Lucas Mendieta’s story is unique among the array of young entrepreneur chronicles I’ve rolled out on these pages. About five and a half years ago, in his mid-20’s and without the benefit of a college degree, Mendieta launched Cutting Edge Elite, a New York City event staffing agency. He and co-founder Nathan Perry have since grown the company to be one of the top firms in town, regularly providing catering and support staff for well known fashion, design and A-list celebrity events nationwide. I have worked personally with this CEE several times over the last few years, and can attest to the quality of their work. It’s one of the reasons I was inspired to share this particular CEO profile…
Mendieta’s rise to success is a reminder of the power of sheer grit and determination. Born in New Jersey and raised in South Carolina by his construction worker dad and factory worker mom, he had his sights set on NYC, where he moved after “barely making it through high school.” Starting at the bottom of the employment food chain, he worked as a mail room assistant, a janitor on Wall St. and a box mover on Craigslist, until he fell into freelance event work, ending up in a position at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY.
During his time at the Capitol, Mendieta not only discovered his love for special events, but his talent for managing and dealing with people. A social butterfly finds his wings! Pretty soon, with little more than $1500 and a laptop purchased for him by his friend’s mother, Lucas decided to launch his own company. In fact, the Capitol Theater would later become his first client.
His partnership with Perry was also the result of a random assignment. Mendieta had been hired for a stint as a cater waiter, or so he thought. When he arrived at the job, he was told that he was scheduled to work behind the bar, for which he had absolutely no training. Fortunately, he was thrown in with the more experienced Perry, who handled all the mixed drink orders, while Lucas was able to manage the straightforward beer and wine requests. It was the start of a great working relationship.
Mendieta quickly realized that Perry, who graduated from Duke University with a degree in political science and economics, would make a great business partner. They soon parlayed their continued work for various caterers into opportunities to showcase their budding company. Slowly but surely, they earned the trust of these early clients, and word of mouth began to take over. In fact, up until a couple of months ago, the growth of their business has developed entirely through referrals, with no outbound marketing whatsoever.
Cutting Edge Elite provides full service event staffing, including waiters, bartenders, kitchen assistants, promo models, street teams and production assistants. Their clients consist of caterers, event planners, hotels and private chefs. What makes them unique is the fact that they invest considerable time training all of their staff in the nuances of special events and most particularly, in the needs of the guests as well as the clients.
Another distinction that Lucas makes is that he hires staff primarily for their personality (you can’t teach that!) and intelligence. Although there may be upwards of five to ten companies working behind the scenes to produce all the elements of a particular event, most guests, and even the clients, will judge the success of the evening on the interaction they have with the staff who are serving their drinks and passing their hors d’oeuvres. The folks that Mendieta hires are on the front line – the entire fate of every vendor’s hopes for continued business with this or other clients often rests on the shoulders of the person passing out the canapes. It’s important, therefore, that these individuals be not only good looking (and yes, his people are definitely easy on the eye), but quick thinking, upbeat and ultra-sensitive to the needs of the folks they are serving. Mendieta’s people succeed on all accounts.
Believe it or not, the biggest challenge in this particular line of work is receivables. Employees of the agency must be paid on a regular basis, while clients can often take from 30-60 days to pay their bills. The problem of cash flow necessitated Mendieta continuing to work freelance jobs of his own during the first two and a half years of his company’s existence, just to be able to make payroll! Fortunately, he and Perry have since instituted a stricter payment policy, and he’s been able to give up the freelance work and run his own company full time. But it certainly is a cautionary tale for others seeking to get into this line of work (and a note to clients to have a little compassion for the people who are working so hard to make your events a success)…
In addition to Mendieta and Perry, Cutting Edge Elite now employs three full time administrative staff and about 350 event freelancers. On a typical weekend, they might have twenty events taking place, with hundreds of their people out in the field. Scheduling and transportation logistics can become extremely demanding, especially when there are last minute changes.
But Mendieta takes it all in stride. Although it took a little time for people to take him and his partner seriously (when they started out, they were as young as many of the people they were hiring), his serious work ethic and commitment to treating his staff with integrity have paid off. His clients are extremely loyal to him, and his company’s reputation in the industry has landed them events with brands the likes of H&M, Saks Fifth Avenue, Next Magazine, Desigual, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Although his work regularly brings him into contact with an extraordinary array of celebrities, politicians and other influential people at a variety of spectacular venues and private residences, Lucas cautions that the work itself is not glamorous. It’s production! And that means long hours, grinding, behind the scenes preparation, and a million tiny details to attend to, in order to bring off a seamless evening that looks as though it happened effortlessly. For someone his age breaking into a competitive field, it also meant having to prove himself to allies and skeptics alike. “Be prepared to have a lot of doors slammed in your face – a lot of people saying no to you…”
Of course, if you have the passion and the drive, and are willing to go for it… well… you’ve heard this story before, right?