Twenty-two years ago, Ilonka Salisbury broke a lifelong streak. Up until that time, she had spent the majority of her life moving from country to country and city to city, but when she landed a job as campaign manager at the New York Philharmonic, all of that changed.
The New York Phil, as it turned out, was the perfect place for her to finally put down some roots. Since 1994, she has managed back-to-back subscription sales campaigns for the organization, generating more than $30 million in the process. Now, after twenty-two years at the helm, Ilonka is ready to make her next big move.
“By far, this is the longest I’ve lived in any one place my entire life,” she said during a recent telephone interview from her office beneath Lincoln Center. “I’ve moved all over the world from the time I was a child. I was born in Vienna (her mother is Austrian, her father is American) and right after that we moved to Rome. It began at birth,” she laughed.
Ilonka started managing campaigns for SD&A nearly 30 years ago. Before she settled in at the New York Phil, she ran successful campaigns for our company at high-profile performing arts organizations in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati and Vancouver. While Ilonka has called many different cities home over the years, and while she will certainly miss New York, she said she’s exhilarated by the possibilities and opportunities that await her in her new city of choice: Portland, Oregon.
“Our very own Audrey Hepburn is leaving the Big Apple for Stumptown,” SD&A Account Executive Joanne Scheuble said of her poised, polished and well-dressed colleague. “It’s the end of an era for Ilonka and for SD&A. Her knowledge, generosity and integrity — not to mention her style — have made ours a better company. We will always treasure her friendship and loyalty.”
Though Ilonka is still deciding what she wants to do next in the professional arena (she’s had multiple job offers from employers in Portland, but hasn’t committed to anything yet), one thing is certain: her many years of experience with SD&A will serve her tremendously in whatever she chooses to do.
“The key thing I’ve truly learned with everything I’ve done in this job,” Ilonka said with a hint of reverence in her voice, “is that there’s a commodity that’s desperately needed and so underused. That commodity is kindness, and I learned that kindness goes much further when given with great sincerity.”
This simple yet powerful sentiment is one of the things that have made Ilonka so respected and beloved by clients, colleagues and callers alike. But kindness is only one small part of what Ilonka brought to the job. SD&A President and CEO Steve Koehler had this to say: “It has been my pleasure to work with Ilonka for the past seven years. Her commitment and partnership have been extremely valuable to me, and I have learned a lot from her during our time together. I will miss her enthusiasm, her wit and her positive attitude and perspective. I suspect this farewell may be short lived, as I will continue to find ways to engage her in a company she has served so well.”
In reflecting on her long career with SD&A, Ilonka said she looks back with great gratitude. “I look back on the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made, and the fact that those friendships have continued,” she said. “No matter where I’ve lived, much was given to me and I was able to give much back. It’s always been a two-way street, which has allowed me to continue in this job.”
When pressed to speculate on why she’s been such a successful campaign manager, Ilonka offered this: “I have learned how to interview, hire people, train them, encourage them, and still allow them to be themselves. I would have never learned that in another job; this is where I truly learned that, and hence I’ve hired some of the best people.”
This includes Michael Ruiz, SD&A’s superstar campaign manager at Carnegie Hall, who was happy to share a few memories that illustrate Ilonka’s directness and playful sense of humor.
“Ilonka trained me when I started with SD&A,” Michael said. “Anyone who knows Ilonka knows that she calls everyone ‘darling.’ I remember her saying, ‘Michael darling, welcome to New York, the New York Philharmonic and SD&A. You have paperwork to complete… then pay attention; I am only going to go through this once.’ When I was finished with my manager training, she said, ‘Michael darling, your training is complete. You will do fantastic. If you have any questions, just so you know, I am changing my phone number.”
Michael also recalled the time he was on the phone with a customer at the New York Phil. “So I was speaking with a customer, a military man, who had some questions that I needed to get the answers to,” Michael recounted. “In closing my conversation with him, I said ‘I’ll get that information for you and call you back, buddy.’ When I got off the phone, Ilonka said, ‘Michael, we are at the New York Philharmonic. We do not call people buddy!’ So anyway, I got the information for the customer and left him a message to return my call. When he called back, Ilonka answered the phone, qualified the call and said ‘Michael, I have a call for you… it’s your buddy.’ ”
David Clark, SD&A’s vice president of on-site account services, shared a humorous memory of his own: “Ilonka once told me that she often lets her staff know that there is only room for one princess in the room—and that princess is her,” he said with a grin. “Ilonka has high standards for herself and her staff, and that’s one of the reasons she has been so successful. She expects service, courtesy and results from her team. Her persistent focus on clients and patrons has raised the bar for all of us. Even in the most difficult moments of campaign management, often when she was fighting through a migraine, Ilonka was unfailingly kind and generous. She is one-of-a-kind, and will be dearly missed by everyone who’s had the pleasure of working with her.”
Though Ilonka will soon have a new mailing address and place of employment, some things will never change: “I never travel anywhere without a cocktail dress or two in my suitcase,” she said. “I like to work hard, play hard and dress appropriately for each.”