Bull riding, mutton bustin’, fried carnival food and loud concerts — rodeo season is a Texas tradition. But it’s also an efficiently run business, says Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo CEO Skip Wagner in his recent lecture to Mays Business School students.

Drawing in more than $102 million in revenues this year, the Houston Rodeo is the richest regular season rodeo in the nation. Since 1957, the event has raised more than $283 million for the youth of Texas and will hit the $300 million mark after the 2012 season. The money funds more than 2,000 scholarships for students at 90 colleges around the state of Texas, with more than 500 of those students attending Texas A&M University.

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo president and CEO Skip Wagner speaks to undergraduate management students.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo president and CEO Skip Wagner speaks to undergraduate management students. (view more photos)

Ragain Baker ’15, a business major who attended Wagner’s lecture, says, “Being from Houston, it was neat to hear about the amount of money that the rodeo donates back.”

Wagner says the growing success of the Houston rodeo is all about understanding the market and making strategic decisions based on that knowledge. “I brought a business perspective to a not-for-profit,” he says.

Wagner’s business background is expansive. Graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1982 with a chemical engineering degree (which helped him “learn to think,” he says), Wagner worked at Conoco Phillips for two years before going on to earn his MBA from Harvard Business School. For the few years afterward, he worked in business consulting, eventually taking a job with McKinsey and Co., where he served as a consultant for the Houston rodeo. In 1992, Wagner took the position of assistant general manager for the rodeo, significantly increasing revenues and prominence of the event over the next eight years.

Wagner left the Houston rodeo in 2000 and brought his expertise to the Oklahoma State Fair. He completely restructured the fair and brought it back to its former glory and profitability (he claims it was all about redesigning and cleaning up the women’s restrooms). In 2005, he returned to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as CEO.

Wagner knows great leadership. In speaking with the Mays students on keys of effective leadership, he used examples such as the Old Testament’s Nehemiah (“the greatest project manager who ever lived,” he says), World War II soldiers who demonstrated strong internal character and the Aggie Band’s organizational skills.

The most important characteristic of a leader, he says, is that you have to know exactly what you stand for. “Let’s be honest, the rodeo is like Mardi Gras but with leather,” says Wagner, emphasizing the importance of morals in keeping the Houston Rodeo a family event.

After his lecture to an auditorium full of students and faculty members, Wagner sat down with a handful of business honors students and opened up about his job.

“Mr. Wagner was honest about different aspects of his position, which is refreshing,” says business honors student Joanna Starling ’14. “He was able to talk about benefits, but also the challenges, and reminded us that you can never please everyone.”

One of these challenges he faces on a daily basis is making tough decisions regarding changes to the event. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo coordinates more than 24,000 volunteers every year, and each volunteer has input on how to improve the rodeo. Wagner values their suggestions, even if they don’t always align with his own opinions. “I’ve learned that you can’t be precise in my job. You sometimes have to be OK with going in the right direction,” he says.

Marisa Matthews ’14 appreciated this advice, saying, “I loved hearing about the changes he’s making with the rodeo. He said that it’s all about being professional without losing character.”

“I’ve learned that you can’t be precise in my job,” Wagner told students. ” You sometimes have to be OK with going in the right direction.” (view more photos)

Stepping into the new CEO position six years ago, Wagner dealt with the frustration of gaining influence and building a team with his vision. “When I first started as CEO, my goal was to survive. The non-profit world is political and there’s going to be a lot of people who think they can do your job better than you can,” Wagner says, adding, “Being CEO puts you in a fishbowl—everyone’s watching you and everyone’s got something to say about what you’re doing.”

But Wagner also is quick to say the challenges associated with his position are worth it. All year long, he looks forward to walking around among the thousands of rodeo attendees and watching them have a good time. “There’s nothing more fun than watching families have fun,” he says.

He also has come to appreciate the spotlight that’s tethered to the CEO title, saying, “This leadership role gives me a great platform personally,” discussing the role that faith and family play in his life.

As for the rodeo itself, Wagner has picked up a few favorites over the years. He enjoys watching saddle-bronc riding, and calls it “the most even competition between man and animal.” He says with a laugh that his favorite entertainer to date has been the Black Eyed Peas, but is consistently impressed by the way country greats such as Keith Urban and Garth Brooks engage the audience into their performances.

From discussing leadership techniques and career advice to sharing honest opinions on entertainers and the challenges associated with his position, Jordan Hancock ’14 sums it up this way: “Mr. Wagner was really genuine. He was willing and eager to answer our questions and he gave us some great business advice that we’ll always remember.”