Mary Tribble will soon toast the silver anniversary of Tribble Creative Group. The day she launched her event production business is crystallized in the image of a “shy, 24-year-old sitting on her bed with a rolodex, cold-calling Charlotte businesses in a trembling voice.”
By her own admission, she was “young and naive.” Her father, an attorney, put it more bluntly: “He thought I was nuts. He didn’t know an industry even existed,” she says. And back in 1985, one hardly did.
Today, Tribble Creative Group is one of the most respected names in the event planning industry. The former art history major from Wake Forest University with the entrepreneurial streak has proven herself a major player in the corporate event arena; Mary Tribble has also become one of Charlotte’s most energetic, well-connected, and fearlessly idealistic leaders.
She has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Kiplinger’s Financial and Southern Living magazine; recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year and Charlotte Business Woman of the Year; received the Women in Business award and voted into the “40 under 40” by the Charlotte Business Journal; named a finalist for National Event Planner of the Year by Event Solutions Magazine; and received the Hall of Fame Award presented by the International Special Events Society.
Growing a Business
Mary Tribble choreographed her first black-tie gala in 1985, while working as an account executive for an ad agency. The glamour and the applause inspired her to create her own event production firm. She remembers, “I figured the worst that could happen is that I would fail and have to get a real job.”
Over the past couple of decades, Tribble and her staff have built a show-stopping repertoire of events. A small sampling includes a breathtaking transformation of an ancient barn into a breathtaking candlelit dinner with performance by Wynonna Judd; a four-event grand opening for Levine Children’s Hospital complete with black-tie gala, a live elephant, circus performers and Dionne Warwick; and a fundraiser for the Johnson C. Smith University Band that included a 43-mile march to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
While Tribble has figured out how to create a mind-blowing experience, she will be the first to say that in her business, learning never stops. “If you are any good at this, everything you do must have its own uniqueness. By definition, it’s not replicable. So every time we go to meet with a client, there is new energy, and a new creation.”
When asked to relate memorable stories about events they’ve produced, Tribble points out that the more memorable ones usually require a sense of humor to remember them fondly—either from their perspective, the clients’, or both.
“I can look back at the topping out ceremony for the (then) NationsBank Corporate Center where we had constructed a huge replica of the building carved out of ice, with neon imbedded in the facsimile of the crown. At the appointed time, Hugh McColl Jr. pulled a fake lever, and supposedly the room would go dark, a laser show would begin and the ice-building would light up. A very, very long 45 seconds later the lights went off, the lasers came on, the ice lit and my heart started functioning again.”
“I can also laugh about the time an elderly South Carolina politician all but chased me around the table at the Governor’s mansion while I ran an event; when I had to visit the Johnson C. Smith University band director in the hospital after we attempted to break that Guinness Book record; when a mime got drunk and passed out under the hors d’oeuvre table at the grand opening of Spirit Square; when a caterer unplugged the sound system during Chuck Grace’s remarks as the outgoing chairman of the Chamber of Commerce; when the sound guy plugged in the confetti cannons at the wrong moment during the grand opening of the Charlotte Apparel Center; when the goat ate through the drywall at the grand opening of the Jack Wood men’s store; when the baby ducks escaped into the parking lot at a broker party in Raleigh; and when the clients forgot to send the invitations to their party and no one showed up.
“Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian-era essayist, wrote, ‘No man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether irreclaimably bad.’ I try to keep that in mind when we’re faced with a challenge in the heat of the moment. We can’t control what goes on around us, and face it—special events are about the most uncontrollable things one can attempt. But we can temper our reaction to it,” Tribble nods wisely.
“None of the happenings were funny at the time. They were mistakes or miscalculations that had to be dealt with, atoned for, or fixed—usually on the spot with no time to see the potential humor in them. That is where one’s mettle is put to the test—the test of running an event successfully,” she says confidently.
A newspaper clipping in Tribble’s office tells the story of a group of children who produced a play, and promptly marched $4.23 in admission receipts to the local hospital—in a Dixie cup. The face on the page has a familiar smile.
Says Tribble, “I suspect that what inspired that little fundraiser still drives me today. In fact, in most small, closely held companies, you simply cannot disentangle the thoughts, feelings, and values of the owner from the business itself.”
This could explain why the majority of Tribble’s business associates grow into close personal friends, and why her personal evolution dramatically influences the course of her company and the society it serves.
A Watershed Moment
Growing her business was no easy task for the creative Tribble. After about 15 years in the business, she “hit the wall.” Although company revenues swelled in the then-vibrant corporate event arena, she struggled with its footing in the areas of operations, budgeting and people management. It caused her to do something remarkable: walk across the desert.
Surprisingly, it was this silent spiritual trek across the Sahara desert with a group called Cross Cultural Journeys, which yielded insights into what brought meaning and fulfillment to her personally.
Her enlightenment was reinforced by her reading at the time of E-Myth by Michael Gerber, when she realized that she was also at a professional crossroads.
