A Jump Shot to the Past

A Jump Shot to the Past

Mount Vernon's success brings new demands for a new player.

As of April 10, Mount Vernon Estate acquired its second Chief Operating Officer. The first became America's first Commander In Chief and owned the place.

A native of Santa Monica, Calif., professional basketball player for the Italian International League, advertising and circulation director for Business Week's international division, entrepreneur who started his own tabloid publication in telecommunications plus three other businesses, private pilot with his own plane, and former resident of Paris, Brussels, Rome and Beijing, Charles Menatti has seen and done a lot since he graduated from the University of Utah in 1976.

"When I was offered this position of COO by the Board of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association it was like this is too good to be true. No matter what I do it's going to have a lasting impact on millions of people. Mount Vernon is a very unique situation," Menatti said, seated behind his desk in the Estate's administrative offices building.

"With all that I have done and been involved with, I have no previous non-profit organization experience. It takes some getting used to," he said.

As an example he cited his first full blown Board of Directors meeting after being hired. "I was told the meeting takes a week. Coming from the corporate world, where stockholder meetings are one day maybe twice a year at most, I could not imagine what we would do for a week," Menatti said.

"But, I soon found out. The Board book was about four inches thick and there is discussion on all topics. It was a real learning experience and fascinating," he said.

This is not the Menattis first residency in the Washington area, however. "We originally lived here in the 1980's," he said. "We moved into our home in Herndon when we came back from Brussels in 2001."

His wife Karen, a Tucson, Arizona, native whom he met in college, is a teacher by training but has concentrated on being a full time mother and wife with all their moves throughout the world. They have two sons. The older, 20, is in his second year at the University of Virginia, and the younger, 15, is presently on a band tour in Europe.

THE FACT THAT the first official position of COO was created speaks to the success Mount Vernon Estate Executive Director James Rees has had in growing one of the nation's premier historical sites. "Mount Vernon has gotten so complex as an enterprise. There are so many things we are doing. It just got too big for one person to oversee everything," Menatti explained.

"My responsibilities are primarily the day-to-day operations," he said. That includes grounds, buildings, maintenance, capital projects, the Inn, pioneer farm and other elements.

"About 70 percent of the employees report to me. We have just created a guest services arm. Our goal is to engage our visitors right from the curb," Menatti said. Between full-time, part-time and seasonal, the Estate employs approximately 480 people.

"What I've tried to do is push the decision making for the various element down to the front line people, those personally engaged in daily operations of specific areas. We want to have our people really interacting in a positive way with our guests. We are not just sitting back waiting for questions. We are being proactive," he said.

He has done some elevating as well. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon Estate horticulturist, is now an associate director. "Our grounds are extremely important to the overall impression of the Estate. If they aren't as perfect as possible it detracts from our visitors' experience," Menatti said.

"We really needed a leader who would make sure the trains ran on time 365 days a year, and that visitors would experience the very best Mount Vernon has to offer. Charles has already made some great leaps forward. The estate looks better and our staff is working more closely together as a crackerjack team," said Rees.

That was echoed by Stephanie Brown, associate director, Mount Vernon Public Affairs. "Charles Menatti brings a rich and diverse expertise to Mount Vernon at a critical juncture in our history. As the nation's most popular historic estate transforms into a dynamic center for learning about George Washington, Charles will ensure that the guest experience meets the high standards of our new facilities. He will play a critical role in the organization meeting demands of a 21st century business environment," she said.

"We are extremely lucky to get such a strong leader. All organizations benefit when there are substantial leaders at all levels," said Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Regent Gay Hart Gaines.

Menatti's depth of experience in the for-profit world provides him with a well spring of insight. Between the time they returned from Brussels until he started at Mount Vernon he was engaged in helping companies raise capital, expand their businesses internationally, and reposition their assets.

"I ran a medical imaging firm for two years helping them restructure and liquidate some of their interests. That was quite an experience since I have no medical background," he said, although his degree from Utah is a bachelor of science in Health Science and Education.

"I think the new structure [museum and visitors center] will round out our visitors' experience. It will open a whole new world about Washington and his life," he said. It is scheduled to open Oct. 26.

One of the most continuing problems facing Mount Vernon Estate has been visitor parking. "By 2007 we plan to add 150 spaces to the western parking area," Menatti said. Parking areas are under the control and supervision of the National Park Service, George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Overflow parking will be diverted behind the brick wall along Route 235. "There are some problems with that plan that need to be worked out. The entrance to that overflow area would entail cars entering and leaving to drive between parked tour buses limiting the vision of traffic on Route 235. But, we're working on a solution to that," he explained.

When asked if he had any particular problem areas, Menatti said his biggest pet peeve is "all the trash that comes down the Potomac." He finds that totally contrary to all the emphasis placed on perfection and beauty at the Estate.

"When I walk down to our dock area, I see all this debris from the river. We have got to find a way to get rid of it," he said.

Like the original Chief Operating Office of the Estate, then plantation, Menatti, at six foot eight inches in height, is an imposing presence. He exudes confidence in his abilities couched in a persona of open friendliness that comes from someone who has dealt with the realities of life on a series of levels.

"The year I graduated from college the ABA [American Basketball Association] folded and there were an awful lot of great stars hunting for work. I figured there goes my chance for the pros," he said.

"Then along came the Italians with an offer. So I signed on and, with dual citizenship and two passports, I didn't cost them a non-national slot which are limited to four on each international team," Menatti said.

"We played all over Europe. Even behind the Iron Curtain and in the Soviet Union. It was an unforgettable experience and afforded me an insight to international relations that was priceless," Menatti said.

He views his Mount Vernon Estate opportunity in the same light. It's a whole new role in a whole new world linking yesterday with today and tomorrow.