by Vivian Henoch
Ask Geoff Kretchmer to plan a party for you and, chances are, he’ll remain a friend for life. “I need people to be happy, really happy,” he says. As owner and president of Star Trax Events, Geoff is a self-proclaimed “pathological pleaser,” driven by “the power of nice,” and the words attributed to Teddy Roosevelt that “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
What fuels Geoff’s positive energy and abiding care for his business is clearly an unshakable love for his family. Married 23 years to Jody (Lipton), a lawyer in private practice, Geoff describes his wife as #1 in his life. “She was 20 and I was 22 when we met. We’ve grown up together. She’s my best friend, a great mom and the most efficient person I know.”
Ask Geoff about his kids and he gushes, “I was born to be a father. I get more thrill out of being a parent than anything else.” Like father, like son, Noah, 19, is outgoing and athletic – a great tennis player, now finishing his freshman year at the University of Michigan. Daughter, Emma, 17, is a rising senior at The Roeper School. She is a state champion and a nationally ranked competitive speech performer. “She’s an old soul,” observes Geoff, “I find myself sitting in hot, stuffy classrooms watching her compete in national tournaments and I’m blown away. She’s an incredible young lady and has made us better parents.”
At 49, Geoff Kretchmer is still too young to be counted among the “patriarchs” of Jewish Detroit. But certainly, his roles as a business and community leader all point to a sphere of influence that continues to grow. “I believe strongly in this community,” he says, “And that’s what has motivated my service on the boards of JARC, Tamarack Camps and Federation’s Grosfeld Leadership Mission program. I also am fortunate to be in a business that allows me to give back to the community while sharing in life’s most joyous celebrations. And, in our close-knit community, that’s a beautiful thing.”
On family background and early influences
I was born in Huntington Woods. When I was in the 6th grade, my parents moved to another home in Huntington Woods. My mother still lives there. In 1995, Jody and I bought my grandmother’s house in Huntington Woods and, in 2001, we moved to our current house which is three blocks away from my mother’s house.
Really, my childhood seems so nondescript; I’m from a nuclear family where people got along. My parents had a model marriage for 54 years as they too fell in love at a very young age. When my father (Arthur Kretchmer) died suddenly of heart attack in 2014, he was 75. Although he passed too early, he had a great life. His kids and wife loved him and he had a close relationship with all 4 grandchildren. He was able to experience me and my sister choose career paths and saw that we were both in a good place in our lives.
My mother, Claire, is the one who introduced me to the world of community work and nonprofit organizations. For decades she has put time and effort into her volunteer world. She still is involved in a big way with NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women).
On career moves
myJewishDetroit: You have an interesting career path, from Clinical Psychology and Child Welfare at Orchards Children’s Services to Event Planning and Entertainment . . . could the two be somehow related?
I often say that I do more clinical work in my position now than I’ve ever done before. I suppose it’s because I see my job – and my role in life — as helping people.
I came to Star Trax with a Master’s Degree in Clinical and Educational Psychology and ten years of experience working at Orchards Children’s Services. I had started an outreach business there, bringing staff to kids’ homes in an effort to keep them out of hospitals and residential centers.
The only position I wanted at Orchards was at the top, as CEO. And, at that time, the CEO of the agency was Gerald (Jerry) Levin, a great friend and mentor, who started bringing me to board meetings and introducing me to potential donors. He was 59 years old and I was his guy, grooming to become CEO upon his retirement. That’s what I had my heart set on, and then on April 28, 1999, on a side trip in Israel to Petra, Jordan, Jerry had a fatal heart attack and my entire life changed. I was 32 years old, too young and without the knowledge, or the experience to take over a $10.5 million agency. It was time to move on.
And it happened at dinner with close friends, Renee and Craig Erlich, that I mentioned I was looking to start a new career. And just like that, they said, “Great, you’re coming to work with us!” I’ve known Renee all my life – her parents were my parents’ best friends. Renee and Craig were people I loved and trusted. They had the genuine respect of the community. And their timing couldn’t have been better. They swooped me up and added me to their Star Trax Corporate Events Team (now a part of George P Johnson) and things just clicked together. After two years working on the Corporate Side of the Business, Craig, Renee and Marc Schechter offered me an opportunity to become a partner in the original Star Trax.
Today, we are entertaining at about 300 Bar/Bat Mitzvahs a year – that’s seven or eight a week during our 40-week season which runs between September and June. Between permanent valet parking at restaurants and country clubs and our private valet parking, we provide services at more than 2,000 social events a year.
On business culture and “the power of nice”
Clearly, you derive pleasure from your work. How has your earlier career influenced your business now?
One of my strengths is that I’m all about the culture of our business. To me the social energy around a place is a really big deal. I need our customers and our employees to be happy. We make a lot of our living in a very small community, so we have to be pathological about pleasing everybody. It’s the culture we’re committed to and we have done a great job of keeping the great people around. I have been fortunate to have had great business partners. Craig, Renee, Marc and now Brian Siegel are all first round draft picks, with whom I am proud to be associated.
Do we make mistakes? Absolutely. We have people and technology on board every night. We are involved in 40 events a week and there are things that are just going to happen. A projector breaks, a dancer doesn’t show up, a valet can’t find a car and a customer has to wait. We’re not perfect. But the key to our business is that we work hard to make things right, and when we mess up, we apologize in the right way.
Bottom line? I love being an employer! Counting valet parkers, dancers and entertainers, Star Trax has a part-time staff of about 400 people with 15 full-time equivalents. My favorite day of the month? Pay day! I take pride in being able to pay people twice a month. I have not taken an official count, but I believe, Star Trax is the largest employer of Jewish teens in the area – outside of Tamarack Camps.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever heard or given?
