Enjoying a Challenge
Since leading a turnaround at the Atlanta Dream women’s professional basketball team in 2013, Ashley Preisinger has been engaged in a meaningful project as the President of the Georgia Proton Treatment Center. The center, currently under construction in Midtown, will be the first of its kind in Georgia to offer patients access to this new, state-of-the-art targeted radiation therapy. The hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on careful construction and ultra-sophisticated equipment is the answer to the question of “just what has been going on at the intersection of North Avenue and Peachtree Street” for these last few years.
“It’s had some unexpected challenges over the last two years, but then again I like a challenge,” she says.
Ashley Preisinger was born in San Francisco but moved with her parents to Jasper, Georgia at the age of three so her father could start his medical practice and her mother could attend Emory Law School. Located in Pickens County in the mountains of north Georgia, the small three red light town offered beautiful scenery and a real sense of community. And her mother’s family had been in the area for over 100 years. “Everybody knows everybody in Jasper.”
Ashley’s father practiced medicine as a general surgeon for 40 years in Jasper and her mother was a judge of the Superior Court. Even as a little girl, her parents encouraged her to think beyond Jasper and even beyond Georgia. “I was lucky to have the opportunity to broaden my horizons and to continue my education.” she says. Having decided in high school that she was interested in foreign languages and international affairs, Ashley applied to and was accepted at Georgetown University into its School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC. Majoring in international politics and minoring in Russian, Ashley spent one college summer at the Gornyi Institute in St. Petersburg and three others working in business. “I worked on the International Desk at CNN and also did an internship with Cohn & Wolfe and The Coca-Cola Company,” she says.
It was the Coke internship that persuaded her to go into business. Instead of taking the Foreign Service exam after Georgetown and then heading into the State Department, Ashley headed into the MBA program at Emory University. “I had many wonderful professors while at Emory and spent a semester studying Finance and Economics at SDA Bocconi in Milan ,” Ashley says.
Her first job after Emory was with investment giant Invesco, which today has over $800 billion under management. “I am forever grateful to the former CFO, Herky Harris, and the former General Counsel, Luis Aguilar for helping me get hired at Invesco. They took a chance on an inexperienced kid. Invesco was an incredible place to start my career because I learned so much about complex transactions and investments, but more importantly how to treat clients the right way,” she says.
Starting first as a marketing assistant, Ashley had a unique opportunity to pivot into a strategic planning analyst role which gave her a seat at the table at a young age to observe the leadership of a large, publicly traded company as it navigated many twists and turns. “The senior leadership wanted to grow the company at that time by acquisition and within a few months of being hired, I was being sent to foreign countries to conduct due diligence on companies that Invesco might buy,” she says. “I was scared to death that these prospects would see through me and realize how little I really knew at the time about the investment management business. Somehow, I bluffed my way through it. Looking back now, this assignment was the beginning of what would be a theme in my career -- jumping into something unknown and without much preparation or training and just figuring it out.”
Ashley spent the next eight years working on a successful product team within Invesco and helping them grow. As a Product Manager, her job was to help the group secure more international equity business from institutional clients. “I was a closer,” she said. “Our sales team would surface the opportunities and then we did the pitch and closed the business.” Her tenure in this position at Invesco included a five year period in which this product group went from having $3 billion under management to over $20 billion under management. Her team traveled all over the US, Europe and Asia in this job.
In 2008, Ashley joined Atlanta wealth management company Homrich Berg. The firm manages the personal wealth of numerous important business people and families in Atlanta and across the US. But it was hard. “In 2008, the wheels came off the bus of the global financial markets. I was in charge of business development, which is a sales role, and no one was interested in talking about their portfolios.” she says. “I almost gave up several times in that first 18 months and I’m sure HB almost gave up on me. And just when it seemed like it was time to accept defeat, the seeds I had planted with certain individuals and organizations started to take root. One thing led to another and next thing you know we were experiencing some real growth. It was so satisfying because it had been really challenging.”
