ANALYSIS: Profile - FH’s game plan: conquer US, then the world John Graham was writing Hallmark cards when Bob Hillard brought him to his fledgling firm in St. Louis. Over 30 years later, this poet-turned-CEO is poised to take Fleishman-Hillard to

John Graham attended the University of Missouri’s journalism school on a track scholarship. Today at age 62, the chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard is still running - racing to outpace competitors by growing Fleishman into an international PR powerhouse.

John Graham attended the University of Missouri’s journalism school on a track scholarship. Today at age 62, the chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard is still running - racing to outpace competitors by growing Fleishman into an international PR powerhouse.

John Graham attended the University of Missouri’s journalism school

on a track scholarship. Today at age 62, the chairman and CEO of

Fleishman-Hillard is still running - racing to outpace competitors by

growing Fleishman into an international PR powerhouse.



But don’t imagine Graham as the lonely long-distance runner. He’s a team

builder, a player-coach who counsels employees and still actively works

to garner new business.



Back in the 1980s, he staked out operating principals for Fleishman that

put people first. It might sound like management rhetoric, but when

Graham speaks about valuing his employees, he really means it - as those

who have worked both for and against him will testify.



Graham says his growth plans for Fleishman are driven by one simple goal

- to attract more good people to the company. Business objectives such

as increased revenues and profits will flow naturally from that

achievement, he contends.



And at Fleishman, the formula is working. The company will realize 23%

organic growth this year and 16% overall growth, to roughly dollars 200

million in PR income, when acquisitions are added in. Graham’s goal for

2000 is dollars 265 million, which will mean more buys, and he’s already

talking about dollars 400 million in 2003.



Getting that large that fast could strain any company, let alone one

that tries as hard as Fleishman to put people first. But Graham thinks

he can grow and still maintain the Fleishman culture he’s worked so hard

to create.



To accomplish that, he routinely travels 200,000 miles or more a year,

visiting the company’s 40 offices to talk with staffers. He spends

weekends answering employee e-mails and still personally interviews

around 150 people a year.



’The winners in the acquisition business are going to be the ones who

really take care of and focus on their people,’ he says. ’I want people

to be proud of this company. If management is doing its job, people

should feel proud to work there. I honestly believe that and I practice

that.’



Even Fleishman staffers in Beijing have heard the corporate mantra and

understand it. It’s good that they do, because Graham has been on an

acquisition tear of late. In April, he bought Watt, Roop & Co. and in

October CPR Worldwide in London. Other acquisitions have included

Dallas-based Meltzer & Martin and tech specialists Upstart

Communications.



Scott Clark, CEO of CPR, says several firms courted him, but he decided

to sell to Fleishman because Graham took the time to learn about CPR and

to share ideas about its future with Clark. ’He wants to understand your

business, not just from a superficial level,’ Clark says. ’He has the

ability to have people follow him.’



Bob McEwen, GM of Fleishman’s Chicago office, is another believer in

Graham, as he left his old job as head of Shandwick’s Detroit office to

come to Fleishman. ’He’s the kind of guy I always admired from afar,’

McEwen says. ’He commands such respect and loyalty that you don’t want

to let the guy down.’



Even competitors sing his praises. Says John La Sage, chairman of

Burson-Marsteller’s central region: ’People who work there like to work

there, and it all starts from the top. John embodies all the good

qualities you would want in a PR person.’



Graham credits Bob Hillard with instilling the basic tenets that have

helped him attract people and business to the firm. During Graham’s

first day with Fleishman in 1966, Hillard told him ’if you’re going to

be a consultant, you need to listen.’ Graham, then an amateur poet, had

been writing greeting cards for Hallmark in Kansas City. But after two

years there, he mulled a career change, wrestling between advertising

and PR.



He decided PR had a bigger future and so moved to St. Louis to do PR for

the YMCA. Hillard offered him a job in 1965, but Graham felt obligated

to complete a program he was working on for the Y. Hillard went after

him a year later and Graham came on board. At the time, Fleishman had

only eight employees.



In only eight years Graham had become CEO, but agency billings were

still less than dollars 1 million in 1974. By the early ’80s, Fleishman

needed to make a major decision. Clients such as locally based

Anheuser-Busch and Emerson Electric were growing nationally and

internationally and major PR firms like Hill & Knowlton were trying to

woo them away from tiny Fleishman.



Some say Graham was a visionary, realizing that Fleishman had to go

international to survive. But a competitor in St. Louis says client

demand, rather than Graham’s own vision, was the impetus to expand.

Graham says there is an element of truth in both theories.



Whatever the reason, there’s no doubting his commitment - Graham and his

CFO even mortgaged their homes to support the expansion. And there were

growing pains. In 1980 Fleishman opened a New York City office, but it

ran in the red for four straight years before things picked up. The firm

next opened its doors in LA and then Washington, DC. ’We were rolling

the dice that we’d take our Midwest way of doing business and make it a

national business,’ he recalls. The gamble paid off as clients and

potential clients started approaching Fleishman about larger and larger

programs.



Graham today still spends about 40% of his time meeting with clients and

potential clients, a practice he says he enjoys and one that keeps him

in touch with the business. Says competitor Rich Jernstedt, CEO of

Golin/Harris International: ’He is famous for being someone who rolls up

his sleeves and works.’



Graham says he has no plans for retirement; rather, he’s hungry for more

acquisitions, with parent Omnicom bankrolling the buys. He now also

heads Communications Consulting Worldwide, an umbrella for Omnicom’s PR

holdings.



Graham is still running the race, one to instill Fleishman’s culture in

a growing family as it strives to become the largest agency in the

country. Growing internationally will mean spreading his culture to

countries that are strangers to the Midwest ethos Graham knows so well,

but he doesn’t think that will be a problem. ’Respect for the individual

translates anywhere,’ he says. ’This culture is going to be here a long

time after I’m gone. It’s inherent in our professional souls.’





John D. Graham - Chairman, CEO Fleishman-Hillard



1966: Joins Fleishman-Hillard after doing PR for the St. Louis YMCA



1970: Named director and senior partner



1974: Becomes president and CEO



1988: Elected chairman



1997: Sells firm to Omnicom.



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