Ed Harris, the Chief Marketing Officer at the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, a private, non-profit membership organization which actively promotes the Valley Forge and Montgomery County area, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Roxborough, attending Germantown Academy, where his basketball team once squared off against Kobe Bryant’s Lower Merion, his first job at Outback Steakhouse, and what attracted him to Saint Joseph’s University.
Harris also discussed developing an interest in business, his internship with And One, a Paoli-based basketball apparel company, the people who saw promise in him, and the message that the VFTCB is trying to convey, as well as what lies ahead for the organization.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Ed?
I was born in 1978, the second of three boys in our family in Roxborough – in the northwest corner of Philadelphia.
What did your parents do?
My father was a career social worker. My mom is a nurse.
What memories do you have of growing up in Roxborough?
Most of my childhood memories are from playing sports with my two brothers and friends from the neighborhood in our back alley, seeing movies at the old Andorra movie theater, and riding our bikes up to Ridge Avenue – especially for the big 4th of July parade.
Did you play any sports in high school or college?
I played competitive sports in high school and was one of the captains on the basketball team as a senior at Germantown Academy. In 1996, my high school team played against Kobe Bryant when he was a Senior at Lower Merion High School. Bryant scored 29 points against us! That summer Kobe was drafted into the NBA, and I landed a summer job at Outback Steakhouse in Conshohocken.
I was also on the golf team and ran cross country in high school, but basketball was my passion. I actually started going to Germantown Academy in 8th grade and in the senior class that year were two future stars – Alvin Williams, who would go on to play basketball at Villanova and have a 10-year NBA career and Bradley Cooper who became a giant Hollywood actor.
What was your first job?
My older brother had a paper route that he passed on to me. At the end of the month, I would have to knock on doors and collect money from people. There were a few houses on my route that got a free paper because they had such giant dogs. I figured those people could have a few free papers!
What was your first hourly job?
Aside from working at a summer camp as a basketball counselor, I also hosted at Outback Steakhouse when I was 17 years old. In that job, I gave out the buzzers to people who were waiting hungrily and not so patiently.
That job at Outback was my first taste of customer service. Our manager would come to the front of the restaurant and tell me, “if the wait is an hour, tell them it’s forty-five minutes. Send them to the bar to wait the extra fifteen.”
I was in high school, so I was sixteen or seventeen. Being the host is undoubtedly the cleanest job in the restaurant. You also work with people from all walks of life – customers, servers, kitchen staff, cooks, management. It teaches you a lot about multi-tasking.
What music were you listening to in high school and college?
In the mid to late 90’s, I was listening to everything from Hip Hop and Tupac Shakur to alternative rock like the Counting Crows and Blink 182 who were new at the time.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and majored in marketing and then years later went back to school at night to get an MBA at Boston College when I was working as a brand marketing manager at the headquarters for Timberland, the boot company, in New Hampshire.
Why did you choose St. Joe’s?
I was extremely into sports in high school, specifically basketball. I was the captain on the team at Germantown Academy. I had visions of playing basketball at a big university and traveling to other schools around the country. I knew there were two positions available on St. Joe’s team my freshman year. I didn’t make the team, but I think that was probably for the best in the end.
Looking back, was St. Joe’s a good choice for you?
Absolutely! The small class sizes were conducive to getting to know my professors and having them push us students. The school emphasizes character, values, and integrity in its mission, and I always appreciated that approach. I received a well-rounded education there.
When did you first begin to notice you were interested in business?
My parents were never considered wealthy, but they had an incredible work ethic. They sent my one brother and me to Germantown Academy, which is one of the best private schools in the region, because they wanted us to have the best education provided. My younger brother went to St. Joseph’s Prep. They were elite and expensive schools, so I was always surrounded by kids with certain advantages I didn’t have. Doing well in that environment taught me that I could also attain success and “think big,” just like the families associated with the school.
In pursuing business, I realized that the majority of the business world was not a good fit for me. It was marketing that I excelled in because of my creativity, which I can attribute to my parents and my private schooling. I was never passionate about studying numbers and equations, but I was very good at thinking through strategy.
What do you get your creative flair?
I was really inspired by my dad. His 9-to-5 was social work, but on the side, he would paint on canvass or he would be illustrating. He’s a very talented artist. I was always inspired by all the works of art hanging in our house. Other families would ask him to paint portraits of their children. Any creativity I have comes from him.
In high school, I was encouraged to take Advanced Visual Arts. I wasn’t sure when I would ever use the class, but I rediscovered it in college while I was studying abroad in Europe in 1999.
From that study abroad experience, I came back and began a path to a career in marketing. So much of my role in my current position is looking at photography, videos, and creative writing and coming up with new creative ideas and concepts from there. It all stemmed from having an interest in art and being around it growing up.
Who were the people who saw something special in you and gave you a break, Ed?
A gentleman named Jeffrey Smith hired me as an intern for the And 1 Basketball Company while I was still in college. I had two job offers coming out of St. Joe’s – one from Vanguard and one from And 1.