In 2012, Ashley got a call from an executive headhunter about a search he was leading for the CEO of the WNBA Atlanta Dream, the women’s professional basketball team. After several conversations with the headhunter and a robust 3-month interview process with the owners of the team, Ashley was offered the position of CEO. Moving to the Atlanta Dream would be a daunting but exciting challenge for her. “I knew that I was taking on something that was new and different and outside my comfort zone of financial services, where I had spent 17 years. I also knew there was a chance that I would fail and that others were thinking that too. But, I decided to jump in anyway. The opportunity for the Atlanta Dream was bigger than basketball to me. It was about empowering young girls and celebrating the strength and power of female athletes.”
The first 4 months Ashley felt like she was drinking from a fire hose trying to come up to speed on WNBA league rules, the finances of the business, ticket sales, in game operations, player contracts, etc. “My first objective was to get to know and thank our existing corporate sponsors and also to find new ones. I visited several CEOs in town to talk about the mission of the Atlanta Dream and to invite them to come to a game. I thought that if they could experience the impressive level of play by our players and our exuberant and loyal fan base, it would be a good starting point for forging a relationship.”
It worked. The organization received several new and meaningful commitments from corporate supporters in the first twelve months. Then, she started on some other challenges like stabilizing the staff turnover, restructuring the Dream’s arrangement with Philips Arena and relocating the team office to a more proximate location. “As CEO, I was responsible for all aspects of the team -- sales, finance and basketball operations,” she says. “It was a great experience and we all worked well together. Our team achieved some really good results both on and off the court while I was there and it was fun to be a part of that.”
Ashley’s work as CEO of the Atlanta Dream raised her profile in the Atlanta community. She liked being in an operational role that felt purposeful and looked to replicate that in her next role. “When the opportunity presented itself to open a proton facility in Atlanta that would help patients fight cancer, I knew it was the right fit.”
Proton beam therapy is the most advanced form of radiation treatment in the world. Emory Healthcare will be the clinical partner for this premier 5-room facility in Midtown and Varian is the equipment maker. The highly advanced equipment, that weighs over 90 tons and will be dropped through the roof on Juniper Street, can target cancerous tissues while leaving the healthy tissues alone. As a result, the side effects to patients are greatly reduced. Furthermore, all five rooms of the new facility will have Pencil Beam Scanning, giving doctors an additional tool to more accurately “paint” the irregularity of tumors with a precise dose of radiation. “We will be the only facility in Georgia with this technology and one of only 18 facilities in the country. Our friends and neighbors will not have to leave Atlanta anymore to get the best cancer radiation treatment available,” she says.
While financing delays halted progress for a while, a reorganization in June that made Ashley the President of Georgia Proton Treatment Center has gotten things back on track. The new entity will be a non-profit and was recently induced – or approved – for a $400 million bond issue by the city of Atlanta. Ashley is working with the existing investors and the new ownership to see this bond offering through to completion. “Our building is 85% complete and we are RFE, or ready for equipment. The equipment is sitting in Germany and ready to be shipped,” she says. The facility’s cyclotron, which accelerates the particles to create the proton beam, weighs 90 tons alone and special plans have to be made for delivery to get it into the City of Atlanta. “On top of that, four of our five rooms will have 240 tons of equipment that also need to be delivered and installed. Installation and testing of all of the equipment will take approximately 14-16 months.” Once this is done, she expects they will be in a position to treat patients in the latter part of 2018.
The main message that Ashley wants to convey is that Georgia is now one step closer to having an amazing, state of the art, cancer fighting tool right here in Atlanta. She believes that her journey in leadership has placed her in the right place at the right time. “I’m humbled to be a part of something that will help so many people. When we are fully up and operational, we will have the capacity to treat over 1200 patients a year.” All told, the project is set to bring approximately 140 new, well-paid, and permanent medical jobs to the area, as well as 3,900 direct and indirect jobs throughout the whole cycle of construction. There will be around 4,500 sq. ft. of retail space at ground level. Current estimates put the total economic impact of the project at $503 million.
“It’s been hard work getting here, but I know it will be worth it,” Ashley says.