Dick DeVore admits he made a mistake.
The retired businessman, who has been on the Greater Wichita YMCA’s metro board for 40 years and has the South Y named in his honor, disagreed with the selection committee that hired Dennis Schoenebeck as general executive in 1990.
“He knows I didn’t vote for him,” DeVore said. “He was my very, very strong second.”
He’s thrilled he was outvoted.
To understand what Schoenebeck has done, DeVore suggests visiting other Y systems nationally.
“And then come here, because there’s no comparison,” he said. “Nobody else is even in the shadow.”
It’s a sentiment that business people throughout the city echo.
“He is probably the best executive officer of any nonprofit organization maybe in the country,” said developer Steve Clark, who is president of the metro board.
“If Dennis was in private business, he would probably be giving Charles Koch a run for the money.”
When Schoenebeck arrived, the Y system had three membership branches – West, East and Central – a day camp, one child care center and nine acres of sports fields. Today, the system has eight membership branches, including four with water parks, about 60 child care centers, a day camp, two indoor sports centers and about 105 acres of sports fields.
Schoenebeck, who makes about $240,000 a year, took a $1.8 million operating budget and grew it to $40 million.
Twenty five percent of Sedgwick and Butler county residents are members of the Y. Schoenebeck said that compares to Y systems nationally that are likely to range from 5 percent to 10 percent community participation.
Another 20 percent of Sedgwick and Butler residents who aren’t members participate in Y programs.
When Schoenebeck took over, the Y served 20,000 people annually. Today, it serves that many people a day.
“No other organization would come close to touching the number of lives in Wichita,” said Marilyn Pauly, Commerce Bank vice chairman and Y metro board member for more than 15 years.
Schoenebeck, 60, is nonchalant about his success in creating such a strong system.
“It’s fun to see them used,” he said.
It might be natural to expect someone so successful to have a dynamic, even larger-than-life personality.
That’s not Schoenebeck.
He speaks with an unemotional casualness – rarely does his expression dramatically change – that perhaps belies the power of what he can do.
Schoenebeck the leader is more like Schoenebeck the former wrestler. One look at him in his button-down shirt, sans tie, and it’s obvious why he’s still known as “The Neck” in certain circles.
He’s strong, hard-charging and more of a focused grappler than someone known for extravagant actions.
“He’s humble, would be what I’d say,” Pauly said. “He lets others take the credit for the things that he leads.”
‘No great ambition’
Schoenebeck hardly had aspirations of one day leading anyone. In fact, it was only a stint in a meat-packing plant in his native Green Bay during his senior year of high school that convinced him to go to college.
“You carry 400-pound pieces of beef for 12 hours straight, you’re looking for another career,” he said.
He got a physical education degree from La Crosse University. “I had no great ambition.”
He taught and coached wrestling and football, which he also used to play, at a private Jesuit high school. It closed after his first year, which was a surprise to him but not terribly disappointing.
“I loved coaching, but teaching wasn’t a riot for me,” Schoenebeck said. “Teaching is a tough job.”
He decided to get a master’s degree in counseling to become a high school counselor, but an adviser suggested working for the Y instead.
It was 1975, and Schoenebeck took a job as fitness director for the Downtown Minneapolis Y.
“This whole fitness thing just started in the ’70s, really,” Schoenebeck said.
Five years later, the CEO of the Green Bay Y system hired him to develop a fitness program that included a testing assessment for people who hadn’t exercised before.
“It was a neat turning point in my career to walk in and create something from nothing,” Schoenebeck said. “To come in and do something completely different was really a growth experience for me.”
During his 11 years with the Green Bay Y, Schoenebeck moved up in administration until someone with the national Y system called about the Wichita job.
Schoenebeck took it, knowing he’d need “to get our house in order” before starting any capital campaigns.
That meant an emphasis on programs, staff and cleaning and upgrading facilities with the goal of creating confidence and momentum.
Three years later, in 1993, he was ready for his first capital campaign to expand and renovate the West Y, renovate the Central Y and build a new East Y.
The Central branch proved more costly than expected, and the Y had to decide whether to invest in downtown and keep the branch open. The board decided to go for it, which forced them to take out a $5 million loan for a new East Y.
“That was a big deal.”
Schoenebeck used to joke that the old East Y was accessible by helicopter. The new, more visible branch helped increase the Y’s profile.
“Having that new facility kind of launched us into kind of a new day.”
Pushing the envelope
Schoenebeck says he knows exactly what makes any Y successful.
“I always say you can only give the community the Ys they support.”
He also says, “You’re only as good as the leaders you have in that community.”
That means things are especially good here, he said. Wichita “has a entrepreneurish spirit to it.”
“That’s made it really fun for me to be able to push the envelope a little bit.”
That envelope holds more than $100 million in new buildings.
When he talks about creating something, it’s one of the few times in an almost two-hour interview that Schoenebeck smiles broadly.
“That’s the fun part for me – doing new things.”
The administrative side of his job is a constant, though.
“The reality is … we’ve invested a lot of money in facilities, and you have to have a method to support those and keep them up.”
The Y’s administrative overhead, which includes 1,400 employees, usually is 6 or 7 percent of its total operating costs. Schoenebeck said that’s about half of most nonprofits.
“He operates the Y organization just as lean and mean as any organization could possibly be,” Clark, the current board president, said of Schoenebeck.
“The staff is all stretched I think to the limits, and that could be good and that could be bad. It’s finding a balance.”
Genesis Health Clubs owner Rodney Steven II, who declined comment for this story, in the past has said that certain government bonds and other assistance the Y receives has led to an unfair advantage for it.
Schoenebeck says he has access to a lot of talent, including staff and a team of 5,000 volunteers.
“I’ve learned so much from so many people.”
Clark said Schoenebeck is able to get commitment from others because of the way he handles people.
“He knows when to accept advice and when not to,” Clark said. “He’s always thinking of better ways to do things. He wants to deploy those resources in a way for maximum effectiveness.”
Schoenebeck, a married father of three grown children, works out five to seven days a week, strength training or biking.
His biggest worry, aside from an occasional headache over learning about something such as flood plains, is someone getting hurt.
“It just takes one accident,” Schoenebeck said. “But you are dealing with human beings, and they’re not perfect.”
Schoenebeck is quick to say he’s not perfect, either.
“I’m not a big planner. I’m not a big visionary guy.”
He said he succeeds by connecting the dots.
“You just continue to learn, and you adapt … and anticipate.”
Tom Lasater, a lawyer and metro board member, said the board is concerned about succession planning. He’s not sure who could one day fill Schoenebeck’s shoes.
“One person may not be able to do that,” Lasater said.
“I’m just glad we’ve been able to keep him here. He’s not just Mr. YMCA. He’s Mr. Wichita YMCA.”