Don Buchwald, Brooklyn College Foundation Board Member
The entrepreneur, philanthropist, and eponymous founder of BUCHWALD talent agency talks with us about his path to success and the importance of giving back.
Brooklyn College: You studied theater at Brooklyn College. How did you decide to pursue that major—and what are some of your most memorable experiences as a theater student?
Don Buchwald: I entered Brooklyn College at age 16. I was both a product of an academic family and a street kid who was the one in the “gang” to finish high school. Never a great student, lots of my “larnin” came to me through osmosis from my highly educated sibs.
My mother was a history teacher. My father was a generous man, sharing when he had something to share—a special guy who ultimately gave me his facial features and shiny follicle deprived head.
I didn’t have any direction or significant talent but could entertain family and friends. I was a cute kinda guy. When it came time to choose a field of study, I was just 17 and not equipped to settle into my life’s work. So, instead, I joined the U.S. Army and traveled to Korea and Japan.
Gaining a thin veneer of sophistication, I was now age appropriate (got dates!) for college and lost most of what my speech 101 professor, Paul Williams, said was the worst (or best) Brooklyn accent he had ever heard.
Professor Vance Morton, head of the Theater Department asked me to try out for a role in a play that he was directing, and I was given the unlikely part of a Southern Baptist Preacher (Hagler), with a fixation on the “jug” in DARK OF THE MOON. (My mother thought I was terrific in the role!)
I did many plays in [what was then called] the George Gershwin Theater. At the Gershwin I played in a number of Shakespeare works and Greek classics. Seeing my rather spindly legs in tights was one of the delights for the entire Brooklyn College enrollment. My mother loved my legs!
When I began making gifts to the Theater Department, it was suggested that the reconstructed space of the Gershwin should have a new name. I was taken aback to replace the George Gershwin with the Don Buchwald. Gershwin will never be forgotten. I’ll go the way of a mere mortal.
BC: What made you decide to go from the stage to theater management when you graduated?
DB: Yes, although my mother loved a number of things about her youngest’s creativity (a full generation apart from her first born), she was not able to hand me auditions and roles enough to come close to earning a living.
I thought that I’d seek advice of others without the blood connection.
One Brooklyn College actor pal, who had seen me perform thought I was smart enough to stay away from the stage and to use my enriched family brain cells and look at the business side of the entertainment community. I took a business management course and began managing the activities of summer stock playhouses and more.
All along I earned my living from working as a travel agent, becoming a good telephone salesman. I was also effective at face-to-face meetings. The owner of the travel agency was a canny individual (also a Brooklyn guy) from who I was able to learn additional good sales technique.
All of the above impressed another Brooklyn College pal who had a small talent agency and who thought my collection of experiences meshed nicely together. He couldn’t afford to pay me a salary, but convinced me to try my hand at being a talent agent. He gave me a desk, a phone, and some guidance. I was a talent agent! Neither job paid a guaranteed wage but I could earn money through sales success.
BC: You launched your own talent representation agency, BUCHWALD, in 1977. What did you learn from those early years as a business owner that have influenced your approach to managing the agency?
DB: I decided to move on from the small firm to a larger two-office agency. Some years and quite a bit of success later I was faced with the choice of a number of job opportunities. My home for the past six years was closing because of disputes between the two owners/managing partners.
I learned to be careful of who you are in business with and never have forgotten that in our hirings…on all levels. Do you complement one another, or are you competitive with each other, do you respect your colleagues, etc.? But, mainly I learned that all people are not the same and employ folks for their unique abilities and talents.
Never having the responsibility of running a ship all but myself I used the good, (expensive) offices of a real business counselor: a much younger, courageous, and brilliant person who suggested I shake myself loose from a depression-thinking mind to a more uplifting attitude.
He convinced me to purchase a run-down, seven-story building in midtown Manhattan, which had terrific upside potential. He projected how I could easily pay off the mortgage debt with little trouble and resurrect the “heap” into a pretty nifty looking building.
And a home for BUCHWALD.
Although the building has over 20,000 square feet of space and might have been large for a 10+ person firm (derelict to boot), I could lease space on a reasonably short-term basis and as our company grew to recapture a floor. I was learning about real estate, negotiating, and building maintenance.
BC: You have been a dedicated supporter of Brooklyn College for many years, and recently provided seed support for the development of entrepreneurship competitions at the Murray Koppelman School of Business. What do you hope Brooklyn College students will get out these competitions?
DB: When I first joined the board, I was one of the “show business” guys.
One of the individuals on the board who became a close friend and a most generous contributor to our school is Murray Koppelman. A crafty business person, Murray believed Brooklyn College should have an accredited business school. Many of us felt Murray deserved the “naming” of school he lobbied for and supported him in that effort.
Each year, I make sure that all Buchwald programs are well funded.
Checking in with the administration of the school, I was pointed to the new business program and asked if I could think of something that might apply to them as well as others.
Aha! An old pal of mine is on SHARK TANK, and knowing his educational history and his entertainment industry connections, I thought maybe we could do our version of the show and have our entrepreneurial program open to all students of the college.
I knew that a nephew of mine ran a large program of this sort at a major university in Washington, DC. I reached out to my lovely kin and was put in touch with Dean Hu of Koppelman and a plan was put on the table. Our wonderful dean had been thinking of such a program as well so there was no reluctance on anyone’s part, with my nephew quite willing to share his awareness and experience.
Like all people, our students have many thoughts and concerns about a practical way to use their college degree going forward. If they let their imagination take over, they could dream a dream filled with many novel thoughts, no matter what their academic major.
There are many Brooklyn College alums with great business experience, looking for ways to use themselves and to help younger folk succeed in business and a way of life.
So our awesome academic staff might be further supported by additional forward thinking.
BC: What is your best advice for Brooklyn College students and alumni who aspire to become successful entrepreneurs?
DB: There is no magic potion to succeed that I’ve heard about. If I had heard of it, my shelves and closets would be more cluttered than they are presently.
As I do myself, I sit down each day with that old blue-lined yellow pad and let my mind wander. I think about other people and what I might do to enhance their lives. Whether they are family or I got an awareness of them from a news broadcast or the New York Times or Washington Post. I do know that thinking of others, whether it’s because they are a client or a Brooklyn College student, has helped me to whatever personal success I may have…having always received many fold the effort I have put out.
The first winners of the Koppelman competition are examples of people suggesting how their community or the world may benefit from their creation.