BY DANIEL P. SMITH
For musician Joe Zenas, being a CEO is a lot like being a conductor. At Thinkwell Group, Zenas taps his music background to help create lively and dynamic experiences at theme parks, museums, expos and other popular destinations.
Joe Zenas likes to say he has a career from music as opposed to a career in music—and it’s not a life he ever could have imagined as an MSU undergrad.
A former Spartan Marching Band trumpeter, Zenas had his eye on graduate school at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory until earning a spot in Disney’s All-American College Band, a coveted post-collegiate internship that pairs live performances with workshops about the business of music. There, Zenas’ eyes opened to new opportunities in music.
“I saw this entire world beyond the art,” said Zenas, the son of a church organist.
That pushed the Williamston native into a roving life as a freelance producer and stage supervisor for live entertainment and special events, including work on ten Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows beginning with Michael Jackson’s iconic 1993 performance.
“For me, those shows were just like a marching band: Get 300 people moving in the same direction quickly and efficiently,” said Zenas, who discovered that the skills he had cultivated as a musician—accountability, self-discipline, knowing when to lead and when to follow—shined in the business world.
In 2002, Zenas joined some industry colleagues in their upstart design firm, Thinkwell Group. Once four employees in a Southern California garage, Thinkwell is now one of the world’s premier experience design firms, with nearly 200 employees across five international offices.
The Los Angeles-based agency—“a collection of doers, producers and creators,” Zenas said—invents dynamic physical environments for theme parks, museums, presidential libraries, corporate headquarters and other marquee destinations. Some of the firm’s notable projects include: Lionsgate Entertainment World in China; Warner Bros. Studio Tour London—The Making of Harry Potter; Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor ski area, in the United Arab Emirates; and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest indoor theme park, also in the United Arab Emirates.
“We took that one from blank sand to opening,” Zenas beamed about the Abu Dhabi project.
Thinkwell is currently focusing on new markets such as Saudi Arabia, which is rapidly expanding its entertainment offerings, and applying its creative design chops to health care environments. As Thinkwell CEO, Zenas likens himself to an orchestra conductor: putting individuals in the right seats, setting the right pace and coaxing a dynamic group performance.
“It’s the same here,” he said. “I communicate to the team and then guide that intent from the beginning to the very end.”
After nearly three decades away from the MSU campus, Zenas returned last spring to deliver the College of Music’s commencement address. The visit prompted him to reflect on the rich role MSU played in his life and the unexpected places that led. He reminded students that they can do what they love, while encouraging them to embrace the curvy paths ahead to discover unknown opportunities that might enrich and awaken.
“Michigan State and the College of Music gave me the courage to step outside my comfort zone and take calculated risks,” he said. “This life I’ve created, all of these doors opened to me because I was a musician first.”