The Newport mansions’ fiscal maintenance man

MODEL OF CONSISTENCY: The Preservation Society of Newport County Director of Finance Jim Burress, left, discusses budget plans with Accounting Manager Hugh M. Collard. A model of The Breakers mansion is in the foreground. /
MODEL OF CONSISTENCY: The Preservation Society of Newport County Director of Finance Jim Burress, left, discusses budget plans with Accounting Manager Hugh M. Collard. A model of The Breakers mansion is in the foreground. /

Remember the cost of your last home improvement? Now, imagine the expense of replacing the roof of The Breakers or the marble terrace of Marble House.
The ongoing maintenance of the Newport mansions – internationally known architectural gems – is no small financial feat. For the last 16 years, The Preservation Society of Newport County Director of Finance Jim Burress has been instrumental in the care of the nonprofit’s 11 historic properties and its overall fiscal health.
Burress has seen The Preservation Society’s operating budget double – from $8 million to $17 million – during his tenure. He has helped guide an operation that attracts and accommodates more than 800,000 admissions annually and operates distinctly different businesses, including sales, reproductions, and corporate and special events.
“Jim’s financial leadership … has made The Preservation Society of Newport County the well-managed, financially sound organization that it is today,” said The Preservation Society CEO Trudy Coxe.
Coxe said over the past 10 years Burress led a host of capital restoration projects that reduced deferred building maintenance from $13 million to less than $2 million. She also points to the successful implementation last year of a sophisticated digital ticketing system for admissions.
Coxe said Burress’ financial wherewithal is not limited to capital improvements. Coxe said he led an effort to make The Preservation Society the first major nonprofit in the state to successfully adopt a high-deductible health plan coupled with a Health Savings Account.
Coxe said Burress also shined while helping the nonprofit weather the recession. He did so by reducing the operating budget by $1 million without laying off a full-time employee. Ultimately, the belt-tightening led to a $350,000 surplus.
How did he do it?
“I said no a lot,” said Burress, who lives in Middletown. “We are a fiscally conservative organization. We live within our means. If people said we need a new truck, I said we don’t have the money … so we will need to get the truck fixed.”
Sacrifice was the key to surviving the recession without cutting programs or laying off staff. It was a test for the nonprofit on how fiscally creative the organization could be.
Burress said when the market crashed in October 2008 the organization took a historical look at the impact of previous recessions, not that it helped. “We saw no correlations. Some years admissions went down, other years they were flat or went up,” he explained. “We wanted to be conservative and budgeted down, estimating a 6 percent drop” in admissions.
It turned out that the admissions went up 4 percent that year, but Burress would not have traded the experience because of some unintended benefits.
When preparing for the worst and hoping to avoid cuts to its approximately 100 full-time employees, the organization decided to cut back on part-time summer hires. In turn, full-time workers spent part of their workweek taking on the functions of seasonal help. That meant leaving their offices to go to the mansions to work with the public.
Burress himself would spend part of his week handing out audio players used for self-guided tours through the mansions. When the summer of 2009 passed, the move had saved $200,000 in operating expenses.
However, the benefits could be seen beyond an Excel spreadsheet.
“It allowed employees who don’t typically work with the public to get out there and see firsthand what 3,000 people going through the mansions on a summer day looks like,” Burress said. “It was a great experience.” It was so useful that the organization continues the program on a smaller scale today, not as a financial tool but as a way to help employees appreciate the mission of The Preservation Society and the importance of teamwork.
Burress is quick to stress that these innovative ideas don’t come out of one office. He said the dedication of the organization’s board, 260 part- and full-time employees, volunteers and its leader allows for out-of-the-box thinking.
Coxe gave her staff the freedom to make bold moves to help the organization. An example of this is Burress’ efforts to adopt a high-deductible health plan with Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). Facing skyrocketing health care costs that threatened The Preservation Society’s generous benefit package, Burress researched and implemented the high-deductible plan. The Preservation Society became the first major nonprofit in the state to offer only a high-deductible plan to its employees.
The organization continues to fund 100 percent of plan premiums and also contributes to employee HSAs to help lessen the cost of deductibles. In the first year, the plan saved The Preservation Society approximately 30 percent in health care costs, and Burress estimates total savings over five years at about $1 million.
In addition to his responsibilities for budgeting, accounting, financial reporting, tax compliance, insurance, the nonprofit’s endowment and human resources, Burress heads up information technology efforts.
If technology is the last thing you think of walking through the century-old mansions, Burress will refer you to the ticket that gave you access to the facilities. In 2010, the Preservation Society invested $300,000 in a sophisticated digital-ticketing system, which has revolutionized the institution’s ability to manage and coordinate ticket sales and memberships.
“We have 11 properties open for paid admissions. Because we are not on one campus, [but] spread throughout the city, it was difficult to have
an integrated system,” Burress explained.
The new system allows for tickets to be purchased and printed at a gate and customers can even print them at home. The ability to print and scan the tickets provided numerous advantages, including improved customer service, elimination of bulk-ticket printing costs and access to data.
“We now have information that we always wanted. For example, we can track how much time between houses visitors take, which order they go in, where they start their tours …We can now do all sorts of data analysis to understand the market,” he said.
Burress, a certified public accountant, believes the jobs of a chief financial officer at a nonprofit and for-profit have slight differences. First, he says, is that profits go back into the nonprofit’s mission, while company shareholders typically enjoy surpluses. He added that nonprofits tend to have more stakeholders, ranging from board members to the city, neighbors to donors.
What makes a good chief financial officer?
Burress said, “You have to be disciplined enough to live within your means.” That applies even when your office is a 123-year-old Romanesque Revival mansion. •

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