Patty Capawana, vice president, events, at Prudential Financial Inc. is one of the 340,800 or so home office employees who keep U.S. life insurance home office operations humming — and one of about 50,000 people who work for Prudential, or with Prudential, around the world.
She manages part of Prudential’s use of the most powerful communications medium ever: Getting a bunch of people together in a room.
Capawana has been working for Prudential since 1970, and she’ll celebrate her 50th anniversary with the company on July 7, 2020.
She produces meetings, galas and other events, on- and offsite, for about a dozen top-level “clients” inside Prudential. One was a press briefing in New York that brought her to this reporter’s attention.
She also oversees conference centers, at Prudential’s Prudential Tower building in Newark, New Jersey, and elsewhere, that host more than 1,500 events per year.
On any given day, she could be organizing a small luncheon for Prudential’s board (which oversees $1.5 trillion in assets), or overseeing the planning of a formal dinner in Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro.
She helps organize events for Newark’s 124-year-old Branch Brook Park and Newark’s 22-year-old New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). She’s on the park’s board, and NJPAC’s women’s board. She’s excited about helping NJPAC set up fundraisers that raise money for arts and education for children.
She’s part of the army of people, ranging from security guards up to executive vice presidents of cash management, who don’t get normally much attention outside their organizations, but who make life insurance, annuities and related products possible, and who help keep small and midsize American communities, like Newark, going.
Here’s a look at seven things to know about her, drawn from a recent interview at her office in Prudential’s Prudential Tower, in Newark.
1. Patty Capawana was actually born in Newark.
She grew up right across the Passaic River, in Kearny, New Jersey. Her father worked for Drake’s Cakes, a bakery, and her mother was a homemaker. She went to the Schuyler School in Kearny for grammar school. Her kindergarten teacher had a big cookie jar that looked like Pinocchio. The teacher would let the well-behaved pupils take something out of the cookie jar.
Capawana later went to Lincoln Junior High School and Kearny High for high school. She loved learning history, and especially learning about British royalty. She dreamed about becoming a flight attendant.
“But I wasn’t quite as adventurous then as I am now,” she said.
2. Her mom gave her the idea of applying for a job at Prudential.
“You’re going to laugh,” Capawana said, “but they gave free lunch. My mother said, ‘You gotta go, that’s a good thing. You get free lunch every day.”
Even Prudential retirees could come to the cafeteria and get free lunch, Capawana recalled. She ended up applying for a job in Prudential’s typing pool and keypunch center.
She had learned to type at school, on manual typewriters. When she took the typing test at Prudential, that was the first time she’d ever touched an electric typewriter.
3. She’s reinvented herself on the job at least three times.
She’s been at Prudential for many years, but she’s had several different careers there.
She started out doing general clerical work. She later moved to a unit that sold commercial paper.
In the 1980s, she shifted over to the public relations department. She began to specialize in event planning only around 1988, when she saw that Prudential was organizing many events, such as high-level gatherings at football games, and needed someone to coordinate all of the events.
Patricia Ryan, the wife of Arthur Ryan, who served as Prudential’s chief executive officer and chairman from 1994 through 2008, helped teach her more about how to host events.
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4. She does more than call up caterers.
Capawana has to guide inside teams and hire outside teams to manage what amounts to a big, global event production business.
She hires destination management companies to help her understand how to get things done in places like Tokyo, or even San Francisco. She doesn’t handle security herself, but she works with the people who do provide the security.
She also has to consider seating charts, decor, flowers, event tone, and budgets.
For some events, the focus may be on dazzle. For other events, the critical element may be making absolutely sure tha that the attendees can hear the speakers.
Some months, her travel calendar looks a little like the travel calendar of a flight attendant, as she flies around the world to see what’s happening.
“People think of event planning as something like planning a wedding,” Capawana said. “They don’t realize all the things that go on behind the scenes…. You have to be detail-oriented.”
When Capawana began planning events, Prudential was a policyholder-owned mutual. Then, it sold stock to the public and became a public company, with an obligation to post financial reports ever quarter.
Prudential was always careful about spending on events, but now, given that Prudential is a public company, “you really have to think twice about what you’re going to do,” she said.
For Capawana, another major change has been the increase in awareness about food allergies.
“That important,” Capawana said. “We’ve had people that are deathly allergic to nuts.”
She learned what she needs to know on the job, and through executive training programs, but she said many of the event planning people Prudential hires today have degrees in business, or in hospitality.
5. Some of the events are fun.
In connection with NJPAC, Capawana helped organize an event for about 800 people at a Continental Airlines hangar, right next to an airplane.
She’s also had opportunities to meet many interesting and well-known people, including Ray Charles, LL Cool J, and — in a moment of extra significance for someone with an interest in British royalty — Sarah, Duchess of York.
Hospitality professionals are famous for guest horror stories.
Capawana said that the guests and speakers at Prudential events have been a well-behaved bunch of people.
6. She has stuff.
Some executives go for the sleek, enigmatic office look.
Capawana buys at least one doll or other memento whenever she travels for work, and she displays some of those mementos in her office.
She also displays event-related photos, and photos of loved ones, including two Havanese companion animals, Samantha Moon and Penelope Star.
7. She believes in a traditional approach to doing business.
Today, some executives may do business mainly by text, and seek out the perfect pair of $5,000 distressed power sneakers.
Here are some of the rules Patty Capawana lives by:
A. ”If you just build the right relationships with people, you can get things done, even if it seems impossible.”
“A lot of it is just talking to people,” Capawana said.
B. “It’s better if you and I speak in person.”
“I’m not fond of just texting and talking to you on texts,” Capawana said.
Capawana said she wants to see what people want and get a feel for what an event is going to be like.
C. “You should always think enough of yourself to get dressed every day and say, ‘OK, I look pretty good today.’”
“You should always look a certain way, especially when you’re dealing with higher-level people,” Capawana said. “And, just for yourself. It doesn’t have to be for a higher-level person.”
D. “Look directly in someone’s eye and welcome them.”
“I was very shy when I was younger,” Capawana said. “And I said, ‘You know what, Patty, you’ve got to do this.’ If you want to survive in this world, you have to just be the person that is really inside of you.”
— Read Creating Client Events That Aren’t a Waste of Time, on ThinkAdvisor.