“I realized that I had to choose between working on the creative events in my business, or find satisfaction by creating the business itself,” says Tribble. “I woke up one day and said, ‘Maybe there’s somebody out there who likes to do the stuff I suck at.’”
Tribble says that her decision to place her personal focus on creating the business brought immediate clarity about the direction of the company.
It was a few months later that she took on Linda Libby as her second-in-command. Although Libby has since retired from the firm, Tribble is quick to credit her, “Together, we created the vision we have today: to create experiences that inspire people toward positive change.”
Shortly after what Tribble calls this ‘intentional shift’ in the business, new opportunities appeared. She partnered with Chris Williams of the Carolina Business Review to produce the 2003 Forum for Corporate Conscience, enrolling Hugh McColl to convene 150 CEOs, thought-leaders and activists for an extended conversation about corporate leadership. Well-ahead of its time, the event included topics like governance, environment, social responsibility, justice, ethics and family, with such distinguished speakers as Warren Buffet, Marian Wright Edelman and Tom Wolfe.
Recalls Tribble, “The forum was a milestone in every sense of the word. It redefined our company’s work and proved we could produce our own events. It also de-compartmentalized the values, meaning and purpose between my personal life and my life as a business owner. And, it reframed my contribution from event planning to thought leadership and increased my access to community and business leaders.”
The momentum from the Forum for Corporate Conscience provided the inspiration and energy to create a new event called the North Carolina Conference for Women, which originated in conversations with friend Shannon McFayden, at the time head of human resources and corporate relations at Wachovia.
“Shannon’s leadership at Wachovia was always feminine and compassionate, yet strong—and as we talked we could see that connecting women with the ability to access that in themselves would make a huge difference,” remarks Tribble
The two worked tirelessly to coordinate the first conference in 2006, assembled a board of advisors (now a distinguished list of 47 key figures in women’s leadership, filled the event with celebrity and expert speakers, and funded it though corporate sponsorships and registration fees.
McFayden says the ride has been nothing but energizing. “Lots of people wish they could change things for the better, but few stop at nothing to create a solution. Mary finds a solution and then keeps thinking about how to make things even better.”
Board member and president of Southern Shows, Joan Zimmerman says, “Mary is a unique combination of an old-fashioned caring friend and new-age entrepreneur. In everything she does, she has a wonderful ability to really hear what is being said, and to sift through conversations to mine nuggets of meaning.”
The 2007 conference also yielded another big win: a new initiative called Girls Rock the House, a program designed to educate and empower 8th grade girls to pursue political careers by learning how politics work, developing natural leadership, and learning skills including how to write a bill; as Tribble says, “harnessing the ability to create change at an early age.”
Economy Seeds Opportunity
These large, signature projects are sustaining Tribble Creative through this tight spot in the economy. Tribble has already reduced her staff significantly—she says corners have been cut “from travel, to employee development, to paperclips.”
The recession has tightened purse strings around corporate incentives and awards ceremonies. “Many companies cancelled events that they had already paid for, just to avoid the public lambasting that occurred after TARP funds were distributed. Suddenly all corporate events were being lumped into the same category as a corporate jet,” she says.
She points out that the political vitriol and cutbacks have a considerable impact upon morale, company culture, and productivity when an organization suddenly stops recognizing the work of its employees. She is encouraged that some lawmakers have come to realize that they can be more responsible about how they language the issue.
She is also confident in Charlotte leadership. “It is only a matter of time until someone leads the way by reintroducing corporate incentive events. When they do, everyone will add them—because these events create a competitive advantage.”
In the meantime, the economic climate is provoking companies to find new ways of spending to attract business, and Tribble Creative Group is well-equipped to facilitate these objectives. In many cases, the company’s experience creating brand awareness alongside positive social change is just what the doctor ordered.
Mary Tribble is also personally sought-after for her unique insight and ability to connect it with meaningful action and effective relationship-building. “New ideas when shared set off a chain reaction—the world changes, person by person,” says Tribble.
She should know. Tribble was an early adopter of sustainable practices in the hospitality industry and she got others on board quickly. Says CRVA President Tim Newman, “Mary’s strong professional reputation is well-earned, but her personal commitment to sustainability is equally outstanding. She asked me to help form the Charlotte Green Team in 2007 to reduce, reuse and recycle in the meetings industry and we have received both local and national recognition for this effort.”
Comments Chamber President Bob Morgan, “Mary brings a passion for creative leadership to anything she takes on. We have been especially fortunate at the Chamber to have her lead and shape our efforts. She moves us from just talking about diversity to making it a core value that is a part of everything we do.”
One would think with this vision, success and connectedness, Mary Tribble is a business mastermind. She says this couldn’t be further from the truth. She credits a carefully chosen network of talent, beginning with her employees—to managing the operational picture and executing the important details.
Tribble is clear that her gifts lie in creating purpose and connecting people with a vision of positive change. But another thing is just as clear. Whether her company is creating a celebration, event, or a bigger, brighter future—for Tribble, the party is just getting started.