Commencement Address

Fall 2012

Dan Musser
Commencement Address
Saturday, December 15, 2012

 

Thank you, President Haynes.  Thank you to members of the board, faculty and staff and most of all, to the students of Northern Michigan University, particularly those graduating today. 

This is a landmark day in the lives of each of you who are graduating -- a day that you will remember for the rest of your lives.  I am honored to have been asked to share this celebration with you. 

You are graduates today because of your own intelligence and hard work and because you, your families and the taxpayers of this state have invested substantially in your future.  You can be proud that you have earned a diploma from Northern Michigan University.  This school is a great example of the kind of excellence and quality that can be produced by a publicly supported university.  

It also represents the way that institutions can and must successfully adjust to changing times and changing needs.  

Northern State Normal School was founded in 1899 with an initial enrollment of 32 students and a focus on educating teachers.  Since its founding as an education school, however, this school's name has changed five times as enrollment climbed and as students looked for training in other areas.  This school has evolved from strictly an educational college to a comprehensive university of 10,000 students working toward degrees in 180 different undergraduate and graduate programs.  

I am here today representing an institution that is actually 12 years older than Northern Michigan University.  Grand Hotel opened its doors to the public on July 10, 1887 to receive summer vacationers who arrived either by lake steamer or by rail.  

In the intervening 125 years, our season has expanded from two months to six months and our annual guest list has expanded from a relative small number of wealthy families who spent the entire season to 130,000 visitors of all ages from all walks of life who stay an average of two and one-half to three nights. 

If you were to set out today to create a successful business model, you probably wouldn’t follow ours.  We’re a hospitality venue nearly 300 miles from the closest major metropolitan area.  We’re on an island, which means you can’t drive up to our entrance.  We’re closed six months every year.  Each spring we have to hire upwards of 600 employees to open our doors.  Mackinac Island has about 500 full-time residents, including children and seniors.  That means almost all of our employees have to leave homes in other parts of the country and the world to work at Grand Hotel on a job they know will end in the fall.  

And yet, it works.  We have a loyal team of skilled and dedicated employees who come back to us year after year.  And we have a loyal family of guests who come back year after year.  And we are listed annually as one of the top hotels in the world by such prestigious publications as Travel & Leisure magazine and Condé Nast Traveler.  

So what’s the secret?

To me, the story of Grand Hotel from its beginning to today is the story of people who had a vision, who followed their heart to do something they loved and who worked hard at it.

The vision began in the late 1800s with Francis Stockbridge, a lumber baron who eventually became a United States Senator.  Sen. Stockbridge loved Mackinac Island.  He believed the island needed a major hotel that fully utilized the island’s beauty.  So he purchased the site on which Grand Hotel is located in 1882.  His goal was to find someone who would build such a hotel.  Five years later he found a builder and arranged financing for its construction from the three major transportation companies that served the island at that time – the Michigan Central Railroad, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad and the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company.

These companies wanted a new and grand destination on Mackinac Island to which they could transport people.  

In the fall of 1886, the foundation where the hotel sits today was built, high on the bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.  During the course of the winter of 1886 and 1887, more than one million feet of Michigan white pine was milled in Cheboygan, brought to the island over the ice, and stockpiled where our tennis courts are today at the base of the hill.  In the spring of 1887, 400 carpenters, living in a tent city at the base of the hill, constructed the main façade and structure that you see today.  The goal was to complete the hotel in 90 days.  They failed.  It took them 93 days.  On July 10, 1887, Grand Hotel opened its doors to our first guests.

In the intervening years, through two World Wars, one Great Depression, and a more recent Great Recession, we have not missed a season. 

My family’s history with Grand Hotel goes back to 1919, which means we have been involved in the hotel for 75 percent of its history.  My great uncle, William Stewart Woodfill, came to northern Michigan from Indiana in 1918 because he suffered from hay fever.  Traveling to northern Michigan to escape such maladies was the fashion of the time, and he originally went to work at the Arlington Hotel in Petoskey, Michigan.  After one season there, the manager said if you are really serious about this business, you should go work for Logan Ballard up at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.  He really knows the summer hotel business.  So my great uncle did.

In 1919 he went to work as a clerk at the front desk, which then and still today is the nerve center of any hotel.  Uncle Stewart approached Mr. Ballard and told him that he would work for no pay, with the understanding that, at the end of the season, Mr. Ballard could pay him what he thought he was worth.  My uncle’s brashness and dedication to learning the business appealed to Mr. Ballard and they became good friends.  More importantly, Mr. Ballard became Uncle Stewart’s mentor in the hotel business.

Following Mr. Ballard’s death in 1923, Uncle Stewart went into partnership with the heirs of Mr. Ballard’s estate and the auditor, and quite frankly hated it.  My uncle did not like having partners, so he sold out and took paper with the thought that he would go live the life of Reilly.  But the stock market crash of ’29 happened and Uncle Stewart learned pretty quickly that his paper was worth nothing if the hotel wasn’t thriving, and so he came back and foreclosed on the hotel.  

