PROFILE: Sarah Robinson, Consolidated Communications - MD Robinson drives Consolidated forward - One year after the MBO, teamwork remains crucial for Sarah Robinson

Just over a year ago, Sarah Robinson led a team of directors in buying the controlling stake in consumer specialist Consolidated Communications. Not long after, Consolidated's MD and co-founder must have wondered if it was the right decision. A global media slowdown had not been part of the MBO plans and neither, of course, was 11 September. The fact that four airline companies were on the books did not make things easier.

However Robinson, while perturbed, was not on entirely unfamiliar ground. 'It was a fairly turbulent start. But I've done this twice. We started Consolidated and went into recession, which was very scary. We had a pay freeze for two years - it was tough with 14 people.' That was 1990.

Things have moved forward - a favourite theme of Robinson's. She mentions teamwork a lot, too, and is convinced the dynamic of the MBO, with its share offering to all 70-plus employees, has engendered a greater 'one for all and all for one' ethos than before.

'Public affairs (run by former Tory adviser Ed Vaizey) sits with the PR team and more cross-working goes on,' she says, explaining how Consolidated's old divisional structure was done away with. 'If there is a pitch, a lot of people rush to help. I don't think that was so much the case before. The MBO was very much about taking ownership, keeping our identity.'

Consolidated has a reputation for keeping clients (Buena Vista Home Entertainment for 12 years, Virgin Direct since 1995) and has picked up some serious names post-MBO: Telewest, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, and Ernst & Julio Gallo, plus a public affairs brief for the London Tourist Board.

The agency was also PRWeek's Consultancy of the Year 2001. By midnight of the awards evening, many staff knew, she said. 'We were phoning and texting, people were sitting up in bed and talking. The next day, when I got in to the office, everyone got to their feet and cheered.'

As valuable as the accolade was to existing accounts and potential clients, it was also important for other reasons. 'It was a huge morale booster,' Robinson says. The agency had just made several redundancies, the first in its 11-year history.

'It was a painstaking decision and a big shock to the company, and to me, too,' Robinson says. 'It was alien to the culture we foster, of caring about people.'

PR had always attracted Robinson, although her first job, in 1982, after an Oxford English degree was with ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, where she spent four years. 'There was a recession in PR and getting into advertising, at the time, was easier,' she says.

Moving into PR still proved tough, she explains. 'I got reverse snobbery: "After four years in advertising, what makes you think you've got anything to offer us in PR?", I was asked. I struggled until Jones Rose PR gave me the break,' she admits.

Despite the inevitable culture shock of going from a multinational to a shop with a handful of employees, she enjoyed the accounts (mainly food) but after 18 months or so began to find it repetitive. A move to PR firm Scope - in its pre-Ketchum days - in 1987 finally gave her entry to entertainment PR, with work on Rank's video division. It also introduced her to the man with whom she then worked for more than a decade, forming Consolidated together. 'I have worked 14 years with Alastair Gornall,' she says, with a practised pause. 'One of us deserves a medal and we are never sure which one.'

Although not as naturally outgoing as Gornall, who still acts as a consultant for the agency despite having several other irons in the PR industry fire, Robinson knows what she wants. More blue-chip clients are her goal over the second year of the company's new life.

And she is keen to stress the air of continuity which exists, even post-MBO, saying: 'It is an unbroken line because the foundations were all laid there but the MBO has rejuvenated it and passed the ownership into younger and hungrier hands.'

While that sounds uncomfortably like having things both ways, there is a logic to her description of Consolidated's appeal to clients: 'Most of the board started as account managers or execs and I've worked with most of them.

Clients are often attracted to the fact that they are talking to people who are owners of a business, who are sympathetic to the economic climate and business concerns, and who are passionate.'

While not decrying the agency's ability, she feels that pitches can seem to be won near the beginning of presentations when the company's shareholding structure is outlined. She adds simply: 'They know then that you are not just turning up for work.'

HIGHLIGHTS
1987: Account manager, Jones Rose PR
1990: Account director, Consolidated
1999: Managing director, Consolidated
2001: Consolidated board executes MBO

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