Peter Luukko's $90,000 mistake

How big a mistake do you think your boss would tolerate before he sent you packing? Even though Peter Luukko cost his company $90,000, his boss, Ed Snider, kept him on. Here's the story, fresh from my Leadership Agenda interview. The moral of it comes at the end.

"In the early 1990s, we created a rib festival out in our parking lot and we got rib joints from all over the country to come into our parking lot to serve ribs," Luukko told me as we sat in his office in the Wells Fargo Center. Luukko is president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor, a company that manages arenas, stadiums, convention centers and performing arts venues.

Peter A. Luukko

"Our marketing people did a great job promoting it. We had bands. It was really fun and then the week hits and it is record heat. If it is 100 degrees out, it’s 140 degrees in the parking lot, so our attendance is OK, but we lose $30,000," he said.

The next morning, "Ed Snider comes into my office and says, `That rib festival is outstanding. I love  it. I know you lost a little money, but it was really great. Very creative. Very entrepreneurial.'"

So the next year, Luukko tries it again. Even better marketing, even more bands, even better promotions. "Then there are tornado warnings. It never rains here, but there are warnings the whole week, so nobody wants to go out and we lose $60,000,"  Luukko said. If you are keeping track, that's the $90,000.

Next morning, Ed Snider walks into Luukko's office. "He said, `You guys are doing great. Put your head up, don’t worry about it.'

"I said, `Ed, if you are going to fire me, fire me quickly please. Don’t do it so slow. I’m bleeding.'"

Luukko said that they realized that no one wants to eat ribs in the summer in a parking lot. They'd rather be at the shore, so they shelve the whole idea until one golden spring a few years later. Both the Flyers and the Sixers were in the playoffs and the Phillies' season was opening. They decided to hold a block party in the parking lot, in part to ease the traffic in the area. Same idea, bands, ribs, other activities. The Sixers were playing the Pacers, and they even brought in a Pacer junker car and let people take a hammer to it for charity. 

"It’s an overwhelming success," he said. "The first year, the block party did half a million bucks, and over the next decade, we literally made millions of dollars on the block party."

Luukko said the lesson is that despite losses you have to get up the next day.

I said that I thought the key to the story was Ed Snider. Why was he so willing to take a loss?

Luukko said it showed him why Ed Snider has been so successful as an entrepreneur. It turned out that Luukko learned later that Snider thought that "maybe I’d be afraid to do things and afraid to be creative. He wanted me to know that it was more important that I be creative than losing some money. He was appreciative of the work all the people had put in to creating a nice new concept and maybe it just didn’t work."

Here's the moral of the story, courtesy of Luukko: "As an organization, we have to provide a creative supportive workplace where people can try new things and not feel like a mistake is fatal, fatal to their career."