Each spring, Texans polish their boots and starch their Wranglers in preparation for entertainment befitting the Lone Star State. Grossing more than $85 million in revenue per year, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo isn’t merely carnivals, country stars, and cowboys. It’s a well-oiled business strategically managed to ensure top-notch entertainment each year, thanks to CEO and president Skip Wagner. Recently, Wagner spoke to students at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, explaining the corporate side of rodeo and the challenges that come with running the 23-day event.

“Don’t worry about the end,” HLSR president and CEO Skip Wagner advised Mays students during a recent visit. “You never know how you’ll get to where you’ll end up, so you have to keep your eyes open.”

“To be a successful manager, you have to run the show like a business, and research, reflect, and revitalize continually,” Wagner said. He commented on challenges such as costly facility rental for the event and animal welfare issues, as well as the recession’s impact on the entertainment industry. “It never gets boring,” he says.

When Wagner graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, he had no idea where his career path would lead. He took a job with Conoco Phillips after college, where he worked for two years before deciding to return to school. In 1986, Wagner earned his MBA from Harvard University and spent the next four years as a consultant. Wagner took a break from the industry to pursue a software start-up venture, but decided to return to consulting when offered a position with McKinsey and Co., where he took on the Houston Rodeo as a client. Wagner saw the opportunity for significant improvement within the organization and decided to join it full time as a manager in 1992.

Wagner wanted to take the event to a new level of financial performance, increasing its management professionalism without losing the character that had made it so famous. Wagner achieved this goal, making the organization more effective and dramatically increasing revenue. In 2000, he took his restructuring expertise to Oklahoma, where he ran and redesigned their state fair, helping it return to its once profitable standards.

“Leaving Houston was a tremendous experience for me,” Wagner said. “I became much more convicted in my management style and research interest, and had intensive on the job training. Moving so much as a young professional helped me learn and grow through every experience.”

His former colleagues who remained in Houston saw Wagner transform the Oklahoma State Fair into a profitable business, and quickly asked him to return as president and CEO of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 2004.

During the lecture, Wagner emphasized one of the real perks of running a non-profit business is getting to have a major impact on the community. This year alone, the organization will give away $16 million in scholarships and other charitable donations. He offered several pieces of career advice to his student audience, including the importance of relaxing and taking things one day at a time. “Don’t worry about the end,” Wagner said. “You never know how you’ll get to where you’ll end up, so you have to keep your eyes open.” He also expressed the importance of loving what you do, being satisfied with where you are, and maintaining balance through faith, family and recreation.