Lee Nunery

Nunery adjusting one of the ties he inspired

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Vice President for Business Services Lee Nunery’s got the white shirt and suit. But the tie is a surprise. It’s inspired by an object in the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s collection.

It’s a subtle sort of branding, an object-oriented way to increase Penn’s name recognition in the world at large. Administrators had been considering it for years, but it took Nunery to make it happen.

He joined Penn last year after working in banking, and before that as vice president of the NBA, responsible for business development and human resources.

The University of Pennsylvania Collection, as the line of branded products is called, is based on the same concept as sports paraphernalia, and it’s currently Nunery’s favorite project.

But most of his job is to manage and operate the things that make everyone’s life on campus either miserable or pleasant — parking, transportation, housing, dining, the mail service. This scion of a family of entrepreneurs heads a division that grosses $200 million a year — most of that goes to cover costs, he said. To him everyone on campus is his customer. And he wants to make sure the customers are happy.

Q. Are the items on this table now for sale?

A. In the bookstore.

Q. Do you have more items in the works?

A. We’re going to launch some wrapping paper. … You’ll also see things that are Ben Franklin-inspired. Carol [Meisinger, director of Publications Services] came up with an example the other day with a kite, and the tail of the kite are some of the sayings of Ben Franklin.

There’s a traditional product line that we’re looking at here. There should be an edgy nouveau line that reflects what West Philadelphia is. It’s the birthplace of a lot of jazz, a lot of R&B, a lot of rock. But you don’t ever really see that in the products. If you go into the bookstore today, there’s a lot of red and blue, but you don’t see anything that says this is the source of a lot of crazy — so you have to take the idea of innovation, the Ben Franklin idea of being at the edge, out standing in the rain in a thunderstorm with a kite, OK, and who would have thought?

It’s got to be appealing. The audience we’re going after — students, faculty and staff and alumni — but then there’s this whole general public that’s out here. How do you reach them? If it’s too much Penn, they’re like, I didn’t go there so I don’t care. Except that, hey, it’s kind of neat. I’ve never seen that before.

The goal with some of this is to just get the name of other venues, like the museum, out in front of a group of lawyers. Some of it is awareness-building for what assets and properties the University has. And obviously the secondary piece is to see if we can to make some money at this and to build unrestricted revenue sources.

You know, we have these tremendous events each and every year — the Penn Relays, which bring 100,000 people to our doorstep. They’re looking for mementos, like they’ve gone to a mini-Olympics. Just last year was my first one. I saw Maurice Green for the first time flying by. I saw Marion Jones. These are headliners that people are going to see. And they pay a pretty nice price for pretty exciting activities.

You treat an event like that not just as a place to sell yourself, but to build awareness that you had a great time — Hey, maybe this is a school I can come to. Hey, maybe this is school my kids can come to. I had a safe time. I was able to park my car. I was able to shop somewhere.

I got a phone call today. Somebody was miffed about the parking they had during the football game. It’s important that they get a letter from me and/or athletics that says, we hear you, we’re sorry you got inconvenienced, we’re going to fix that the best way we can. That’s the one thing they’ll carry with them.

It’s a customer service thing and it sounds sappy, but I quote the Nordstrom concierge effect.

Q. What’s that?

A. You know, when you go to Nordstrom, Nordstrom bends over backwards.

If you come to anybody at Nordstrom and say, I need to find men’s socks, they’ll even take you there. It shouldn’t matter that, well, that’s another department that’s over there. It’s all part of us. We need to care about that.

It sounds very commercial and oh my god, it’s corporate-speak. But you know, it’s important that that student who’s a freshman, who was walking around today trying to find the parking window, if I can get them there and they’re happy with that, when they graduate, they may write us a check. I view it all as tied together. It shouldn’t be separated.

Q. How’d you get here?

A. I have no idea. I’m still wondering myself.

I had no intentions of coming to a university. I was a banker by trade. [Executive Vice President] John Fry kind of reached out to me and said hey, there’s this position, are you interested? Uuuuh, I don’t think so. And lo and behold, as he was more persistent than I was resistant, I’ve been here a year and a half, and it’s been real highs, some lows, but for the most part it’s been phenomenal.

Q. Why don’t you give me a list of your highs?

A. Getting to understand about how this place functions. It’s getting a chance to work with some incredibly talented people who love what they do.

And Campus Express. I don’t think people understand how big a hit that is.

Q. What is that?

A. It’s a program that every new and returning student receives, that allows them to sign up for the housing, their dining, their phone, sending in to take care of their ID card before they got here, over the Internet. What we’ve been trying to talk about here is one-stop shopping. You shouldn’t have to stand in 50 different lines to get what you want.

Q. Other highlights?

A. The PennPass program, which now gives now 425 kids a chance to go anywhere where SEPTA goes in the city for a flat fee. The successful operation of the restaurants and the hotels.

Q. Any lows?

A. The lows have been it’s hard to get decisions made here.

Q. Why do you think that is?

A. The consultative process does it. You literally weight things down by going to committee meeting after committee meeting. My job may sound like it’s to garner revenue. It’s actually to find the inefficiencies in what’s here and redirect it and reallocate the resources.

Q. Does anything else frustrate you?

A. What I should be doing as a central administrator is bringing that audience here for meeting space, for conferences, getting them to think about Penn as a place for a weekend — go to a football game, go to Annenberg, get a great meal. And people do it, but we don’t always make it easy for them to do that.

The students, for example, want a video store. You’re not going to get any small mom-and-pop as much as you want to, because it’s an expensive business to be in. My larger question is OK, guys, you want video and you want access, but the world’s moving to DVDs, pay-per-view, pay-on-demand. So you’ve got to listen to the audience, but you also have to anticipate what’s going to come next.

To convince a video store operator or a restaurant to come here is still incredibly hard because they can go right now to Center City or King of Prussia and say, We can get the audience we need without any problem, why do we need to come here? [Restaurateur] Steven Starr’s taking a huge risk opening up on 37th and Sansom. I think he’s going to be a hit, though.

Wait ’til the grocery store and the Sundance theater open. This place going to be hopping.


Originally published on October 12, 2000