And 1 was a renegade start-up at the time based in Paoli. Parents and teachers thought I should take the Vanguard opportunity seriously, but I knew I wanted to be in a more creative environment. I loved my internship at And 1 because it was about brand-building. I knew I wanted to focus my career on developing brands through advertising and marketing.
Jeffrey gave me a firsthand look at this type of development because the company was a start-up. They were signing up NBA athletes to wear their products, so I was going to photoshoots with NBA players. As a basketball fan, this was a dream. From And 1, Jeffrey went on to the West Coast to work for Nike. He was one of my mentors early on and really gave me a shot.
What do you think Jeffrey Smith saw in you?
I penned a letter to him as a student while I was a sophomore at St. Joe’s, begging him to hire me as a summer intern. I read about the company and knew I wanted to work there. I explained that no one in my family had ever been in business and that I was really interested in learning more about marketing. I offered to work for free!
He brought me in for an interview and saw how hungry and passionate I was for the sport and business marketing. I was going to the office between classes, as much as I could, and absorbed everything I could. When I was graduating, they created a position to hire me.
That first internship really catapulted me into brand marketing. From there, Converse was purchased by Nike and wanted to get back to their roots in basketball. I went from a start-up to Converse under the Nike Inc portfolio, which has massive budgets compared to And 1.
That’s where I really started to elevate my broader marketing knowledge. We laid the foundation for Converse to be relevant again. When we showed up to revitalize the brand, we couldn’t give Converse sneakers away. Today, they’re everywhere!
Who else saw promise in you?
Diane Phillips. She was my advisor at St. Joe’s. Years after graduating, she invited me back to campus to talk about my experience as a young employee at Under Armor, Converse, and some of the other places I worked. Diane called me out of the blue one summer and asked me if I would consider teaching.
At first, I said I didn’t think I would be that good of a teacher. She called me back a week later and said they really needed someone. I said I would do it for one semester, and that was six years ago.
I really attribute the teaching experience to coming out of my shell and becoming a more comfortable and better public speaker. It forces me to articulate my thoughts and hold the student’s attention for the spam of the lecture.
Looking forward, what’s ahead for you and the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board for 2020 and beyond?
As a destination marketer, we aim to attract visitors to our area who can ultimately help boost the County’s economy. To stay competitive, as marketers, we have to continue to evolve and share our unique “Montco” story with a broad audience.
Over the last few years, we’ve added features to our website to make it easier to book your stay, rolled out a mascot and a comic book series to help bring attention to our family-fun attractions.
Earlier this year, we also started enlisting guest bloggers and testing new social media features like Facebook Live and Instagram stories to reach a broader range of consumer segments.
In the last 18 months, we also introduced “Montco Makers,” an app to make it easier for people to discover Montgomery County’s breweries, wineries, and distilleries.
Being able to talk to the next group of visitors on their terms is important. We need to make sure we are continually putting our messaging in places where people can discover us. We have to be in the right place, as well as be able to tell a really great story. We need to reinvent ourselves to stay relevant continually. We need to tell a story that’s authentic, fresh, and memorable.
In tourism, specifically, we need to make sure people see our destination as a fun place to be. That’s why our team is always trying to think about what’s next. Whether it’s a mascot, which is very unusual for our business, or a kid’s comic book series, we need to inspire families to want to come here and stay here.
In a sentence or two, what is Montgomery County’s Tourism and Convention Board’s message?
Valley Forge and Montgomery County is rooted in history and leading the way of the future. I say that because we will always have the revolutionary war historic sites as part of our DNA. But heading into 2020, we have so much momentum in terms of development.
Adding a place like Lego Land to the Plymouth Meeting Mall, adding an entire wing to an already incredible King of Prussia Mall, knowing that an innovative business like Top Golf is coming to King of Prussia, the Town Center project that turned an old golf course into a modern main street, and so much more.
Companies like SEI Investments are expanding their corporate footprint and new businesses like Founding Farmer’s are coming into the area to test our market before expanding in the region. There’s the history piece that we are proud of and rooted in, but we like to think that Montgomery County can be a leading destination in the future too.
What do you like to do in your free time, Ed?
When I have free time, my favorite thing to do is to paint on canvass while listening to music. There’s something about painting a landscape and listening to great music that helps me tune out from everything else around me. I wish I could do it more. There’s a relatively new place in King of Prussia called Muse Paint Bar that I have enjoyed going to. Going to a place like Muse forces me to get out of the house to do things I enjoy.
I also love playing with my kids. I have an eight-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. Fortunately, they have a dad who is in tourism and can take them to a bunch of awesome attractions in the region!
Finally, Ed, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My father would always tell me growing up, “the cream rises to the top.” And through life, I’ve realized that lots of people will have advantages, financial, political, etc. but those who work hard and are dedicated to their craft will ultimately succeed.
Two other phrases that have stuck with me are “Be real and take a chance,” which comes from the book, The Velveteen Rabbit. That phrase was part of the message at our high school graduation from the keynote speaker.
The second phrase came from a boss I had early in my career. She would often remind me and everyone who worked for her, to focus on the work, ignore the drama, and everything works out.”
Publisher’s Note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this profile.