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The Falvey Legacy: From 'Friends of Bob' to SFCV of Today

July 16, 2013

Mary Falvey at the Asian Art Museum's Ellison exhibit last month Photo by Michael StricklandBack in 1998, when Robert and Mary Commanday started up San Francisco Classical Voice in their home, they were supported by Gordon Getty, a few fellow journalists, and a small group of enthusiastic music lovers united in the vision of "filling the gap left by the shrinkage of print coverage."

The quote is from Mary Falvey, a leader in that group, a board member from the beginning, its first treasurer when SFCV became an independent 501(c)3 corporation in 2009, and board chair since 2010. As part of the board leadership change to be completed in August, Falvey will yield the post to Alisa Won.

The history of the publication from her vantage point:

At the beginning the board was FOB ["Friends of Bob (Commanday)"], we all knew each other. Our role was to be his sounding board and advise him on financial statements, hiring web and marketing people, etc. It was a labor of love for all — including Bob. We all believed in his vision; impressed and moved by his commitment and courage.

As long as Bob was in charge, the organization was stable at a low budget, as a labor of love. His retirement in 2005 meant we had to tap the market for editorial and administrative capability — for the first time, had to raise money beyond friends and family was imperative. But two years after Bob's retirement [and with the approach of the Great Recession], SFCV was on the verge of extinction.

That’s when I got very active — assembled a task force with some Internet-savvy, younger business folks — to get to the bottom of why it was so hard to raise money. Key conclusion: Serving only the internal classical music community was too small a scope to interest individuals or foundations.

The key questions: What would arts groups find of most value from SFCV ? And is there an appetite among consumers not currently in the classical music community to learn about classical music via an online resource based on high-quality journalism?

Inveterate world traveler Falvey in Tibet, with prayer flags at Yongbulakang With backing from Gordon Getty and the Hewlett Foundation to engage professionals, we found that arts groups, particularly the large ones, felt that attracting new audiences would be the highest value SFCV could provide. And yes, there is an appetite, particularly among parents of young children and busy professionals to connect with classical music via an online information resource. Fortunately, backers were then willing to back the development of a new website, which we launched in 2009.

Website visitors now approach 75,000 monthly, which is still not "there," but starts to be interesting for advertisers. The range of content we can cover while meeting our excellent standards of journalism is now broad enough that we can integrate different genres, as today’s composers and audiences do. My vision is to use our first-rate and trusted journalism to bring classical music to the larger world.

Now, the music community knows we’re here — nationally, as well as throughout the Bay Area. It's been critical to build the board to bring expertise in digital technology and media, fund raising, finance, and governance — as well as a love of music. This we have now done. That’s why I’m so proud and delighted to pass the baton to the next generation of leadership.

Even those who don't know Falvey from her prominent work in the financial services industry (where she was among the first to break through the glass ceiling) or many arts organization board membership, are sure to have seen her almost nightly, in Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, at any and all music events.

However active Falvey has been in national and local musical life — an early member of the corporate committee of the New York Philharmonic; the first chair of San Francisco Performances following its founder, Ruth Felt; 11 years so far on the San Francisco Symphony board, many more — the main theme in her life has been an unusual and exceptionally successful business career.

With granddaughter Evan Her father came from near the "Bikavér" (Bull's Blood)-producing town of Eger, Hungary, and after receiving an engineering degree from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, returned to Hungary and built his own company importing automobiles into Central Europe from the U.S. and France, along with Harley Davidson motorcycles. He immigrated from Budapest to Detroit, because it was the mecca of his chosen industry and the headquarters of Graham-Paige, the American automobile company he represented.

Once in Detroit, he founded one of the first U.S. distributorships for imported cars, saying — as Falvey recalls today — "If we can make it [selling imported cars in Detroit] here, we can make it anywhere." He told his young daughter: "I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps; I want you to stand on my shoulders."

And so she did. One of the first women business executives, she started in only the third class that admitted women to the Harvard Business School — and was one of 11 in a class of 750. "I was the first woman to do whatever I did for the first 20 years of my career," she says, in a matter of fact way.

With oldest grandson Colin She was the first woman to manage a client engagement for McKinsey & Company — where her client projects took her from the New York office to Washington DC, Amsterdam, and Zurich — and the first to manage a profit center at Citibank. There, she became Chief Financial and Administrative Officer of the Investment Management Group, and led the strategy to make Citibank the second major American bank to offer private banking.

Falvey subsequently took over the Asset Servicing Division, which covered the custody, clearance, and settlement, and correspondent banking business. She then was recruited to join Blyth Eastman Dillon as Senior Vice President Administration and became the first woman to serve on the executive committee and board of directors of a Wall Street firm.

In the 1980s, she stepped in as CEO to lead her father’s company out of the recession and remained at the head of the company for 10 years.

"I was motivated to make a difference, but being a pioneer was the hand I was dealt, and I needed to change jobs when what we now call the glass ceiling slowed me down."

Her advice to today’s women leaders: "Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t obliterate the glass ceiling — it will take a few more generations. Stay focused on deploying your unique talents where you can make the biggest difference — and know that paving the way is a meaningful legacy."

Public service has also become an important part of Falvey's life, she lists membership on boards of the National Commission on Social Security Reform, later a trustee of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds; she also served as the only non-physician on the composite committee for the National Medical Licensing Examination, which oversees the licensing of physicians in the U.S. Locally, she has served on the board of the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Cornell University, she says "is another of my loves: It was there I spread my wings. I served on the Board of Trustees for 11 years, was executive-in-residence in its graduate business school, and continue as a Presidential Councillor and member of its advisory council of the College of Arts & Sciences, from which I graduated as an economics major."

SFCV Executive Director Veronica Bashbush says:

What I admire most about Mary is her drive and passion to make SFCV an integral and essential part of the Bay Area’s cultural fabric. Her standard of excellence and love of music pushed the organization to think creatively about how we present and talk about classical music to new audiences.

Her approach to incorporate new technologies and ideas from the business world were critical in moving SFCV to a more patron-centric model. I applaud her and the board for enabling a smooth transition, and I look forward to working with the new board leadership.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].