Analysis: Profile - Conafay: Shandwick NY’s healthcare tonic/Watching Stephen Conafay adjust the straps of his crowing rooster suspenders, it becomes clear that the big hitter doesn’t take himself too seriously. But he’s the man wi

Stephen Conafay has worked in the healthcare business for most of his business life. And when he took over Shandwick’s New York offices in May of 1998, he found an ailing patient. Growth projections for 1998 were nearly flat, while the office lost almost a third of its staff in the four months following his arrival. Conafay, a trained lawyer with a background in lobbying, was also new to PR agency life and couldn’t tell you the difference between an entry-level account coordinator and an account supervisor. He was a most unlikely doctor.

Stephen Conafay has worked in the healthcare business for most of his business life. And when he took over Shandwick’s New York offices in May of 1998, he found an ailing patient. Growth projections for 1998 were nearly flat, while the office lost almost a third of its staff in the four months following his arrival. Conafay, a trained lawyer with a background in lobbying, was also new to PR agency life and couldn’t tell you the difference between an entry-level account coordinator and an account supervisor. He was a most unlikely doctor.

Stephen Conafay has worked in the healthcare business for most of

his business life. And when he took over Shandwick’s New York offices in

May of 1998, he found an ailing patient. Growth projections for 1998

were nearly flat, while the office lost almost a third of its staff in

the four months following his arrival. Conafay, a trained lawyer with a

background in lobbying, was also new to PR agency life and couldn’t tell

you the difference between an entry-level account coordinator and an

account supervisor. He was a most unlikely doctor.



Nevertheless, he has given Shandwick NY a major injection of life since

that time. Revenues for the office doubled between 1998 and 1999, from

dollars 7.5 million to dollars 15 million. Conafay has taken the office

into the top 10 in the Big Apple, and for his efforts was recently named

president of Shandwick NY and managing director of North American

operations.



’At first some of us were hesitant because Steve’s background is so

different. But he has an excellent sense of how and where we need to

grow,’ says Linda Recupero, national consumer practice director at

Shandwick NY.



You can be sure that healthcare would be part of the mix given New

York’s prominent position in the market and Conafay’s background. He

also had an eye for the growing capital markets, consumer and tech

areas. But with 20 years of lobbying experience, it’s his ability to get

’disparate groups behind a common goal’ that provided the glue.



’I think the fact that I’m old and heavy gave the place a sense of

stability,’ he jokes. Conafay’s keen sense of humor and upbeat

personality have given the formally moribund office a much-needed boost.

And his business philosophy provided exactly what many agency chiefs

promise, but which Shandwick NY lacked - an emphasis on its staff.



’Steve knows business starts with the people who work for you. He treats

people with a great amount of respect, and they give him 300 percent,’

says Burt Rosen, a former co-worker at Pfizer. Conafay is a born leader,

whether in Vietnam, where he served as an infantry platoon leader, or in

the milieu of corporate America, where he has held senior management

positions since 1972.



As the staff exodus continued, Conafay stayed focused on the

long-term.



He showed staff that management would deliver on its promises by

ordering long overdue computers and consulting employees on their needs.

’In PR we drive people hard, so we need to give them a fun place to

work,’ says Conafay.





In the trenches



Conafay started in the trenches, fostering a sense of camaraderie among

his staff. A NY Giants baseball fan as a child, Conafay arrived too late

to see the team play in the Polo Grounds. Instead, he built his own

softball team, the Shandwick Sharks, to foster intra-office

relationships and have some fun. Conafay also initiated other rituals

such as a weekly employee break.



But he was not always the warm, fuzzy type. ’In my younger days I was

more driven and less sensitive to the people who worked for me,’ he

admits.



Conafay has learned that a worker’s personal life is more important than

his job, in part from his experience raising a son with cerebral

palsy.



He advocates flextime for employees, especially those with children. The

efforts may seem small, but the overall effect has cut the turnover rate

in half. In fact, Conafay has expanded staff from 71 to 117 since his

arrival.



Conafay succeeded in settling things on the home front, but he also was

charged with growing Shandwick NY’s profits and client base. He decided

to follow an organic model of growth, the natural choice for growing

business when he was a partner at the law firm Jones, Day, Reavis and

Pogue. ’The emphasis on new business is out of proportion in the PR

industry,’ he claims. ’The best way to grow business is with the clients

you already have. You have to polish the diamonds you have before you

look for new ones.’



Investing additional time in current clients has paid off. Kodak, Sharp,

KPMG and other major brands have expanded their accounts. New clients

include Dun & Bradstreet, Bristol-Myers Squibb and iWon.com.



Conafay has added two new practices to the office, one in national media

and another in public affairs. He has also played a key role in

Shandwick’s recent acquisition frenzy, focusing on healthcare and

hi-tech practices.



The 1998 acquisition of Brown Powers & Associates, a top healthcare PR

firm, added dollars 1.5 million in revenues and is currently a dollars 2

million shop.



Similarly, the Miller Technologies acquisition later that year added

dollars 1 million in revenues in 1998, increasing to the present dollars

2.5 million, according to the company.



In comparison with other Shandwick US offices, New York remains

relatively small. Rumors suggest that several larger deals have fallen

through, including investor relations firm Morgen Walke. ’We are in no

way disappointed with our current acquisitions,’ is Conafay’s response,

adding, ’We are clearly looking to spend more in the next year.’ He is

expecting to infuse dollars 10 million into acquisitions in 2000, and

says he is in negotiations with several shops.



On other deals, Conafay has held a behind-the-scenes role, working under

US CEO Michael Petruzzello. He served as a negotiator in the November

1999 headline-grabbing acquisition of the Cassidy Companies that truly

put Shandwick on the US map, bolstering its national revenues to dollars

160 million.





Comeback kid



In his new role, Conafay will assume greater responsibility for

Shandwick’s North American profits and management, working closely with

chief operating officer Mary Jeffries. He will continue to work on

acquisitions and oversee the NY office, which will move to new Midtown

digs later this year.With projections for this year just in, Conafay

intends for his office to be one of the top five in the New York

market.



He jokes that he’s old and heavy. But Steve Conafay has clearly got a

new lease on life. Is it any wonder he’s known in the office as the

comeback kid?



Stephen Conafay

President, Shandwick NY

MD, North American Operations

1972

VP, government relations Pfizer

1989

SVP, corporate affairs Glaxo

1990

Partner at Jones, Day, Reavis, Pogue

1994

EVP strategic & legislative affairs Pharmaceutical Research &

Manufacturers of America

1998

Managing director, Shandwick NY



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