Brunswick Review The Integrity Issue

Summit Stars

The founders of Concordia tell Brunswick’s Beatriz Garcia how straight out of college they set about building a powerhouse leadership conference.

The summer after college, Matthew Swift and Nicholas Logothetis worked together as interns for News Corp’s Wall Street Journal CEO Council, a gathering of top executives. Seeing firsthand the workings of a major conference of celebrity leaders didn’t intimidate the two young men. In fact, it started them wondering: How hard can it be?

The two unknown twentysomethings decided to launch their own conference of world leaders. “We came into it with the idea that nobody likes conferences and rubber chicken events, and we can do it better,” says Mr. Swift, recalling the launch of their first summit in 2011.

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Joe Biden speaks to Concordia founders Nick Logothetis and Matthew Swift in front of an audience at the group’s 2015 summit. Mr. Biden, who was a sitting US Vice President at the time, agreed to attend only six days prior to the event.

It turned out to be tougher than they expected—“Humbling,” says Mr. Swift—but their success has been amazing. Over the last nine years, the two have persuaded leaders of government, business and international nonprofits to speak at their event, the Concordia Summit. Among them are former US President George W. Bush, former US President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, Rwanda and Liberia have also appeared, as have business legends Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens and Paul Polman, and entertainers Jennifer Lawrence and Yo-Yo Ma. Let’s not forget Ivanka Trump and Joe Biden.

Among dozens of luminaries scheduled to speak at the Concordia Summit in September in New York during the United Nations General Assembly are the Presidents of Lebanon and Colombia, the former President of Bolivia, the US Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, the President of Microsoft and a non-executive Chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

The success of the Concordia Summit is all the more surprising in that such gatherings typically are built around well-known names or brands, such as Michael Milken, Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Charles Schwab, or they take place in exclusive mountain-top utopias like Davos or Aspen. As a 2016 Bloomberg Businessweek article noted, the star-packed Concordia Summit is the work of two “near nobodies.”

“I think ‘near nobodies’ was supposed to be a dig, but we loved it. It articulated exactly what we were trying to do,” says Swift. “How do you convene a large and disparate group of decision makers into a space that’s not centered on one person? We’ve been very proud that it’s not a particular personality that drives Concordia. People come to Concordia around the issues, around the network, to learn more about a country or a market that’s new to them.”

What emerges from a Concordia Summit are public-private partnerships such as one between candy and pet food maker Mars, and the International Fund for Agriculture to increase smallholder farmer incomes in Mars’ global supply chain. Concordia also provides a platform for research on problems such as modern slavery. And it organizes and leads discussions on issues such as how to finance the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In an interview with Brunswick’s Beatriz Garcia, Messrs. Swift and Logothetis laugh a lot, at one point relating a story about accidental success. Asked how they decided on a name for their summit, they recount a night of drinking during which Mr. Logothetis’s brother threw out “Concordia.” They all loved it. Later, on the eve of their first summit, they were having dinner with an attendee—the King of Spain—who raved about the appropriateness of that name. Only then did they learn that Concordia was the Roman goddess of harmony.

If anything, that anecdote just proves that luck often finds its way to those who are persistent, creative and passionate, as Messrs. Swift and Logothetis have been since they attended boarding school together as teenagers. At Salisbury School in Connecticut, the two launched a snack shop that in its first semester netted a profit of $30,000, which they gave to charity. Later, attending separate colleges in Washington, DC, they launched various entrepreneurial adventures together, while aligning side-by-side internships. “Ever since we met when we were 16 years old, we knew we wanted to work together,” says Mr. Logothetis.

Adds Mr. Swift: “From the start, Nick and I have shared a passion for global affairs, for news, for politics, entrepreneurship, business.”

I think ‘near nobodies’ was supposed to be a dig, but we loved it. It articulated exactly what we were trying to do.

