I’ve known hard-charging real estate guys, theater owners, public speakers, people who disrobe in public, and too many business-book authors.
I’ve never known one guy who encompasses all of that. Until I met John Sweeney.
Sweeney, 50, co-owner with his wife, Jenni Lilledahl, of the Brave New Workshop since 1997, is a onetime corporate real estate professional who acquired what was a struggling theater with $250,000 in annual revenue. Not without stumbles, he’s added an improvisational-acting school, corporate speaking, real estate and related enterprises to the mix.
“We’ve tried to establish a diversified model that will be sustainable,” Sweeney said. “It’s too nerve-racking to put all our eggs into a Christmas show and then not be able to make payroll in April.”
Sweeney, a stout Wisconsin farm boy who played defensive tackle at St. Norbert College in De Pere, also is an impressive motivational speaker. And a ham.
He has been immortalized in Minnesota Timberwolves history for his strip-and-dance routine that he turns into charitable giving for the Smile Network International at www.jigglyboy.com. It’s all part of Sweeney’s shtick. He also has a serious business side that belies humor.
The nation’s oldest improv-comedy troupe was established by Dudley Riggs in 1958. And the business model has changed in recent years.
Sweeney could be pushy, which, he learned, can create trouble. Knowledge, creativity and humor may work better. Sweeney honed his more-enlightened approach watching actors at Dudley Riggs, training and acting a bit himself by the 1990s.
Sweeney and Lilledahl bought in 1997 a struggling business. Nearly all the revenue came from tickets. It was shaky.
Sweeney saved his bacon when he signed a $1.6 million contract with Disney Cruise Lines to stage shows for three years on tours.
Lilledahl, who still runs the nonprofit youth school, has slowly expanded to several hundred students a year.
The business gyrated in early years. Sweeney lost money on theater moves and expansions to Calhoun Square and Downtown St. Paul. Nearly $1 million in debt, Sweeney was forced to consolidate, sell more speeches and develop more corporate services — innovation training and workshops.
It’s only been in the last several years that Brave New Workshop has achieved stable diversification and consistent growth from its education, speeches and training businesses. Sweeney said the business have $3.3 million in consolidated revenue this year.
And Sweeney attributes much of the success to Elena Imaretska, 33, a Bulgarian immigrant and MBA who was taken with a Brave New Workshop production while she was in school a decade ago. Sweeney eventually signed her on as a fledgling strategist.
“When she walks in a room the diversity and IQ level triples,” Sweeney said. “She brings a sense of strategy. I’m ‘blah, blah, blah’ … She’s international and plans.
“I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I didn’t know how to scope and scale. I was giving 150 speeches a year. Now we certify the trainers at UnitedHealth Group, Microsoft, Carlson, Target, Best Buy, 3M and probably 15 nonprofits.”
Imaretska doesn’t do much talking when Sweeney’s in the room. However, she did say that she was fascinated by the potential for Brave New Workshop to “fuse the arts and business. I was learning business in school and I had a passion for art.”
Sweeney and Imaretska have codified the secret sauce in a book this fall, “The Innovative Mindset,” published by Wiley.
It teaches business people and others how to avoid traditional “fear-based” behaviors of “check out, criticize, whine, conceal and stall” and learn to listen, defer judgment, organize, articulate and execute. Not always easy, particularly in the corporate jungle.
Said CEO Pat Ryan of Ryan Companies about Sweeney, a recent acquaintance: “We hired him for a leadership conference to get our [managers] out of their comfort zone and get them to relate more to the people reporting to them. It was a huge success. I think he’s done a phenomenal job of taking improv comedy and working with comedians, who are innately insecure, and turning them into high-performing professionals and taking it into the boardroom and office. And he’s a good guy.”
Sweeney isn’t part of the Twin Cities theater crowd and nonprofit ownership model that turns to donors to subsidize ticket sales. His model saved Brave New Workshop and performances such as “Bushwhacked” and “Obamamania.”
The business of more than 75 full-and part-time employees has gotten traction over the last five years.
Sweeney exited expensive leased space in 2011 to buy a small building from the city at 824 Hennepin Av. for $725,000. The theater and event center, including a six-figure upgrade, is now appraised at $1.8 million. Sweeney said the move inspired ticket sales and theater self-sufficiency.
Sweeney bought 727 Hennepin Av. S. in 2014 for $1.5 million. It’s a narrow building that once housed Teener’s Theatrical Costumes. He’s spending $1 million restoring it as a headquarters, school and, what Sweeny quips will be a “virtual country club” for play and renting.
“A theater is just one thing that we do,” Sweeney said. “And most theaters don’t own $4 million worth of real estate. I have debt. When my youngest graduates from college, those two buildings will be debt-free. If nothing else, the boys get … downtown real estate. I don’t own stocks. I own two old buildings.”
And the theater boss who brought us “Sex in the Cities: The Edina Monologues,” still loves the spotlight.
‘The Trump that Stole Christmas” should be our biggest-grossing show ever,” Sweeney predicted of this holiday’s show. “It should beat “Fifty Shades of Gravy.”