In The Business: Interview With Steve Karpas

Steve Karpas is the Managing Director of the highly successful Houston Marathon since 2001. Photo: David Monti

Steve Karpas, 45, is the Managing Director of the Chevron Houston Marathon.  Born in South Africa, his parents emigrated to the United States in 1981, and he has lived most of the last 30 years in Houston.  He attended high school in Houston, then the University of Houston. David Monti of Race Results Weekly had the opportunity to speak with him on January 28 in Houston.

Interview by: David Monti
(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Race Results Weekly: How did you get involved with the Houston Marathon?

Steve Karpas: I was a runner, participating in the local 5K, 10K races.  And actually, ran the New York Marathon as my first, and the Houston Marathon as my second, and then got hooked with that.  At the end of the dot-com burst, I was in the financial industry, and I wanted out of that when that dot-com bubble burst.  I knew a board member on the Houston Marathon who thought I’d be a good fit for a new position.  I interviewed, and that was 11 marathons ago.

RRW: So, you were you on board for the 2001 marathon?

SK: Two thousand-two was my first marathon.  They hired me in 2001.

RRW: The position, as created was the managing director position?

SK: Correct.  That’s correct.

RRW: What were your initial responsibilities of the job at the time?

SK: Everything.  When they hired me, there was a 17 year-old receptionist and myself.  I was the second hire, and I was responsible for sponsorships, for branding, for taking out the trash.  Absolutely everything.  Back in the day, we had no sponsors for the most part that were allowing us to grow as an event.  We needed more.  They knew that, my board knew that, and I was tasked with going to get sponsorships.  I can still remember one of the board members saying, “sink or swim time.”  We landed a few big names, big sponsorships right off the bat, and that snowballed.  Now, I look back at those times back in the early 2000′s and how far we’ve come, it still amazes me.  From two people, now we have a full-time staff of nine, full-time/year round, and several part-timers, and several paid consultants.  It’s amazing the growth we’ve had.

RRW: When you came in the door, how big was the event in terms of participants, and how many events were there?

SK: We had the marathon and a four-miler.  The marathon was about 5500-5000 people, the four-miler was about 3000 people.  And now, this is our largest field ever –2011 is our largest field ever– of about 9500 (for the marathon).  In the half-marathon, I think we’re at 11,500; and the 5-K we’ll be at 5000.  We also have a kids’ race the day before.  The kids’ race gets about 5000 as well.  

RRW: How has the job changed from the beginning when you were the one-armed paper hanger doing everything to what it is today?

SK: First of all, Carly the 17 year-old girl, she’s still there.  It’s still her and I from Day One.  So, our roles have definitely changed.  Carly no longer answers the phone like she used to.  She’s in charge of the operations at the George R. Brown Convention Center (the event’s staging area), making sure the runners are taken care of before and after the race.  I’m still in charge of sponsorships.  That’s my main function, sponsorships and branding, marketing and community relations.  Then, we have a team now which handles volunteers, a team that handles merchandise, handles course issues, registration.  That’s all stuff that I used to do that is now being done by new hires.  Media.  I’ve even taken a step back to concentrate more on sponsorships.  As you know, it’s extremely important to allow us to do things in the fashion that we want to do.

RRW: Tell me about the first time that you pitched and landed a sponsor for this event.  Do you remember that?

SK: Yes, I do.  Timing is everything.  There was down the road from the office was a new development, a real estate development, sort of like an outdoor mall.  It was very fashionable, with a Starbucks, etc.  It was just opening up, very European-looking.  The developer was an individual who really had no ties to running.  But, I happened to be in the Starbucks and starting talking to him about his new development, and “who are you?” and “who are you?”  The next thing you know, I said I can give you some visibility for this new development, and the next thing he became the title sponsor of the 5-K.  And, it just snowballed after that.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  The first Starbucks casual encounter turning into a sponsorship.  And the next thing, it was 24 Hour Fitness.  Very soon after that it became easy.  The running boom happened, and Houston so rich with corporations willing to attach themselves to good, solid community events that it gave me a big barrel to go fishing in.

RRW: When you’re not in race ramp-up mode like you are today, what is a typical day like for you at the office?

SK: Is there an off-season?  I don’t think there is, and I say that with a straight face.  So, there really isn’t an off-season.  We are, as you know, hosting the 2012 Olympic Trials for both men and women.  We began planning for that months ago, never mind the race, the Houston Marathon coming up this weekend.  I’m always making sure my sponsors are taken care of, whether it is with the reports which they require, which is becoming more and more frequent, justifying their sponsorship roles.  Branding the event, placing adds in magazines which have to be put out months in advance.  Dealing with artwork and the look and feel of the following year; we always change our artwork every year, and I’m involved with that.  So, the day is never empty.  It’s always a full day.  I’m very fortunate.  I’m not going to lie about it.  I enjoy what I do and that makes it pleasurable.  

RRW: What would you say was your biggest disaster during your tenure, and what did you learn from it?

SK: I hope you’re not jinxing me.  What I learned is never let them see you sweat.  There’s a solution to every problem.  Yeah, we’ve had absolutely fires, so to speak.  I remember a sinkhole opening up on the course, a 20-foot (6m) wide sinkhole opening up at 5:00 p.m. Saturday night on our racecourse.  We looked at this thing: it was five o’clock and there was a 20-foot sinkhole on the course!  Your panic buttons were hit, but sure enough the City was there within an hour and that problem was solved.  So, whatever issue we’ve had, we always seem to find a logical solution.  This weekend we’re going to have some challenges with weather (thunder storms with dangerous lightning were predicted). We haven’t had a situation like Chicago had.  We are in Houston.  My biggest fear is, never mind the cold, that the day could be on the warm side.  But, it hasn’t happened.  

RRW: What are you most proud of your accomplishments over this decade?

SK: Oh, yeah.  The sponsorships that have come into this organization, the growth of the organization that I’ve been a part of, all the human interest stories that I’ve seen and been a part of and touched people’s lives.  These are people I look into their eyes and actually get to meet them.  I enjoy that.  I’m very proud that I’ve changed someone’s life, or been a part of changing someone’s life.  For example, my kid, my son, went to a particular school that we got them involved with the marathon, their charity.  And the next thing, we raised $30,000 for the school.  Anyway, I was at a breakfast with my son.  The next thing you know, a lady and her son came up –I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me, I wasn’t even wearing a marathon shirt– and they said, “You’re Steve Karpas.”  I said, “yes.”  They said, “We just want to thank you for all you do for the school.”  My son doesn’t go to that school anymore, but we still raise for that school every year 30-grand, $30,000.  That’s just one of many charities; we have 50 charities that we impact.  With all of the people involved, I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

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