he concluded.
CLICK HERE TO VIEW PHOTOS FROM THE 2013 FLORIDA STATE FAIR