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Business Endures By Staying True to Its Vision

On her 25th anniversary, Susan Stern reflects on the secrets of her success.

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Susan Stern of Stern + Associates

In January 1985, I set out to achieve a dual personal goal: end my daily Manhattan-New Jersey commuting grind to spend more time with my newborn daughter and create a public relations firm based on my vision of what constitutes success. Now, on its 25th anniversary, Stern + Associates continues to reflect my initial vision.

Despite monumental changes to the public relations industry over the past two decades, my vision of success remains unchanged. Although I was 32 years old when I started my company, clear memories of my entry-level positions fresh out of college motivated me to create a business where aspiring PR practitioners would feel respected, included in important aspects of the business (even some traditionally reserved for senior staff) and intellectually challenged.

I have always believed that recent college graduates who demonstrate the talent to produce impressive work for our clients, work effectively within our team culture and exhibit management potential should be fast-tracked for advancement. Not only does this approach help retain top performers, but it also serves to develop professionals who learn and internalize our company's highest core values and standards right from the start.

I also dreamed of leading an organization where cost-effective and creative programming were tantamount, and stellar customer service exceeded client expectations. To build long-lasting customer relationships in a creative field like public relations or advertising, where frequent client turnover is commonplace, requires:

  1. Dedication to proactive and strategic thinking
  2. Sound business counsel
  3. Treating each customer's needs and budget as if they were your own
  4. Maintaining open, honest communications

I saw an opportunity to create a business that would stand apart from other firms by being fully committed to all these qualities.

My first hire was a former colleague whom I greatly respected professionally and who shared my vision. Working together with an additional part-time employee in the cozy, close quarters at my home tested our ability to team effectively. Despite the sounds of the computer spurting out mailing labels and hearing one another's phone conversations, we kept focused on the tasks at hand and thrived on the excitement of servicing our first client. Dividing responsibilities between us based on our strengths, yet always collaborating on idea generation and writing creative copy, we generated high-caliber work with relative ease. My husband moonlighted as our unpaid bookkeeper, creating client invoices and mastering the science of payroll deductions.

One early and significant challenge for the fledgling company was how to find time to expand the business. Initially, Stern + Associates was a one-client shop and, despite my desire to build the client roster (it's tenuous to be dependent on one client), I had to visit client headquarters on a regular basis, with trips often lasting as long as a week.

Whenever I recruited additional talent with the intention of focusing resources on new business initiatives, a new and burning client project would inevitably hit, and my best-laid plans for networking, cold calling and mailings would evaporate.

Cognizant of the importance of landing new clients to help secure the future of the company, yet limited by available time and resources, I relinquished big business development initiatives to the back burner and focused on simpler and less time-consuming tactics. By asking contacts at my client's organization and other business associates and friends if I might connect with a few of their contacts who might be in the market for public relations services, I was able to generate solid results. While some initial small projects were not necessarily profitable, they contributed to expanding our client roster and helped showcase the firm's capabilities.

Reflecting on those early days, however, the biggest challenge I faced was balancing my seemingly conflicting roles of new mother and entrepreneur. Clearly, a business just getting off the ground requires working beyond the hours of 9 to 5, and a baby daughter's needs are considerably more intense than even the most demanding client's. Hiring a full-time baby sitter allowed me to focus on work while being just steps away from the nursery for the occasional hug or lullaby.

It's now 25 years later, and I am no longer concerned about the baby crying in the next room. I'm not worried about juggling the newest burning project, either, because Stern + Associates is now a team of 30 people.

However, managing a growing organization in three locations -- New Jersey, Boston and Pittsburgh -- and continually filling the pipeline with new business opportunities, particularly in a precarious economy, remain important issues. Fortunately, I have total trust in my senior management team of six professionals, including three vice presidents who have been with Stern + Associates for more than 12 years.

In fact, our two regional offices were formed as a direct result of my trust in two emerging leaders who needed to relocate for family reasons. Having built great respect and appreciation for these individuals, I was committed to their remaining with the company and knew they would continue to flourish with the firm, despite their new, remote locations. To help generate new leads and sign up business, my husband left his former business eight years ago to join my company. Danny drives our new business development program, and his efforts have led to expansive growth.

