Military Memorials: Is the Intrepid sailing into trouble?

by Craig Hooper on July 27, 2010

In the pantheon of privately managed Navy memorials, one of the most envied is the Intrepid--the centerpiece of New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. Perched in Manhattan, the Intrepid draws in enough revenue to survive complex–and pricey–maintenance, grow facilities and attract a high-profile board (Including Xe/Blackwater founder Erik Prince). To envious outsiders, the institution seems like it is on the right track.

Or is it?

There’s a few indications that trouble might be lurking someplace in the boardroom…first, longtime Intrepid President Bill White, already facing an unrelated legal probe into his professional conduct, resigned abruptly in May 2010–days before the NY Fleet Week. The man didn’t even take his retirement benefits–after 20 years of service! The Intrepid Museum refuses to comment on the matter, and Bill White has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared (for somebody who was, in 2008, angling for appointment as Navy Secretary, that’s incredible). Hopefully it is just a case of a healthy management dispute (they happen), but…the story feels distressingly similar to the ex-USS Olympia’s run-in with bad management.

After taking a look at the Intrepid’s balance sheet, donors are key to the Intrepid’s fiscal health. Bill White was an amazingly successful fundraiser. He brought hundreds of millions to the Intrepid. But all good fundraisers–even well compensated ones–get to a point in their career when they wonder if they should be getting a bigger cut of the money they raise. The good ones don’t let their pride consume ‘em. The others, well, they sometimes follow the path blazed by the Olympia’s long-time manager, John S. Carter. I hope that wasn’t the case with Bill White, but…I worry.

What else worries me?

Well, there’s the management structure of the Intrepid. Last year, the Intrepid employed 228 people, and paid $8.8 million dollars in salaries. Payroll doubled over the prior year. Over $1.6 million went to key executives–Bill White made $389,000, the Executive Director $363,000 and four others over $200,000 annually. The organization is top-heavy; fifteen staff members hold titles of “Assistant Vice President” or higher. As much as I like to see people make money, that’s a lot of dough for the executives.

In the Olympia’s case, the rumor was that key employees were paid highly enough to ignore bad management. But the other thing is that, again, the Intrepid’s real business is attracting donations and grants. It’s a key distinction–and that worries me.

In comparison, the ex-USS Midway, docked in San Diego, focuses on the business of being a museum. Rather than depend upon grants, the Midway’s revenue came from business operations–from getting people aboard the freakin’ boat. To do this, the Midway employed more people than the Intrepid, (301), but had a flatter annual payroll of $5 million dollars a year. The CEO made about $260,000, the CFO got $120,000 and the Developmental Director earned $106,000. Not too many Vice-Presidents there.

Maybe that’s why the Midway made $4.4 million dollars last tax year while the Intrepid…it didn’t make a penny.

And that’s why I worry about the Intrepid.

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