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'A big man in a lot of ways': For decades, Mo Milani was the face of Greensboro to presidents, rock stars and the Everyman

'A big man in a lot of ways': For decades, Mo Milani was the face of Greensboro to presidents, rock stars and the Everyman

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GREENSBORO — Mo Milani was always available, day or night, when someone needed him at the Koury Convention Center and hotel. 

So it was no big surprise when, in the middle of one night, a staffer called with an urgent problem. 

It seemed that several mischievous people had invaded the convention center's new, barely-built ballroom and were kicking around a soccer ball.

"Get 'em out of there," Milani is said to have told his staffer.

To be sure things were in order, however, Milani got up and went over to the hotel. 

When he arrived, he found rocker Rod Stewart and his band having a pickup game after a Greensboro concert, recalled Kelly Harrill, a top Koury Corp. executive.

The problem was solved with smiles all around by the tough but well-liked hotel and convention executive who died Saturday at age 72.

Milani, who was executive vice president of hospitality for Koury Corp., was one of the top convention and hotel executives not only in Greensboro but the country, say friends and associates. 

He helped Greensboro build its reputation as a top convention destination, concert center and host of major amateur sports, including ACC and NCAA basketball and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. He was instrumental in Greensboro landing the World Irish Dancing Championships in 2019 — the first time the event was held in the U.S.

Milani's death on the eve of the ACC men's and women's basketball tournaments only underscores his loss to the tourism and hospitality communities, said Matt Brown, the executive director of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. 

"Absolutely devastating," Brown said. "It's a huge loss as he was a big man in a lot of ways." 

Milani not only managed the Grandover Resort and Spa, the Sheraton Greensboro Hotel at Four Seasons and the Joseph S. Koury Convention Center, he was, along with the late Joe Koury, a visionary who worked 40 years to develop the city into one of the Southeast's top destinations. 

"I've often said the first step we had of any pursuit of any event started with Mo Milani and Koury Corp.," Brown said. 

With its 1,000 hotel rooms and 250,000 square feet of meeting space, the distinctive hotel and convention center at Gate City Boulevard and Interstate 40 is easily the most familiar landmark to travelers through the city. 

Richard Vanore Jr., president of Koury Corp., said Tuesday that Milani was a part of every major growth phase for the company except for the original 200-room Holiday Inn that Koury first built there. 

"He helped build this company," Vanore said. 

In his youth, it seemed that Milani would have a different career, one as an electrical engineer. 

In 1972, Milani immigrated to the U.S. from Iran on a scholarship to N.C. A&T. 

To make ends meet while studying, Harrill said, Milani got a job working for a catering company and was later hired at the Holiday Inn as a restaurant manager. 

"He didn't speak the language well but spoke enough to get by," said Harrill, who is the general manager of Grandover and vice president of Koury Corp. 

It was already the busiest hotel in town and Milani, with a strong work ethic, was quickly  promoted, Harrill said. 

Koury, who had developed houses, apartments and the Four Seasons Town Center mall, spotted potential in Milani and when the hotel manager position came open, Koury pulled Milani into a meeting room and asked him if he knew anything about the job. 

Milani's answer was a little tentative. 

"Go learn it," Koury said.

Two weeks later, Harrill said, Koury asked him if he'd like the job permanently.

"In very Mo-like fashion he said, 'Am I gonna run it or are you gonna run it?' and Joe said, 'You are.' He said, 'Good because that's what it needs to be.'"

Koury learned to respect Milani at that moment, Harrill said. And Milani never let Koury down. 

Koury, who died in 1998, built the convention center into more than just Greensboro's top meeting destination; it had become the largest convention center between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. 

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Koury felt a kinship with Milani, Harrill said. 

"They were armchair buddies," he said. "They met every day. They had a lot of breakfasts together."

Harrill and Vanore tell of Milani not only managing the hotel but working with Koury to sketch out a vision for the property off Interstate 85 that eventually would become Grandover Resort and Spa, pacing the land together, imagining where every golf hole or tee would be. 

In his 40-year career with the company, Milani met every president since 1980 and most of the rock stars who came to stay at the Sheraton for concerts at the coliseum. 

But his role in helping the city attract major sporting events, using the hotel and meeting space as an unbeatable part of any proposal, would make Greensboro one of the shining destinations for athletes, teams and leagues.

"It's hard to believe he's not with us anymore," said Hill Carrow, CEO of Cary-based Sports & Properties. "We'll miss him tremendously for a lot of different reasons. He was all about helping you out any way he could."

It was Carrow, along with Brown and Milani, who hatched what some might call a crazy plan to recruit the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Greensboro in 2011. It would later come back in 2015 and 2020, making Greensboro the only city to have hosted the sport's marquee event three times.

"Even if other people thought big things like bringing figure skating was a crazy idea, God forbid, he said, 'We can do that,'" remembered Carrow, who has helped attract sports from collegiate table tennis to Olympic-level aquatic events to the city. 

"Whenever Mo spoke, everybody listened," Carrow said. "He had that kind of influence on everybody to kind of move things forward. It's hard to replace all that." 

The first time Carrow met Milani was when he was putting together the first bid for figure skating around 2009. 

"He and I didn't know each other a lick," Carrow recalled. "Everybody said, 'Mo's gonna chew you up, Hill.' He was quite a tough negotiator. He didn't know who in the heck we were. He wanted the event to be done to his standards."

Once Carrow had pulled off the skating event, "we were like best buddies. Mo's like that with people. That's kind of a universal charm he had."

It was Milani who worked out the plan this year for the men's and women's ACC basketball championships to be played in Greensboro during the COVID-19 pandemic, conceiving of ways to house the teams and protect them from infection at the hotel properties. 

"He was going to great lengths, and it was because of his plan that it comforted the ACC medical teams," Brown said. "That piece was critical for us. It was Mo's protocol for COVID that comforted the ACC. Thank God the plan is in place." 

Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who worked with Milani, Carrow and Brown to help coordinate many events, has lost more than a civic partner. She lost a close family friend. 

Vaughan's father, Fred Barakat, was a top executive with the ACC, based in Greensboro, when she moved to the city in the late 1980s. Barakat and Milani had become friends through business, and that friendship meant shared family events. 

"Mo and his family, they're probably some of the first people I met when I moved to Greensboro," she said. "His love and commitment to the city has been evident for decades. 

"This has been a huge loss personally and professionally." 

Harrill, Vanore and Vaughan said nothing was more important to Milani than his family — wife Tammy, daughter Sahar and sons Camron and Oliver. 

Milani was also known for remembering the names and other details about the people who worked for him. 

Brown said the last time they saw each other was a week ago. Before Milani left, Brown told him a little joke. 

"He broke out in a huge smile, laughing," Brown said. 

Milani, whose enthusiasm was infectious, could make others laugh, too. 

"The times we were together, there was a lot of laughter," Vaughan said. 

Milani's family has not released a cause of death and said that because of COVID-19 concerns, there will be a small family memorial service with details of a larger ceremony to come. 

Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.


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