Stern + Associates continues to sign new accounts and retain important business because of the dedication and efforts of my senior team. Each vice president adheres to the standards and values that have remained unchanged over the years. Having earned my trust as a result of their outstanding performance and personal qualities, members of the team have developed the skills needed to manage their own practice areas or client programs under my direction.

Focusing every staff member on living his or her workday according to our longstanding mission and tagline -- "client relationships that last and creative ideas that work" -- helps guide new strategies and tactics to keep my firm's standards uncompromised. Because I treat each person in the company -- no matter his or her level -- as an individual and provide open, honest feedback and guidance, employees view Stern + Associates as a company that cares and is committed to their future.

The following approach to managing my business has been an integral part of how I realized my entrepreneurial dream:

  1. You won't have all the answers. Having been trained at a major international PR firm, I was confident in my approach to client service when I launched Stern + Associates. However, when it came to the basics of establishing and managing a company, I was in the dark. Financial reports, payroll deductions, depreciation, insurance policies and the like were simply not part of my creative vocabulary. I initially looked to my father-in-law, a former CEO of a division of Phillips Corp. He provided sound advice on budgeting principles, which I still follow to this day.
    The process I use is simple. I project the year based on signed contracts, and update whenever there is a change in business, conservatively adding or deleting revenue. There's a certain amount of estimating involved, but I try to ensure accuracy by adjusting actual vs. estimated expenses on a quarterly basis. These processes are the bedrock of my business and responsible for the business consistently turning a profit every year since its inception, despite fluctuations in the economy and the need to reinvest in the enterprise to launch new services and capabilities.
  2. Reputation is key. The most critical ingredient to a successful business is establishing and preserving an impeccable reputation. Reputation is based not only on honesty, trustworthiness and work ethic but is also tied to how you treat and show respect for your staff, clients and vendors. At Stern + Associates, our core values drive every aspect of the business. Beginning with the interview process and throughout one's career with the company, we continually communicate and reinforce the seven critical qualities that are responsible for the stellar reputation of the firm: integrity, respect, forward thinking, tenacity, passion and enthusiasm, collaboration and commitment.
  3. Sleep on crucial decisions. My brother-in-law provided wise counsel early in my career: Always take at least 24 hours to consider options and arrive at your answer. Sitting quietly and constructing a "pros and cons" list, then reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of the pending decision, is a valuable practice. This approach allows you to detach from emotional elements and reach a clear decision based on the facts.
  4. Don't build a business; build a foundation for success. Throughout my 25 years of business ownership, I have consulted on a constant basis with people I trust and respect for their business acumen and ethics. Whether I'm conferring with my senior management team or staff members within the company; close friends who are accomplished business professionals; or outside consultants such as organizational psychologists, accountants and attorneys, I benefit enormously from hearing their ideas and perspectives. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart and are comfortable challenging your point of view. Establishing a circle of talented advisors at the outset forms a solid foundation from which your business can grow and adapt to unforeseen changes.
  5. Step outside of the box. The world of business is constantly evolving. So while you may establish excellent processes to ensure an efficiently run business and create a base of services that meets market needs, it's always wise to keep both eyes on the horizon, seeking new ways to innovate and stay ahead of change. For example, I've worked closely with a psychologist who specializes in motivating sports teams. Our work together has enhanced my skills in conflict resolution, leadership and fostering teamwork. When you learn of a new trend emerging -- whether in technology or your industry, for example -- consider the potential value for your organization. Keep an open mind about recruiting people outside of your traditional needs, as they can contribute to building new capabilities that drive business growth.
  6. Truly value your employees. When I established Stern + Associates, I selected the "plus" sign for the logo because my associates are the added plus -- as important to the success of the company as I am. Employees who feel recognized and valued are motivated to do great things. Although salary raises and bonuses contribute to job satisfaction, smaller gestures make people feel loyal to the company and happy about their contributions to the organization. Unexpected acts of appreciation -- e.g., awards, gifts, recognition at company meetings, staff outings -- can yield big results in terms of employee morale and loyalty. I'm proud to say that many top performers at Stern + Associates remain with the company for many years.

Susan Stern is president of Stern + Associates, a public relations and marketing communications agency with offices in Cranford, N.J.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Pittsburgh.

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