An Interview with Chip Davis, President & CEO of Mannheim Steamroller
By Matthew Brand and Phil Hansen, Creighton University MBA students
Chip Davis is a world renowned composer and founder of Mannheim Steamroller. After growing up in a rural Ohio community, Chip chose to attend the University of Michigan due to their prestigious music program. Chip's love has always been composing, so after college he took several jobs that eventually culminated in writing jingles to sell advertisements in the Omaha area. This simple job allowed him to realize his dreams and play/write music for a living. The following is an interview with Chip based on the subject of ethics.
What do you like most about your work?
I grew up in music. I never contemplated being a com poser, it’s something I did. My dad was a music teacher; my mom was a music teacher. The love that I really had was towards composing, but where do you get a job as a composer?
And the least?
The aspects that are out of our own control. You can’t necessarily plan that you’re going to get the best shelf space. The business side can be the challenge.
Have you ever had a mentor?
Not really. I grew up in classical music and the com posers I listened to would be them. All of the composing I had done, I learned by analyzing them.
Do you see any connections between how you were raised and how you handle ethical situations at work?
I was raised in a farm town of 500 people. My grandfather was a country doctor and my grandmother was a piano teacher. Growing up in a farm town and having that clear view of things and living around natural stuff has a tendency to ground a person. All along I was pretty innocent because I wasn’t exposed to anything.
What drew you to Omaha and why have you stayed?
I was hired to compress the original score of the musical “Hair” from a 20 person pit band to a 4 person band for dinner theater productions. The dinner theater show was originally planned to run for 6 weeks but ended up running for 26 weeks. The guy who owned the studio that I worked in for the dinner theater hired me to write jingles. That’s where I learned about budgets, business, pitches, and selling.
Do you feel Omaha has higher values than other parts of the world?
Omaha has more of the down home basic Midwest work ethic than many places do. And I think that the quality of life is higher than many places. There is a freedom in this kind of market, it’s a big city and it’s halfway between anywhere.
Do you think ethics can be taught in a classroom or is it more engrained in the culture?
I think it should be high lighted in the classroom. I don’t know if you can entirely influence someone particularly in college, be cause by then people have made up their minds of who they are and what they’re going to be and what they want to do. I think a lot of that is in the foundation of how you grow up and in your family. Then the people we’re exposed to, like our teachers, teach us ways to look at life.
When you say “highlighted," what do you mean?
It needs to be brought back up. You probably know a lot of this stuff but it’s really easy in life to get defocused. Plus, you change as you get older and you view things from a different angle. And you find out what seemed really important ten years ago isn’t really all that important. So I think in the classroom, you can be reacquainted if for nothing else to help you remember something you may have already known but forgotten.
How have you used your music to help others and why do you do charity work?
When Yellowstone Park burned, nobody really paid too much attention. I really felt like somebody needs to point out how important parks are. I’ll get onto some issue like that and it’s important to bring those things to the consciousness of people. With Yellowstone, I did 22 con certs and I raised a bunch of money. More than the money, I raised awareness of what the park was. We had 100 million trackable impressions for the Yellowstone concerts. That be came a really good thing and a responsible thing. We were able to help, the money was good too, but park attendance went up 36%.
Can you tell us about a couple ethical dilemmas that you have had to deal with at work?
Nebraska is a right to work state, but the musicians are unionized. There are times when we couldn’t afford to pay union scale for players but we could provide work, so we were going against the union. But there were times when we paid three times more than the unions asked. So there was maybe an ethical dilemma that the union said “those guys are violating union rules” but on the other hand sometimes we were paying more than what they asked for. It was out of our control because the client was saying you’ve got x amount to spend.
Can you talk about the ethical culture at American Gramaphone?
I treat everybody the same. I’m in the trenches with them, I work as hard as they do and I don’t expect everyone to be my run around or my lackey. It creates team work; you can’t pull this stuff off on your own. You need a team of horses pulling the sleigh. The best way to get teamwork is to treat everyone the same. That’s my overall philosophy about people and life, which goes back to the way I was raised in a little farm town. I didn’t know if anybody was different from anybody else, why would they be? They’re all human beings and they all have the right to this or that and to enjoy what they do.
What are the unspoken rules in your organization?
A lot of times they say that a company is the reflection of the owner. I’m sure there are certain things for which we don’t have written rules. We have an employee manual; I don’t know if anybody’s read it. I can’t even tell you where it is. There hasn’t been any reason. I can’t think of anybody who has been fired for anything like they’re not doing their job. They never end up walking in the door if they’re not already doing it for some reason. And once they get in here if they’re not doing it, they adjust themselves. It’s like water seeks its own level. They either fit in and if they don’t they weed themselves out.
What do you do when a coworker has different ethical values than your self?
They take care of themselves apparently. That’s really rare if that’s happened.
What do you think the biggest ethical challenges are that face the younger generation today?
When I grew up people on TV were doing good. The model was to see characters on TV doing good things helping people. That maybe isn’t so true today. Bad guys sometimes get a lot more press than the good guys. A lot of times the good guys are the last ones to get the press. In a changing world, those are some of the challenges the younger generations have to face because the role models don’t come from the same ilk as when I was a child.
Do you have any tips for our generation dealing with those issues?
It all depends on where your ethics are at. I’d say, keep an eye on the truth. Make sure you figure out what the truth is and do things that help people. If you do that then you’ll have a certain amount of ethics built in.