Work hard and be humble. I heard that first from Todd Sachse, CEO of Sachse Construction. Talk about mentors, Todd has been a true friend. Over the years, he’s given me tidbits of strategies that I have never forgotten. I remember sitting in his office one day, talking about my competitors, and he stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Mind your own house. Don’t worry about your competitors. If you are doing the right things, if you have people in the right seats on your bus and you’ve got a great product, everything else will fall into place. The more time you spend worrying about your competitors – the less time you spend on your own business.”
On community involvement, giving back and roles at Federation
I think I’m fortunate, because I run a business that can give services back to the community. We give away about $60,000 a year in services to charitable organizations. For us, it’s nice to have the skilled performers in-house to be able to donate a DJ and dancers or a digital photo product to an event for JARC, Yad Ezra or Tamarack, as well as all kinds of charities outside the Jewish community. Our business hits the sweet spot, where people are out there at events having a great time for a good cause. The gains are far greater than the effort.
In what ways has the Detroit Jewish community inspired your engagement?
Before I started with Star Trax, I was a young Jewish male, not that involved in the community. I was spending 50 to 60 hours a week in the nonprofit world and in my spare time I just wanted to be with my family. But in this world of Star Trax, I’m in bar mitzvah mode; my day-night-weekend job year round is working life cycle events – from brises to mitzvahs to valet parking for shivas – totally entrenched in our great Jewish community.
As a result, I’ve had the great privilege of making thousands of connections and building strong community relationships that have led to service on the boards of JARC and Tamarack. On the JARC board, I chaired the fundraiser, Spring Elation, and enjoyed my time learning from great leaders in this community. I’m in my 12th year on the Tamarack board, currently serving as V.P. of Development, working on new and creative ways to develop funds for the numerous projects that Tamarack has in process. I love the challenge, the level of transparency, planning and commitment of the staff and lay leadership. We’ve had great presidents, Frank Ellias, Brian Kepes, Shelley Hutton and Michael Lippitt, who are community people, smart and totally committed. Currently, my good friend Darren Findling is the President. Darren is extremely sharp and results-driven and has a clear understanding of how to motivate and energize people. I love being an integral part of this board.
In your view, how has the role of Federation changed over the years?
Let me say how gratifying it is to see the youth and energy in the culture there. On Super Sunday, when I come in to make phone calls, there’s nothing like the buzz in the room. We’re all on the same page, excited to raise dollars for our agencies. And that’s just one Sunday a year. Federation runs dozens of programs and hundreds of events, large and small, year round.
Describe your first (or more memorable) mission (or visit) to Israel.
I’ve been to Israel three times, twice on Grosfeld Leadership Missions to Israel and Poland. On the first Mission, I was essentially a “camper,” enjoying the ride for 11 days. It was a great time, with outstanding co-chairs, Susie Schechter and Michael Morse, at the helm and Naomi Miller Rockowitz taking care of us in Israel with her perfect sense of humor and timing. In my estimation, Naomi is a rock star; she knows when to push on, when to back off, and just how to educate us. This past year, I co-chaired Grosfeld 12, with Kristen Gross, another close friend, who I trusted implicitly to help in the selection of another excellent group. Our thanks go to Nancy and Jim Grosfeld for the magic of those missions, where our time, energy and dollars are so well invested in developing our community leadership. The proof is in the stats: Grosfeld Mission participants of the past now hold 90 seats on Jewish community boards and 50 seats on Jewish Federation committees; 15 are recipients of Federation’s Young Leadership Awards; they comprise 10% of the present Federation board and five have served as agency board presidents.
On Building Local and the Food Scene in Detroit
What’s next for you?
I’m constantly asked that question. I am fiscally conservative, not the guy who’s a serial business starter. I am passionate about making my current projects as healthy as possible. Our Local Event business is busy, but our capacity is only 150, and we turn at least 50 larger events away each year. What I can imagine is a bigger event center. I believe that we have the right formula with our customer service model and our relationships to put together a world-class event center
Restaurants: Local Kitchen and Bar! Ronin in Royal Oak, Townhouse – Detroit.
Places to meet for coffee or drinks: Noting that I’ve never had a cup of coffee in my life. Ronin is the ultimate place for drinks. Town Tavern is a great place to meet. And Market, in Birmingham, is phenomenal.
Building in the Detroit skyline: Chase—because they have the Qzine, serving the Quicken crowd for lunch and a great venue for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs! Done the right way, fancy or casual, it’s a unique and flexible venue for 200 guests or more.
Place to take kids or visitors. Nothing better for me than to be at Comerica Park, watching the Tigers on a summer night.
Vacation places: We have a home in Boca Raton, FL. But best family trips ever: travel by RV from Calgary through the Canadian Rockies; and from Las Vegas to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell.
Sports: I’m a 49 year-old Jewish male, so I play tennis and golf. Tennis is our world, I’m also a gigantic basketball fan (pro or college)
Jewish holiday: Is a Bar Mitzvah a holiday?! Rosh Hashana because it brings everybody together.
Jewish Food: Aside from the brisket sliders at Local, it’s got to be Claire Kretchmer’s matzo ball soup.
Guilty pleasures: Chocolate – Hershey’s Bar with almonds. Shoes! (Addicted).
Reading now: Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer – love every page! The Advantage, by Pat Lencioni
Words to live by: Be Extra Nice. (B.E.N. – worn on the sleeve of every employee) I believe in the power of nice. Our tag line: Every person you touch has to fall in love with you – if they don’t, we aren’t doing our job.