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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the May 8, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Software To the Stage
Taking over a company as the turnaround guy is never
easy. But imagine that you have been there only two weeks when the
board fires the man who hired you, precipitating a vicious legal
that attracts international attention. That’s what happened to
Preston, a Princeton-based consultant to high tech entrepreneurs.
The fact that his client was the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary
Dance, and that he had absolutely no dance background — this did
not faze Preston. "Dancers are similar to technical entrepreneurs
in that they are both artists, and the creative dominance in their
personality might run roughshod over finance and marketing," says
Preston. "They can make use of people like myself."
Frankly, the intrigue of getting involved attracted me. I’ve done
Two years ago the Graham company and school had closed down to avoid
bankruptcy, but on Thursday, May 9, Preston will preside at a concert
at Manhattan City Center featuring the work of America’s most famous
modern dance pioneer. "We’re doing it to keep the dancers dancing
and to show the world that the dances are still alive," he says.
For tickets at $25, $50, or $75, call 212-581-1212.
Preston’s software career began at the University of Michigan, Class
of 1966, followed by R&D positions with IBM in Yorktown Heights, Ford
Motor Company, and Exxon Enterprises. After earning his MBA at Wharton
in 1981 he began consulting to high-tech entrepreneurs and
takes temporary full-time positions. From 1987 to 1994, for instance,
he was chairman and CEO of Scott Instruments, a Texas-based speech
recognition software firm. His firm, Newmarkets Inc., is located in
a studio behind his house in the heart of Princeton.
So how did he get this unlikely dance administration job? One of his
avocations is music, and he served on the board of Young Audiences.
Another board member, a headhunter who was trying to fill the Graham
center’s executive director position, asked Preston to help her fill
out the roster of candidates. As a favor, he went to the interview
and ended up getting hired by the controversial Ron Protas, who had
gained Martha Graham’s favor in her waning years and attained
the title of artistic director. After Graham died, the company
struggled, and her prized building had to be sold.
But because Graham had to cede ownership to many parts of that legacy
in order to create a nonprofit organization, the board was able to
take control. "Two weeks after I got there, the board fired
says Preston. Protas filed suit. To the joy and relief of the dance
world, the court said that, even though Protas is Graham’s heir, he
did not own her technique. The second court decision — over the
ownership of the dances, costumes, and sets — is imminent.
Referred to as "the foxy executive director" by one New York
reporter, Preston restructured the administration and finances of
the organization. "I got the board to put up over $1 million
to make the organization solvent. I got the state to put up nearly
$1 million to help us build new studios. I have raised well over $1
million to keep our operation going since January, 2001, and the
is in full operation with about 500 students." The May 9 concert
was scheduled to show that the legacy is alive and well. "The
assets are disappearing the longer we wait," he says. "As
dance aficionados know, the dances will die unless they are used."
Preston’s niche is to take high tech companies (preferably software
based) from the start-up stage to the point where funds from venture
capitalists kick in. Like an investment banker on a small scale, he
helps investors and entrepreneurs understand the evolution of equity
and build a mental model of their own business — the dynamics
of cash flow and how much equity is reasonable for them to keep.
Among his clients was Ira Baseman, who built Nexi.com on Emmons Drive
and successfully sold it. Others were Massachusetts-based Network
Engines and Illinois-based HealthTech Services, a telemedicine spinoff
of Baxter. Princeton-area clients have included Jersey Cow Software,
SBX, and Textscape Technologies.
To technology and artistic organizations alike, Preston has this
will trust the master of the problem but turn away from the salesman
with a particular solution. Other ways of saying this: "Change
supply side thinking to demand side thinking" and "Be customer
you can start again. The founder of Dow Chemical, for instance, had
four failed companies before his big success.
pay royalties to Protas, and the Graham dancers sided with the board.
Now — collaborating — they are working to reconstitute the
— Barbara Fox
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