The Asbury Delaware Methodist Church stands on Delaware Avenue, the main road leading into Buffalo. It's one of the city's many architectural masterpieces, most of which date back to its glory days in the late 19th century. Decades of neglect had left the church in serious disrepair, and it would have been demolished but for Righteous Babe, which has spent the past couple of years restoring the property.
The project has become a cause celebre in Buffalo, where the economy has been in the doldrums as long as anyone can remember. Until a couple of years ago, Buffalo's citizens had placed their hopes in Adelphia Communications, the giant cable company, which had been planning to build a $125 million operations center downtown. Then Adelphia's founder and its two top executives were indicted for stealing vast sums of money from their company. A few months later, it filed for Chapter 11 and moved its base of operations to Colorado. Now the city's most visible symbol of hope is the church restoration being financed by Buffalo's anticapitalist rock star.
Fisher, an ardent preservationist, has been the driving force behind the project. In November 1999, he learned the city had bought the church and was open to selling it. At the time, Righteous Babe was negotiating to buy a recording studio in New Orleans, where DiFranco had a second home. Fisher walked through the church with her and made his pitch: "I said, 'If we're going to buy a building, let's do it in Buffalo. New Orleans is far away, and I don't know the studio business. This could be our headquarters and a concert venue." Of course, he didn't know the venue business either, but he figured he could learn it. DiFranco gave her okay.
Financing the deal took time and ingenuity. Eventually, Righteous Babe's project manager, Jessie Schnell, and her city counterpart came up with a plan whereby the city would borrow its portion of the financing and get paid back out of the increased tax revenue that would eventually be generated. By the spring of 2003, however, the bank had not yet approved the city's loan, and Fisher was worried about the damage that the next winter might inflict on the church. Righteous Babe had already invested more than $500,000 in soft costs for architects, lawyers, and so on. It would take another $2 million to repair the building's exterior. While the mayor had committed the city to the project verbally and the bank had indicated its willingness to do the loan, there was a chance they'd renege and leave the company holding the bag. Nevertheless, DiFranco and Fisher decided to proceed.
The financial risk weighed heavily on Fisher as the months went by. The fall passed; the contractor completed its work; the snow came and went; and still there was no word from the bank. Finally, this May, it delivered a letter of commitment. With that in hand, the city advanced $500,000 to start work on the interior. Fisher admits that he lost a lot of sleep waiting for the money to come through. "But you have to take risks in life," he says. "Ani understands that."
DiFranco's support is a sign of how far their partnership has come. They've both moved on in their personal lives. Fisher has been living with his new love, Jessie Schnell, for the past few years, while DiFranco got divorced from Andrew Gilchrist last year. She also let her band go and returned to performing solo.
But in the company, at least, she still has someone to fall back on. "Scot and I are now just light-years closer than we've ever been," she says. "You know, that romantic grappling, that sort of volatile connection, was certainly not good for the business and probably not good for our relationship, either. I mean, once we got over being lovers, we finally became...," she pauses, "whatever you call it. Family. Just as close as two people can be."
Looking ahead, they have their work cut out for them. With so many people dependent on Righteous Babe for their livelihoods, Fisher feels the pressure to keep innovating and diversifying, just as DiFranco feels the pressure to keep performing. "I told Scot that I wanted to take May off," she says. "He said in his gentle way, 'Okay, that's fine. I'll let you know in advance when we're reaching a financial crisis.' As soon as he said that, I said, 'Okay, okay. I'll do it.' Because our unified goal is to sustain all these people, and if I don't keep on my hamster wheel, it doesn't happen."
She says she has just one long-term concern about the company: "What would I do if anything happened to my partner? I know the business couldn't exist without me, but at this point it couldn't exist without him, either. It is the synergy of the two of us that is making all of this happen, along with the efforts and investments of many other people. But that terrifies me. I mean, the loss of my soul mate, of course, but then also..."
Her voice trails off. For once she's at a loss for words.
BO BURLINGHAM: Burlingham joined Inc. in 1983. An editor at large, he is the author of Small Giants. Burlingham is also the co-author with Norm Brodsky of The Knack; and the co-author with Jack Stack of The Great Game of Business. @boburlingham