Brad Furlano has a passion for drum corps and the La Crosse Blue Stars. The Onalaska native was the heart and soul of the Blue Stars for 12 years as their drum major.
When the big corps folded after the 1982 season, he led the Blue Stars as a Division III corps to two small corps world titles.
Furlano was retail communications manager for Eddie Bauer in its corporate offices in Seattle in 2007 when the position of executive director of the La Crosse Blue Stars became available. The corps was preparing to return to the world class division for the first time in 30 years.
He and his wife, Niki, a Blue Stars' alumnus, gave up good jobs and returned home.
"This was a dream job for me," Furlano said. "It has worked out how I dreamed it would.
"When I was 16 years old, a dream of mine was to march at a world-class level, and now I oversee the Blue Stars performing at that level," he said. "Some days it is really surreal in this job."
In Furlano's four years, the Blue Stars have become a top 12 world-class finalist, finishing the past two years in eighth place at the Drum Corps International world championships.
Furlano heads a $1 million private, not-for-profit organization, which includes 150 corps and 40 staff members as well as more than 100 volunteers.
During the drum corps season, from May through August, Furlano has a 24-hour job and sleeps with two phones at his side.
"I pray the phones don't ring ," Furlano said. "I am a troubleshooter when the corps is on the road."
He is constantly on the phone. Sometimes he is purchasing propane for the food truck or dealing with housing, tour and staff issues, he said.
"I manage pieces and parts, and I assemble teams of people," Furlano said. "I have one of the best drum corps staffs."
This week is an extremely busy one for Furlano and his staff as the Blue Stars hold their first River City Rhapsody competition in three years in La Crosse.
Dan Acheson, Drum Corps International's executive director and CEO, said Furlano has accomplished what many people have tried and failed to do - return a corps to world class in a consistent and quality manner.
"What the Blue Stars have done just doesn't happen in drum corps," Acheson said. "Brad has shown us that, yes it does, and that it's possible with a lot of patience and fortitude."
He said the Blue Stars, a DCI charter member in 1972, are a class act.
"Brad is the quiet, behind-the-scenes leading force who is not looking for the spotlight," Acheson said. "He makes sure there is a great foundation for good things to happen, and that's what is happening to the Blue Stars."
A large part of his job is fundraising, which is difficult every year, Furlano said, but the Blue Stars are now the largest private, not-for-profit arts organization in La Crosse.
"The fundraising is not easy, but it is easier," Furlano said. "La Crosse has been very supportive. People want to be associated with a winner."
Acheson said Furlano has made the Blue Stars a fiscally responsible organization.
"Financially, we're the strongest we've ever been, but let's just say we're stable," Furlano said. "We no longer talk about if we can make it in the next six months. We plan long term."
Furlano also pitches in where he can, building props like the crates for this summer's "Houdini" show, going to the hardware store, or buying 300 pounds of pork for the corps' meals during a stay in Sparta.
"The hardest part is I'm pulled in so many directions," Furlano said. "There are so many small fires to stamp out."
Steve Stueck, the Blue Stars' business manager since 1997 and a corps alumnus, said Furlano was the right person for the Blue Stars at the right time.
"It was a big risk for Brad to come back and run the Blue Stars," Stueck said. "But he has a commitment to this corps and is focused on the end product.
"His biggest strength is bringing in talent, and I believe some day we will win that world championship," he said.
Furlano also travels with the corps five or six times a season for one to three days, but always spends the last two weeks on the road before the world championships.
"You should do what you love, and that is what I'm doing," Furlano said. "It's been an awesome ride and journey so far, and I hope it continues to be."