Their plan for the first Concordia Summit in 2011 was modeled after the Clinton Global Initiative, which the former US President had launched in 2005 to take advantage of the large number of leaders in New York for the UN General Assembly in September. A huge success, the Clinton conference underscored the availability of prominent people at that time and place, offering what Messrs. Swift and Logothetis saw as an opening. Their first summit, taking place around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, asked how private industry could help combat terrorism. It lasted half a day and drew 100 people. Its leaders included a former president of Poland. A former prime minister of Spain has also been a speaker. The young men had befriended both foreign dignitaries during teaching stints in Washington.

The keynote speaker the first year was George W. Bush, who had been US President during the attacks.The next year, Bill Clinton delivered the keynote speech, proving both that Concordia is strictly nonpartisan and that it posed no competitive threat to the Clinton Global Initiative. That year, the Concordia Summit lasted an entire day. Initially, some financial assistance came from Libra Group, a conglomerate owned by Logothetis’s family.

Eventually, Concordia grew to three days, and as a nonprofit it gained support from foundations, individuals and companies. It developed a mission of “fostering, elevating, and sustaining cross-sector partnerships for social impact.” Concordia doesn’t pay speaker fees or provide travel reimbursement.

In 2016, the Clinton Global Initiative stopped holding its conference, to avoid conflict with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as the Democratic nominee for president. Suddenly, the Concordia Summit was the largest leadership conference in New York during the UN General Assembly. Last year, the Concordia Summit drew about 3,500 people from 70 countries. The private sector, including NGOs, accounts for about 60 percent of attendees, the public sector 40 percent. In addition to widespread media coverage, a Facebook Live studio broadcasts interviews with one luminary after another.

“Taking place on September 22-24, 2019 in New York, the 2019 Concordia Annual Summit will be the largest and most inclusive nonpartisan forum alongside the United Nations General Assembly,” says the Concordia website.

Meanwhile, Concordia has gone global, building on its success at the UNGA with annual summits in Europe and Colombia. In February, it held a summit in London on the topic of Africa, where Concordia hopes to locate a future conference.

With an annual budget of about $4 million, Concordia now offers corporate and individual memberships that allow participation in events around the world. “Being a member of Concordia and attending their conference in London allowed us to join forces with the world’s top leaders and work toward building the world we all want to live in,” says Angelique Sina, President of the Friends of Puerto Rico.

How do two young men with little name recognition start a successful a summit of world leaders?
SWIFT: When we started in 2011, the first lesson we learned was we needed to just choose a date, so that people had something they could connect with. So that spring, we announced that in September we’re going to have a summit on how the private and public sector can work together to combat extremism.

How did you know anyone would come, how much space to reserve?
SWIFT: It was very much day-by-day. We had no offices, we had no space. We knew we needed it, but not how much. We knew we needed to invite speakers. We knew we needed to create a brand. So we booked the Metropolitan Club of New York as our space because we thought, “Well, it’s centrally located. It’s not as expensive as hotels.”

And then, I’ll never forget this, we secured President Bush as our keynote speaker.

How did that happen?
SWIFT: There were a whole set of people we asked to pass our request to President Bush. We were outlining very clearly our objective to discuss the role of the private sector in fighting extremism. All of these people were willing to try. And I’m not sure why it worked. It was the perfect lesson in the power of simply asking. Since then, we have had so many speakers who I couldn’t tell you why they agreed to participate. It’s a testament to a natural sort of trust that people have but also I think a genuine interest in talking about partnerships that could have impact.

LOGOTHETIS: Even though the Clinton Global Initiative was sort of in its heyday, or maybe because it was, people saw a need for an organization like Concordia. They didn’t really even know us. But year upon year more and more leaders participated, and then you receive a critical mass of legitimacy.

SWIFT: We also developed a good reputation. If you were to ask a lot of our top speakers, they would say, “The programming’s incredibly strong. The network is very, very good. The logistics are very strong.” In this space logistics matter more than anything.

That President Bush returned in 2014 suggests he found the experience worthwhile.

