George R. Zoffinger has been called many things: president and CEO, chairman, power broker, distinguished alumnus, "rare breed" - and grandpa.
With a heavy New York accent, an infectious smile, and a quick wit, Zoffinger juggles several high pressure roles. He is president and CEO of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. He sits on four corporate and three nonprofit boards, including NTL, Inc., the largest British cable company, and New Jersey Resources Corporation, a natural gas distribution company. Most recently, he was named to the Rutgers University Board of Governors.
But when his work day is done, his most prized role becomes apparent.
An unlikely success?
The oldest of seven children, Zoffinger grew up in suburban Long Island, New York. It was the late 1960s and he didn't see himself as a college student. In fact, he says he was the family member that no one expected to do as well as he has. But his father encouraged him to set an example for his siblings, and he started by attending a local community college.
Despite success there, Zoffinger's future was less than clear.
"I had no career plan, whatsoever," he laughs. "Then I heard about this campus of Penn State where you could finish your last two years of school. So, I figured I'd try it." Zoffinger came to Penn State Harrisburg - Capitol Campus as it was called - in 1968, just two years after the college was created. He graduated with honors in Business in 1970.
Zoffinger happily remembers his years at Penn State Harrisburg. He made lifelong friendships, married his wife Judy (who had moved from Long Island to join him in Middletown) during his senior year, and settled on a career path.
"I especially remember Dr. John Watts, an economics professor. He lived in New York City and occasionally Judy and I would give him a ride home," Zoffinger says. "He really motivated me to think about finance as a career and got me interested in furthuring my education at New York University," where Zoffinger earned his MBA in 1971.
A banker by accident
Zoffinger's first job was at a bank, a move that he called an accident. "I actually wanted to be in the oil business," he says. "My first choice would have been to work at Exxon."
As it turned out, Zoffinger says he loved banking. He gained experience in different aspects of the business, including domestic and international lending, and did stints in London, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The result: he ended up as chairman of CoreStates New Jersey until it merged with CoreStates Bank, N.A.
Zoffinger's banking and international experience eventually led to his being named New Jersey's commissioner of Commerce and Economic Development. The experience also fueled his interest in the real estate industry.
"My work at the bank ended up focusing on real estate," he says, which sparked another opportunity. He eventually became CEO of Value Property Trust, a publicly owned real estate investment trust.
At about the same time, he also briefly entered the race to become the Democratic nominee for New Jersey governor. Despite his well-honed ability to multi-task, he ultimately dropped out of the race, saying that it was too difficult to run a campaign and do a job.
In 2002, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) was losing money. Then-Governor James E. McGreevey wanted someone with a business background to "straighten it out" and he tapped Zoffinger, who had gained a reputation for turning around struggling enterprises.
As president and CEO of the NJSEA, Zoffinger oversees Monmouth Park Racetrack, Atlantic City Convention Center, Wildwood Convention Center, and the sprawling Meadowlands Sports Complex, which includes the Meadowlands Racetrack, Giants Stadium, and Continental Airlines Arena, and currently is home to five professional sports teams.
When Zoffinger took over, the state was subsidizing the NJSEA's operating revenue by $18 million annually; today, Zoffinger says, the Authority makes about $11 million a year. A potent economic force in New Jersey, the Meadowlands alone contributes 7,500 full-time jobs and $1.2 billion to the state's economy. With the addition in 2008 of Xanadu, a 4.8 million-square-foot entertainment complex, those numbers will increase.
Working a day job
Zoffinger's "typical" work day starts early. He's usually in the office by 7 a.m. "I can't sleep much anymore," he says. And he begins by answering the 75 to 100 e-mail messages he gets routinely.
On any given day, Zoffinger is meeting with the likes of recently retired NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, or New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine. Between his responsibilities at the NJSEA and his role on corporate and nonprofit boards, the issues he tackles day-to-day cover a broad spectrum. How should the Meadowlands facilities accomodate spectators' religious needs? (An incident at Giant Stadium led to the Authority adding designated prayer space.) What impact will the New Jersey Devils hockey team move to Newark have on the Continental Arena? How can NTL best handle its merger with Virgin Mobile? How can Rutgers hold the line on tuition?
Zoffinger's impact on such far reaching issues earned him the designation as one of the state's five most powerful people by New Jersey Magazine. And, the demands on his time are great - enough to make a less hardy business person buckle. Even Zoffinger admits it can be difficult.
"Sometimes, the demands on my time can become overwhelming," he says, "which makes it hard to focus on the right things. I spend a lot of time trying to focus on the right things and not on things that aren't productive."
Still, Zoffinger says the variety of issues and the opportunity to meet all kinds of people are the best things about his work. And when he describes his daily activities, his enthusiasm is clear. He's animated and a good storyteller. And he punctuates his sentences with humor. He makes tense dealings with sports team owners or defending the interests of New Jersey taxpayers sound fun. In fact, that's a requirement for him. "I don't want to do something if it's not fun," he says.
So, is he in an ideal place, professionally?
"Actually, I'd like to be a left-handed relief pitcher for the Yankees," he says, noting that he wouldn't have to work too hard and could still make a decent living.
When Zoffinger speaks
Part of what has made Zoffinger successful in his candor. He's not afraid to say what he thinks - one media source described him as "ever quotable" - and people want to know what he has to say. A Google search of his name brings up tens of thousands of references, many of them news articles featuring Zoffinger's take on things.
Zoffinger's not afraid of controversy either, especially over issues about which he feels strongly. One such is public support of professional sports teams.
Bucking a recent trend, Zoffinger opposes using tax dollars to subsidize professional sports teams by funding stadiums, even if it means a team leaves town. He doesn't buy arguments that such public investments lead to huge regional economic benefits. Rather, he has said, they pad the pockets of athletes and team owners.
Sopporters call Zoffinger a rare breed for taking this stance, but it doesn't sit well with everyone. Still, Zoffinger believes he's looking out for the public good.
"It's all about choices," he explained in a 2004 newspaper interview. "I convinced the governor that we could run a profitable building and a profitable agency if we didn't have to subsidize these team owners. He then could make the more logical choice to spend money on education, on health care, on environmental protection." Zoffinger said the decision was difficult at the time, but the public has "applauded the fact that we've made these choices...."
Zoffinger says his strong opposition to public funding of stadiums stems from observing his wife at work as a social worker. This has crystallized the social tradeoffs for him and helped him to "see things the state needs to spend money on rather than stadiums or arenas."
Keeping things in perspective
When Zoffinger reflects on his life, he doesn't mention career success much.
Instead, he talks about family. He says marrying Judy was the most important decision he ever made and credits her for his success. He proudly talks about his three children and he's happy to tell you that his two grandsons, ages three and one, are the best thing in his life.
They live just 10 minutes away from Zoffinger's home in Skillman, N.J. "There are days when I'm having to deal with all these issues," he says, "and I'll stop in to see them even for just 15 minutes and it makes me forget about all the other stuff."
Zoffinger - "Pop" as his grandsons call him - especially enjoys spending time with his family at the New Jersey shore. There, he shares simple pleasures like swimming, fishing, and a daily stroll to the donut shop with his oldest grandson.
"Before I had grandkids, I'd laugh at my friends when they talked so much about their grandkids," he says. "Now I understand."
With a career that has taken him around the world and keeps him in the company of some of the nation's most powerful people, you would think Zoffinger would have difficulty naming his greatest acheivement. Not so.
"My greatest achievement is Judy and 37 years of marriage," he says sincerely. "That's a long time nowadays. But it has worked out really well."
"Yep, 37 years of marriage, and I never had a fight...," he adds with a laugh, "at least not that I won."