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INTERVIEW: Bill Hanney Swims to North Shore's Rescue

The owner of the North Shore Music Theatre talks about turning around the beloved institution's forces. logo
Bill Hanney
(© North Shore Music Theatre)
Many Boston-area theatergoers were shocked to hear in 2009 that the esteemed North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT) would be shutting its doors. The popular regional theater was reportedly $10 million in debt, and after efforts to ameliorate that debt fell through, the organization was declaring bankruptcy and closing down.

Enter Bill Hanney, a local businessman who snatched up the theater for $3.6 million. "That's a great deal for the property alone," crows Hanney, who had previously turned around the moribund Theatre By the Sea in Matunuck, Rhode Island.

Now, the crowds are coming back to NMST, which launched its summer season with a production of Hello, Dolly!, and continues with Annie. New subscriptions are up 25 percent over last year, and renewal rates are up over 30 percent, with many pre-2009 subscribers returning to the fold.

When Hanney took over the NSMT, none of the debt from the previous ownership carried over, but there was still much to do to get the theater into financial and artistic shape. "When I came in, my first priority was the business plan," he says. Before his tenure, NSMT previously employed about 57 people full-time. Hanney currently has 10 people on his staff, plus numerous contract workers.

That's not to say that Hanney is hiring-averse. "You have to know when to bring people on full-time," he says. To that end, Hanney recently brought on Karen Nascembeni as director of corporate and community relations to develop relationships with local business organizations, create cross-promotional opportunities, and find corporate sponsorships. "That position paid for itself," says Hanney.

Hanney found additional cost savings in the organization's various vendor relationships. Certain expenses are non-negotiable, such as utility bills, but when there's more than one vendor that offers a particular service, there's often room for competitive bidding or even barter deals, he points out. "Before, they just paid the bills without thinking," says Hanney.

In addition to cost cutting, Hanney has also focused on strengthening the organization's revenue stream. For example, he has created opportunities for regular patrons to pay a little extra to receive VIP treatment. When people buy a five-show subscription (which ranges in price from $110 to $280), they can opt for a premium add-on package for $150 (for two people), which includes free-parking passes, access to a newly renovated VIPs-only lounge, drink vouchers, $50 in concessions, plus additional discounts and privileges. "Some people really want that kind of treatment," says Hanney.

Hanney also renovated the theater lobby and restrooms shortly after taking over. "We wanted to really make a splash," he says. "We wanted to give people the impression that we're putting money back into this."

Beyond the profit-and-loss aspect of turning the NSMT around, Hanney also had to deal with disgruntled audience members. When the NSMT went bankrupt, there were thousands of subscribers and ticket buyers who didn't get their money back. "You don't grab $2.5 million in ticket money and not piss people off," says Hanney. "People are finally coming back and we want them to keep coming back."

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