Steve Watson, CPA, CGMA

CFO, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., is one of the few for-profit historical properties in the United States. We do not receive any federal or state funding. We are in our third, fourth, and fifth generations of being family-owned by descendants of George Vanderbilt. I know that we have to make a profit in order to preserve the estate, and I know we’ve got to keep our property in pristine condition, and I know that we’ve got to offer world-class customer service in order to get people to come back. We provide Vanderbilt-style hospitality to each of our guests during their visit with us.

I grew up about an hour from here. My family has pictures of me running behind the scenes at Biltmore when I was 6 years old. They took a picture of me getting into one of the large fireplaces, which I wasn’t supposed to do.

The diversity of the business is amazing. We host 1.2 million visitors annually, we have a four-diamond hotel, and we have world-class food and beverage. We have retail. We have a forestry program and a working farm, and we operate a vineyard. There’s a real breadth to the business.

The ability to find the answer to anything immediately is one of the greatest innovations, whether it’s researching it on the internet or downloading a book and getting the answer you want. Going back in time, if you were researching a topic, you went to the library or the bookstore. Now it is so easy to get access to that information. With that great invention, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the urgent as opposed to the important.

The biggest way I’ve become more efficient is figuring out you can only do one thing at a time. You can’t multitask. You can task-switch, but you have to be very present in anything you’re doing. If you’re trying to do two things at once, you can’t. One thing I’ve really tried the last four or five years is to focus on the most important goal I have and make sure that every week I’m working on that goal.

My advice to young finance professionals is to continue your education. Never, ever stop learning. For me, getting started in business, it seemed the world was changing every five years. Now, after the recession, it’s much faster. If you’re not keeping current and not educating yourself, you’re going to fall behind. The gentleman who hired me basically said the reason I was hired was that I showed a dedication to continuing my education, whether formally or informally.

When the Great Recession hit, the one instruction we got from our owners was to protect our employees’ jobs. Salaries are our single largest expense, so that was a huge obstacle that we had to overcome, but we did it. No full-time positions were eliminated. We are committed to our employees and honor that by treating them as our No. 1 asset. There are lots of historical landmarks and historical treasures, but I think it is our people that make Biltmore special.

Our offices are in downtown Asheville, a short drive from the property. I try to go to the house at least once a week. I would like to say that I go there more often. If I’ve had a tough day, a lot of times, I’ll end my day by going for a walk out there. It’s a good way to keep inspired and focused on the big picture. Each time I drive the approach road and see the house, it still sends chills down my spine.

As told to Neil Amato, ,
JofA senior editor.


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