Every morning, Ron Lee wakes up before the sunrise, hits the gym and drives the two hours it takes to get to campus from his home in Lake Elsinore, California. Coffee in hand, he walks around USC’s numerous food venues — from Nekter to Panda Express — greeting the workers before making his way through the flood of emails that arrive in his inbox every day.
Since July 27, when he began work as the new associate director of retail operations for Hospitality, Lee has made it a habit of getting to know everyone who works under him, a philosophy he developed in an area far removed from the academic environment of the university — the fast-paced world of professional sports. Managing hospitality operations for teams all over Southern California, Lee said, got him started in the hospitality industry — and kindled his passion for innovation and progress.
“What I love about professional sports is the fact that the fans’ experiences and expectations change every single year,” Lee said. “The fun part is being able to challenge yourself and your team every year to bring out the innovations to see what kind of fun and crazy things you can do.”
Lee spent 11 years working at sports arenas, from Angel Stadium, home of the Empire 66ers, to Qualcomm Stadium, where he spent four years with the San Diego Chargers. Even earlier, before he was introduced to the world of sports hospitality, Lee spent four years managing various locations of the popular Claim Jumper restaurant chain in San Bernardino. However, before the management positions, at restaurants, sports stadiums and now at Hospitality, Lee started out exactly like the people he now oversees: as a service worker.
“I started flipping omelets the day I turned 16,” Lee said.
It’s this humble start that drives Lee’s employee-centered approach, where his focus is on drawing his team together, supporting each person’s growth and encouraging innovative ideas.
“I’ve always known that my passion was within the hospitality industry,” Lee said. “That’s what I like to do — work with people, develop people and have fun doing it.”
As associate director, Lee works directly with nine managers who manage the 22 different retail venues throughout both of the University’s campuses — the University Park Campus and Health Sciences Campus. Though daily operations involve keeping each venue running smoothly, Lee’s main focus is on expansion: He’s always looking forward, planning what can be done and working to put it into action.
“A lot of the job is future planning because of the constant expansion of the campus,” Lee said. “Brainstorming, really trying to find ways to take the student and faculty experience with Hospitality to the next level.”
According to Lee, this idea of expansion and innovation is what drew him to USC in the first place.
“[I was drawn to] the passion that the hospitality team here has for innovating and trying to lead the way for the next generation,” Lee said. “The sky’s the limit with this type of environment and having the freedom to make conceptual ideas and turn them into reality is one of the most exciting things [about working here].”
Kris Klinger, Lee’s supervisor and vice president of retail operations at USC, believes that Lee’s vision makes him more than just a competent manager.
“He’s doing what a great leader does,” Klinger said. “He’s assessing and spending a lot of time with his team members, understanding why they do what they do and how they’re doing it.”
Aside from his work with USC, Lee also sits on the Board of Directors of Juma Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps kids in urban areas overcome poverty and work toward a college education. Lee’s involvement is, according to him, a product of his belief in helping his community.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to be part of [the process] and see some of the youth who, without the support of a company like Juma, would go down the wrong path,” Lee said. “Making a positive impact on students is what [I’m passionate] about.”
Just as he sees a future for the students he helps through Juma Ventures, Lee clearly envisions a future for USC — and works to implement it every day through his work with USC Hospitality.
“The goal is to be able to create the ultimate experience for the students,” Lee said.