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CFO Steered Convention Center Through COVID

TOURISM: Mardeen Mattix Adapted to Times and Circumstances, Helped to Shelter the Vulnerable

Mardeen Mattix, CFO of the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC), was honored as CFO of the Year in the Nonprofit Organization category. A 24-year employee of the bayfront facility, Mattix took on the CFO’s role in 2018.

Her job has been anything but ordinary during the last 36 months.

She recounted her own odyssey, and that of the San Diego Convention Center management, as COVID-19 became a part of everybody’s lives.

The pandemic closed down convention business and the center was converted to another use, and subsequently a third use before resuming its original role.

“It’s been a wild ride for the last three years but it has been extremely rewarding to give back to the community,” Mattix said during the “Shark Tank” pitch for CFO of the Year finalists held on Feb. 8.

Pivoting, and Pivoting Again

Mattix recalled noticing an unusual number of no-shows at convention center booths in November 2019. Within a few months, the reason for the mysterious absences became clear. The novel coronavirus was spreading and soon San Diegans were sheltering in place.

Mattix steered the center’s financial and organizational strategies from the center’s closure at the start of the ban on gatherings (March 2020) to shifting to serving as an emergency homeless shelter in support of Operation Shelter to Home (April 2020-March 2021).

Community needs shifted again. Mattix recalled being given 48 hours to complete a proposal to make the center into an emergency intake site for unaccompanied children who had crossed the international border into San Diego. That role lasted from April to July 2021.

The San Diego Convention Center reopened for event activity in August 2021.

Coworkers recalled that Mattix worked tirelessly with city, county and federal authorities to ensure the convention center would successfully host the humanitarian operations in its facility, keep its core team in place, achieve financial stability and smoothly reopen for events.

A 24-Year Run

Mardeen Mattix began her career at the San Diego Convention Center in 1998. Over the years she has worked in event management, sales and marketing, accounting and finance.

Those who work with her now say that Mattix’s in-depth knowledge of operations has made her a go-to adviser for staff in all departments when making crucial business decisions.

In addition to facing the challenges of COVID, Mattix has led the convention center through many successful audits and system technology integrations. She has also been instrumental in improving business processes.

Another part of her job is preparing for SDCC’s future.

Mattix has been an advocate for San Diego’s tourism sector and a voice laying out the economic benefits of conventions and meetings. She leads a team that calculates the direct spending, tax revenue and regional impact of the events hosted by SDCC. Together with CEO Rip Rippetoe, Mattix regularly presents to San Diego City Council’s Budget and Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committees regarding corporate forecasts.

Those who know her say Mattix brings a thoughtful and analytical approach to her presentations about the need to invest in the region’s tourism infrastructure and marketing.

As she has progressed as a leader, Mattix has supported other women in the workplace. She champions the women around her, including those who serve alongside her on the convention center’s leadership team, and encourages the professional development of women at all levels.

As a mother of four children, she understands the challenges of working mothers and serves as a role model for women within SDCC who aspire to leadership positions.

Those who nominated her said Mattix has grown as a leader for her organization and for the broader convention and tourism industry. Her ambition, commitment and work ethic are reflected in her rise through the organization.

After receiving her award, Mattix took time to answer a few questions from the San Diego Business Journal.

Q; At what stage in your life did you set your sights on the CFO’s office? What put you on the path to getting there?

A: My journey to CFO was very unconventional (pun intended). I initially applied for an event accountant role at the convention center but was offered a different supporting role as an event management assistant. Though it was not in the field I intended, the energetic vibe of this industry was contagious.   I learned my position by walking event show floors and shadowing event managers and contractors to fully understand the enormous amount of effort it took to build up and tear down a small city each week. After a year, I promoted to a sales analyst and then eventually made my way back to finance.   After performing nearly every desk in the department, I was able to understand the big picture of how the operations of our business translated to numbers which started my journey to influence the way we do business.  As I worked my way up management, I was able to take a lead role in formulating our business strategy and telling our story to other stakeholders in the community.

Q: Think back over your career. Up to this point, what is the accomplishment you are most proud of?

A: My most recent accomplishment was helping our business transition from being a world class gathering place bringing in $1 billion-plus in annual regional impact to quickly pivoting to serve as a temporary homeless shelter to protect our most vulnerable population with less than 30 days’ notice. Through the fast-acting direction of our city officials and executive management team, San Diego was able to find a relevant use for the convention center in a time where the world no longer wanted to gather. My experience with the operations side of business and its financial implications helped the convention center and city balance resources to maintain a core staff of people while remaining relevant during a time many other centers shut down. Immediately following the closure of the temporary homeless shelter, SDCC was converted to a temporary emergency intake site (EIS) for unaccompanied children seeking asylum for a short period to support government immigration issues. This venture afforded SDCC the opportunity to rehire needed employees who were displaced from previous layoffs due to the pandemic and gear back up to reopen for regular business nearly 100 days later.

Q: Of all the economics and business issues in the news right now, what are you following with most interest and why? Which one most directly affects your organization?

A: I follow job reports and unemployment trends while watching inflation concerns. One of the most difficult challenges throughout the pandemic was when we had to make the hard decision to lay off and furlough staff, resulting in a loss at one point of nearly 70% of the team, with every person on staff directly affected in some way. Rebuilding the team has been a challenge [because] many are cautious about [the industry’s] future. [Another challenge is] pay demands due to competition with low unemployment rates.

Q: How big is your team?

A: I have a staff of 20 as I oversee IT, HR and Finance.

Q: How difficult is it to hire qualified team members in this employment environment?

A: Very difficult based on the details noted above. Not only are recruiters and HR teams in high demand, the attraction of the travel and tourism industry cannot compare to pre-pandemic norms. Many people feel it is still unstable and a risk for employment though the pent up demand and level of travel in San Diego would paint a different picture.

Q: What is the next big step your organization hopes to take? If appropriate, tell me what challenges you face in getting there.

A: The Convention Center brings outside visitors to our city which generates significant tax revenue to the General Fund, creates thousands of jobs, supports city business and creates a positive economic ripple effect of over $1 billion annually throughout our local economy. The funds generated in San Diego just from conventions alone more than cover the costs to maintain the building. As our building ages and requires significant reinvestment, we are developing a 20-year replacement and modernization plan for expiring assets related to rehabilitation projects, major repairs and deferred maintenance projects.

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