Eventually, In March 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression at a time when all the nation’s banks had been closed, Uncle Stewart was the sole bidder in an auction to take the hotel out of receivership.  

In a 1969 speech, my uncle said his family and friends were not enthusiastic about his decision to purchase the hotel.

“They suggested,” he said, “a bucket be secured, a sterling silver bucket if need be to please my expensive tastes, and that my money be put into it and poured down the sink. This would shorten the ordeal of losing my money and make it much easier!”

But my uncle had a vision.  He was following his heart, doing something that he loved and he was prepared to work very hard at it.

He also was a wonderful promoter.  He convinced Ripley’s of Believe it or Not fame to promote us as the world’s largest summer hotel with the longest porch in the world.  This nationwide promotion enabled him to kickstart and expand our brand beyond Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, which had been our traditional markets to that date.  

He was also the first of our type of carriage trade hotels to take conventions.  His peers warned that by adding conventions, he would scare away the wonderful social guests who came for weeks or months at a time with their staff and steamer trunks.  But Uncle Stewart could see that with good roads coming and cars that worked, travel was going to change.  The idea of people leaving their homes for the entire summer was slowly going to diminish.  So he began to transition from a hotel that hosted guests who stayed for an entire 90 day season to today where our average stay is about 3 days in the summer and 2.5 days in the shoulder season.  

My great uncle also worked with my wife’s grandfather, Senator Prentiss Brown, to help see that the Mackinac Bridge was built.  This has helped commerce, not just on Mackinac Island, but obviously throughout the entire Straits area and the Upper Peninsula.  In fact, it had a major impact on the enrollment here at Northern Michigan University.   

The next key person with vision was my father, Dan Musser, who worked for Uncle Stewart right out of college.  Uncle Stewart told my father, whose own father had died, that he would pay for my father’s college education if he agreed to work at Grand Hotel for at least two years.  If they liked each other after that, then they would continue.  Well they did like each other and it worked.  

My father brought with him an incredible attention to detail and his own vision for transforming Grand Hotel, which was complemented by my mother’s love of beauty, something that is reflected throughout the hotel whether you are in our rooms, our public areas or in our magnificent grounds.  He also brought a commitment to excellence and a refusal to cut corners.  He has always seen Grand Hotel as a state treasure and our family role as being caretakers of this unique institution.

I grew up watching all of this, watching my father work funny hours for six months out of the year.  I thought this was a crazy business.  I always liked numbers, so between my sophomore and junior years in college, I decided to work at the Board of Trade in Chicago, thinking that that would be a better lifestyle and something that would fit my knack for numbers.  I realized pretty quickly that whatever you want to do, if you want to do it well, you are going to put some time into it and you are going to work hard.  

It hit me at that point that I really like our business.  I like interacting with a wide range of staff members with different life experiences and expertise from different parts of the country and the world.  I also like interacting with our wide variety of guests who travel from our wonderful state, across the country and from other parts of the world.  

And I like being able to implement my own vision in continuing the legacy of Grand Hotel.  For instance, in recent years we have focused on adding family friendly amenities and offerings so that families with young children would start to come to us and create our next generation of guests.  I am proud to say that we have accomplished that.

Some parts of the vision remain unchanged.  We have always asked gentlemen to wear a coat and tie and ladies to dress in their finest after 6:30 p.m.  We think that this creates an atmosphere that certainly is unique, particularly more so in these days.  I feel that, while it is not for everyone, there is a niche there that we do not intend on changing or leaving.  My father has always said that it does not cost us a dime to make gentlemen put a coat and tie on, but it changes the feeling in our Main Dining Room instantly.  

All that being said, though, I have recognized the fact that the traveling public has changed and not everyone appreciates the more formal atmosphere of our Main Dining Room.  So in recent years, we have added several restaurant options with a wide variety of food choices in casual settings.  We have found that by introducing this added value, while always keeping our mind on the very basics of what a hotel is (good clean rooms, good honest food that is prepared well and served in a truly gracious and friendly way), we will succeed.

What is the lesson of all this?  As you embark from Northern Michigan University, whatever you decide to do, if you want to be successful it is going to take dedication, hard work and character.

One of the most powerful Americans of the 20th century was Bernard Baruch, a financial genius who became a multi-millionaire before he was 30 back in the early 1900s when a million dollars was real money.  He then spent much of his life advising American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy on economic matters and other issues that called for his wisdom.

At the age of 87 he made this observation about changes he had seen in his life: “I have witnessed a whole succession of technological revolutions,” he said.  “But none of them has done away with the need for character in the individual or the ability to think.”

I think that sums up what has made Grand Hotel so successful through the years – leaders with strong character, the ability to think and a willingness to follow their heart.  

The late Steve Jobs put it this way in 2005 when he delivered the commencement address at Stanford University: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary.”

If you follow what you love, I am confident that you will be successful, particularly with the degree that you just earned.  

As you move forward from Northern Michigan University do what is in your heart.  Do it well. Do it with enthusiasm.  Do it with all your might.  And don’t forget to enjoy the trip.