PROFILE: Kelly's bold leadership reshapes FD's outlook in US

From his award-winning journalism days to his key role in a $42 million MBO of FD, Declan Kelly continues to cultivate his reputation as a motivated yet modest entrepreneur.

From his award-winning journalism days to his key role in a $42 million MBO of FD, Declan Kelly continues to cultivate his reputation as a motivated yet modest entrepreneur.

On the morning of last July 4, while others in New York City were preparing for barbecues or plotting a temporary escape from the steamy city, Declan Kelly was stationed by the fax machine at his home in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. At that time, FD International, the London-based PR firm at which he was a top US executive, was akin to a wealthy passenger on a ship taking on water. Its owner, the struggling marketing holding company Cordiant, was reeling and in the process of being taken over by rival WPP. Amid the tempest set off by the clashing marketing giants was a small group of FD execs who wanted to wrest control of the firm from the massive holding companies. The band of four, which included Kelly, had spent close to a year trying to engineer a deal that would by and large put the company in the hands of its management. It was a bold move, but consistent with the reputation Kelly has cultivated as a hard-charging entrepreneur who, in just seven years in the PR business, had already built and sold a successful company in his native Ireland and risen to a top position at one of the UK's premier financial communications firms. But on Independence Day, he was poised for the biggest accomplishment of his career. Around lunchtime, as the fax began to hum, an anxious Manhattan morning gave way to a festive afternoon in East Hampton, Long Island, where Kelly toasted the consummation of a $42 million deal that would give him and his team a different kind of independence than what anyone else was celebrating. More than six months later, on a cold, drizzly day, Kelly pauses to reflect on that trying period of the management buyout, during which 20-hour workdays spent serving clients and crafting the deal were the norm, and on the months since, which have been no less frenetic. Since July, the firm has rebranded as Financial Dynamics, dropping the Morgen-Walke name from its US operations and moving its New York offices from midtown to Wall Street. Kelly has taken over as the agency's US CEO. Not only has FD just opened a Washington, DC office that will allow it to compete in the public affairs space, but Kelly is already talking about establishing presences in Chicago, Dallas, and possibly on the West Coast. And the firm also has made several high-profile hires, holding out equity in FD - one of the fruits of the MBO - as a way of snagging major talent from global firms. All told, the activity is a rare sign of life in an industry still hurt by the slow recovery at the tail end of the recession and a sign that the firm's US arm has come to shake up the small, competitive world of business communications. "This is a very good year for us," says Kelly, against the majestic backdrop of lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn skyline that is his office view. "It could be our defining year." Pinpointing Kelly's role in FD's rapid US expansion is not easy. The 35-year-old executive is, except when talking about his dedication to his business, modest. His almost self-effacing persona sharply contradicts some of the press he received in Ireland in the mid- to late-1990s, when he was making a splash in Dublin's fishbowl business world with Gallagher & Kelly PR, a firm he cofounded and eventually sold to Cordiant after stints at Fleishman-Hillard and Ireland's Murray Consultants. An article published in the Irish magazine Business & Finance the day before the MBO was finalized noted a penchant for "expensive suits, Rolex watches, and powerboats." "Lies. Complete BS," Kelly calls the story today. And even though, somewhat incongruously, a framed copy of the article sits next to some other clippings above his desk, he insists publicity for himself isn't his goal. "Believe it or not, I'm not particularly worried about my own profile," he says. "I guess it's because I was a journalist for nine years, reporting on businesses and people who run business. If you think too much about yourself and what your role is within a business, then you lose sight of what that business is." If the recent interview is any sign, then that sight is crystal clear. The plan for FD's US operations is to build upon the brand's resonance elsewhere as a top financial communications provider. "The Financial Dynamics brand is known well around the world," he says. "In the US, it's a new phenomenon." Despite a crowded US business communications market filled with large global firms and smaller, specialty companies, one competitor says, "You can break into this market from overseas, but it is very hard. You've got to be really focused and prepared to invest in the right type of people to create a strong local business, but simultaneously work hard to integrate them into your network, making sure you develop a shared sense of culture with your other offices." Charles Watson, FD's CEO and leader of the MBO team, says that Kelly was the natural choice to head up the US expansion because of his reputation for client counsel and his business savvy. "He's a fantastic marketer and new-business winner," he says. "But we needed more. We needed leadership. We were rebranding a business. " Kelly says his PR work is informed by his journalism career, during which he rose from local papers like The Nenagh Guardian, where he worked while earning his university degree at night, and The Tipperary Star, to the national paper The Examiner. In 1994, he was named Irish Business Journalist of the Year for his coverage of an industrial relations crisis in the Irish government. Ten years later, in addition to employing what he learned from the media in client counsel, Kelly is looking ahead to the continued expansion and what he wants FD's brand to mean in the US. "I believe that people think we're a force to be reckoned with," he says. "And that's exactly what I want people to think - because we are." ----- Declan Kelly 2004 President and CEO of FD in the US, chairman of FD Ireland, and responsible for managing FD's business in Greece 2002-2003 Appointed FD International's global head of business development and chairman of FD Ireland; appointed president of FD's US operations later in the year; added post of CEO to previous title in US in 2003 2001 Sold Gallagher & Kelly PR to Cordiant 1999 Left Fleishman-Hillard to start Gallagher & Kelly PR with a former colleague 1997 Joined Fleishman-Hillard. Appointed to the board of its Irish subsidiary 1995-1996 Joined Murray Consultants, then Ireland's largest PR firm, as a senior consultant; appointed to its board in 1996

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