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Monday, January 21, 2019

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Bob Puccini (’68) Bob Puccini (’68)

Global Entrepreneur Supports SDSU’s Honors College

Gifts from Bob Puccini (’68) honor legendary professor Henry Janssen.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

Bob Puccini’s parents were concerned when San Diego State University accepted his application to enroll in 1964. He would be the first in the family to attend college, and his mother worried that education would fill his head with dreams he could never realize.

Puccini’s mother was partially right: Her son did have big dreams, but in the decades since graduation, he has achieved them—and more. Today, he travels the world as CEO of Puccini Group, which creates concepts, designs and brand identities for the hospitality and restaurant industry.

Now in its 21st year, his company manages $40 million in operations and several million dollars in design projects each year, creating restaurants, hotels and resorts throughout the United States and around the globe.

Henry Janssen’s influence

Puccini started his freshman year at SDSU as a pre-med major, but quickly realized the sciences didn’t suit him. Switching to economics and political science, he found a mentor in professor Henry Janssen. Puccini and his friend, David Johns, shared dinners and political discourse with Janssen, a university legend who taught political science for more than 35 years.

“He was as much a philosopher as he was a political scientist,” Puccini recalled. “Henry saw the world on a higher plane than most other people.”

Puccini’s gifts to SDSU honor Janssen, a former adviser to several campus honor societies, and support students in the Susan and Stephen Weber Honors College.

"Bob is a great example of what young people can achieve with an SDSU education," said Mary Ruth Carleton, vice president for University Relations and Development. "We appreciate his support of the honors college, which mentors high-achieving students to reach and exceed their potential."

Industry mentors

Puccini joined the Peace Corps after graduating in 1968. He spent a year in Brazil and then became a tank commander for the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Knox. After those worldly experiences, further classroom education seemed irrelevant.

Instead of returning to school, he became manager of the Bali Hai restaurant in San Diego and went on to hold a series of increasingly responsible positions in the hospitality field. His mentors include industry giants George Millay, founder of Sea World, and Larry Cano, the pioneer behind the El Torito restaurant chain. Puccini became vice president of Cano’s company when conglomerate W.R. Grace acquired it in 1978. He was only 30.

“Larry encouraged me to go out on my own,” Puccini said. “He bet that I could open five restaurants in 12 months, and that’s what got me started. Ultimately, I ended up in San Francisco, met Bill Kimpton, and became vice president of restaurant operations for his hotels and then a partner in the first boutique chain in the country.”

Putting on a show

Puccini worked for Kimpton Hotels until 1996, when he formed Puccini Group with Kimpton as his partner. With hundreds of projects under his belt, he now approaches the creation of each new restaurant as a director might stage a play.

“You’re putting on a show with a set, music, lighting and costumes,” Puccini said. “If you do it correctly—if you over-deliver on the promise—it’s an emotionally satisfying experience. Michelin restaurants are more about technique than great food, and sometimes the experience is not as enjoyable as at a normal first-class restaurant.”

Not that Puccini doesn’t value great food and the variety of dishes he has sampled in his travels. His current project for the Sheraton Metechi Palace Hotel—frequent haunt of Russian leader Joseph Stalin—takes him to Tbilisi, Georgia, which is, coincidentally, the center of the SDSU Georgia program.

“Visiting a city as a tourist is much different from going as an entrepreneur,” Puccini said. “If your project is popular, you become a local celebrity.”

And his mom would have been fine with that.