New Orleans Gatekeeper

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 1, 2009

June CoverA life-size tiger pauses mid-leap, teeth bared and paws extended, next to an elevator. A mammoth fist clutches a scepter topped with a jester head whose baseball-sized gold orbs dangle from a pointy, gold, green and purple hat.

Welcome to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center-New Orleans, where Mardi Gras decor brightens the first floor. On the mezzanine above, at the end of a narrow corridor in an office overlooking the cavernous convention floor, HR director Tim Tumminello works his mojo.

The challenges are what he likes about HR, he says, and the biggest came nearly four years ago in the form of Hurricane Katrina.

The native New Orleanian was responsible for about 30 employees who hunkered down with him in the nation’s sixth-largest convention center just before the Category 5 hurricane struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Eventually joining them were more than 20,000 people seeking refuge.

Katrina was a surreal experience for Tumminello. After evacuating the center, he worked for two weeks from the back of an RV in West Monroe, La. He spent days trying to find employees who had scattered like fallen leaves, and helped them with basic needs such as access to benefits.

It was a far cry from off-duty stints atop a Mardi Gras float, where for eight hours as a costumed member of the Krewe of Bacchus he tossed plastic cups, footballs and the carnival club’s signature beads to the throngs.

Reopened in March 2006, the convention center—owned by the state, operated by New Orleans Public Facility Management Inc. and overseen by a state legislature-created board—today bears no traces of its storm damage. In 2007, the first year it was fully open for business after Katrina, the Morial produced $103.47 million in new tax dollars and $1.26 billion in total statewide impact, according to convention center officials. The center annually hosts an average of 95 national events.

Life After Katrina

“The one thing we have worked hard at is getting over the ‘Katrina headache’—[to] stop using it as an excuse,” Tumminello says of the New Orleans community.

However, “I’m not sure [Katrina] changed my approach in my job or my life,” he contends, “as I have always been grateful for the things I have.”

Tumminello was working in accounting for a family-owned meat distributor when the owner created an HR department for his growing business. Then in his 20s, Tumminello took on the job, spending eight of his 10 years there in HR.

“[I] pretty much created everything on my own,” he says of that department, adding, “It would have been nice to have a mentor.”

Tumminello oversees a staff of four and is relishing a “huge culture change” at the Morial in the last 12 to 18 months, a period when his staff assumed greater autonomy.

The emphasis now is “more results-oriented, rather than rules-based” under Robert L. “Bob” Johnson, the president and general manager who succeeded Jimmie D. Fore. Fore retired April 1, 2008, after 16 years at the Morial.

That change in culture for the 280 full-time and 100 part-time staff has led to re-establishing relationships with other managers.

“In the past, they were afraid of going to HR. Now it’s ‘Hey, I want to talk to you,’ ”Tumminello says. “They pop in. They want to know more of ‘What can I do to get the most out of these employees?’ ”

Alita Caparotta, vice president of finance and administration, sees Tumminello as “open to the change in the management style and working to change the culture of the organization.”

Although he is “methodical at following HR policies and procedures,” she says, she also lauds him for departing from an old-school HR rules-and-regulations style to a human relationship-based style. In fact, Tumminello now leads the employee morale program.

He points to the revised policy and procedures manual to illustrate how HR is engaging other departments. The dress code policy, once three pages, is one paragraph. Department managers are responsible for what is appropriate for their staffs while striving for consistency throughout the building.

“You don’t have to treat everybody identical[ly], but you have to treat people fairly,” Tumminello says. “Sometimes, HR people [think if] you do this for Joe, you have to do it for Bob, which may not be the case, as everybody’s situation is different.”

That’s a principle he understands as one of five boys in a family of eight children and as a father. Photos of 11-year-old Savanna and 8-year-old Sierra crowd a bookcase in his office.

In one, Sierra—a second-grader who sings and performs in dance revues—is suited up in a baseball uniform. She plays in the same recreational league and in the same park her father did at her age.

In another, Savanna, born with cerebral palsy and nonverbal, smiles sweetly from her wheelchair. Raising her represents his biggest accomplishment, Tumminello says after a long, thoughtful pause.

“It’s been a life experience with her; learning from her has contributed a lot to my development here, because I’ve learned patience,” he says.“When things do get nutty around here, you just sit back and reflect.”

One of the things Tumminello reflects on is possibly rejoining his Bacchus brothers after a two-year break from riding one of the Krewe’s 33 floats. If you’re in town the Sunday before Mardi Gras in 2010, be sure to wave as his Krewe heads to its Annual Rendezvous at the Morial.

He’ll be the one in the mask.

The author is associate editor of HR News.

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