LOGOTHETIS: Yes, Matt and I interviewed him and his wife that year, which he doesn’t usually do for people that he doesn’t know. Mrs. Bush came back in 2017 as well. We owe the Bushes a lot. He got us started. Because of him, a year later we had President Clinton and John McCain and a number of others.

The summit grew exponentially from 2011 to 2012, from a half day with 100 people to a full day with 700 people.

Is there a form letter for prospective speakers?
SWIFT: Of course. Some are more personalized than others. One is kind of simple: “This is the summit. This is the time. These are people who have participated in the past.” And then we send it with a briefing packet. Because of how we’ve grown, we’re now able to say in a lot of letters, “We are inviting you to participate at this block of time to do an interview with this person.” We’re able to be much more specific.

A sampling of Concordia
Summit alumni includes business, entertainment and political celebrities.
From left: Warren Buffet, Jennifer Lawrence, George W. Bush, Ivanka Trump.

What would you have said six years ago?
SWIFT: “Please come and do whatever you want.”

LOGOTHETIS: Matt once said that Concordia is like planning a wedding where 100 people think they’re the bride. Early on we felt we had to make all those brides happy. Now we can set the agenda a bit more versus having to bend over backward for everybody. Obviously, there are still people like presidents of countries for whom we will do what it takes to make them happy. But generally speaking, people adhere to our requirements as much as they can now.

SWIFT: I was emailing with an ambassador yesterday about his head of state coming to Concordia, and I was able to say with confidence, “He can do a speech at no more than 10 minutes.”

Before we had to design the summit for the people who were on stage; now we’re designing it for the people who are in the audience. Running Concordia is like producing a television show. “What is it that you would want to sit in the audience and listen to?”

As an example, how did US Energy Secretary Rick Perry wind up speaking at your conference in Bogotá?
SWIFT: We aren’t a news organization. We are proposing to work together. Our programming on stage is highly curated. So we have built trust.

When we announced that we were doing a summit in Bogotá I received a note from a friend of mine at the Department of Energy. He said the department was putting together a deal with the Colombian government and why not do it at the Summit? The Department of Energy announced a major deal with the Colombian Government at Concordia.

How well are you able to track outcomes?
SWIFT: That’s probably one of our biggest weaknesses right now. We’re a very lean organization. When you compare us with a Davos or Clinton Global Initiative, they have or had a staff of hundreds versus our couple of dozen.

LOGOTHETIS: There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of relationships, partnerships and projects and business deals, all of the above, that have occurred because of Concordia. Anecdotally I’m told it all the time. But as Matt said, we don’t have the bandwidth for tracking it at the moment, which obviously is something we very much need to do.

It’s early July and I gather you have limited certainty about who will be speaking in September?
SWIFT: Most of the programming comes together in July, August, even early-September. I think it was six days prior to our 2015 summit that Joe Biden confirmed he was participating. And that was when he was the sitting Vice President. We’re OK with that. It means it’s the most current programming. The funny thing is watching how companies don’t do well with that. They want plans three years out.

LOGOTHETIS: It’s going to be that way forever. It’s that way with every other major conference. I’ve been to Davos many times and it’s the same. The program changes right up until the morning of the summit.

Is there a theme for this September?
LOGOTHETIS: We’ve moved from having one theme for the annual summit to a broader set.

SWIFT: It’s a global affairs summit—75 percent of it will be pretty well baked in by middle of August. Then another 25 percent will be connected to who the person is versus the subject. That said, we’re going to continue to do a lot on refugees, a great deal on the crisis in Venezuela, the future of European and US relations, the role of China in Africa, the role of technology in society. Workforce development is a big one. We always do a session on the state of American politics.

But public-private partnerships will remain an overall theme?
SWIFT: Yes. Look, it’s clear that a government that’s not engaged in the private sector is frankly not going to be successful in advancing public policy, and businesses have a huge stake in good public policy.

Beatriz Garcia is a Director in Brunswick’s New York office.

Lead Photograph: courtesy of Concordia
Summit Alumni Photographs: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

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