PROFILE: Lessons from a recession thriver

Kristin Syltevik is not Icelandic. Nor is she Swedish. She is quick to correct PRWeek's inaccurate stabs as to the origin of her clipped accent and Scandinavian looks.

Kristin Syltevik
Kristin Syltevik

‘I'm from the north of Norway,' she says. ‘But Iceland is a good guess. I'd like to be more like Bjork - she's so cool.'

But Syltevik, 42, is actually ice-cool in person. The Hotwire founder and tech PR mainstay projects an air of utter unflappability. She seems especially calm about the prospect of an imminent recession at a time when her industry peers are worrying themselves over deficits and redundancies.

Then again, she has been through worse, having launched her much-lauded agency at one of the worst times for a technology specialist: at the start of 2000's dotcom crash. Syltevik insists, however, that the ensuing crisis in her sector was a blessing in disguise for Hotwire.

‘You should always start a company during a downturn,' she says with characteristic assuredness. ‘You are hungrier, better, more agile than others. You'll succeed.'

Kristin Syltevik, Founder, HotwireSyltevik is surely one of PR's classic success stories. Her agency is consistently ranked near the top of industry charts, winning PRWeek's International Consultancy of the Year Award in 2007, just seven years after its inception.

Her name is breathlessly invoked by the PR powers-that-be (Larry Weber for one) as the "next big thing". But Syltevik is quick to point out that her car­eer has not always been an easy ride.

‘I had to sell my house to start Hotwire,' she points out. ‘I started it in my flat, just two of us. My business partner [former Miller/Shandwick Technologies colleague Anth­ony Wilson] had to mortgage his house.

People think they can start a PR company with an add­ress book, a phone and a PC. From day one, we invested in training and HR. We began Hotwire as a serious business.'

Three months in, Hotwire's team of two had grown to eight. As the dotcom bust threatened the new agency's rivals, Syltevik managed to grow the business while maintaining a 100 per cent staff retention rate during the agency's first two years.

By 2002, Hotwire had landed some impressive clients for a start-up: PricewaterhouseCooper's consulting arm, Hewlett Packard-spin off Agilent Technologies and telecoms firm Alcatel.

Ashley Ward is a partner at executive search firm Nexec Partners, who has worked with Syltevik for more than five years, most recently in his former guise as CEO of online payments start-up Upaid. He att­ributes her success down to charm, as well as business savvy.

‘Kristin is incredibly engaging,' he says. ‘In a purely professional sense, it's quite a seductive connection she makes. I remember our first meeting, and I felt I was with someone who gave me an amazing amount of confidence. If I got on to a plane and Kristin was in the front left seat, I would feel very relaxed.'

Ward adds that Syltevik's media relations know-how separates Hotwire's service from its competitors. ‘I've been the CEO of seven venture-backed and public companies, and PR has always been one of our main marketing tools,' he explains. ‘With Kristin, you get a lot of bang for your buck. If you Google the name of one of Hotwire's clients, boy, you get a lot of coverage. It's in a different league.'

Late last year Syltevik oversaw the £10m sale of Hotwire's holding company, North by Northwest, to Australian marcoms giant Photon, but plans to stay on board, even beyond the three-year ‘earn-out' period specified in the deal.

She continues to run day-to-day business, desc­ribing the office as a ‘Scandinavian democracy', open-plan and with equal numbers of men and women in senior positions. ‘In Norway, at least 40 per cent of quoted companies' boards must be female,' she explains. ‘My board is approximately 50/50. You should judge people by what they're good at and what they do.'

While Syltevik spends a fair amount of time as the only woman in senior client meetings, she insists she ‘hasn't really noticed' the imbalance. ‘It happens all the time that I am the only woman, but I don't get upset. I am just incredibly surprised the world thinks it's a good thing
to source all its leaders from 48 per cent of the population.'

Syltevik cheerfully admits her part in the agency's success, but insists she never expected such an entrepreneurial career. ‘I never wanted to run a business,' she says. ‘Everyone in my family runs a small or med­ium business in Norway.

I grew up in my grandmother's hotel, and saw what she went through, so during my youth I said it was the last thing I wanted to do. I guess your gene pool catches up with you.'

One former boss is not so sure, citing her ambitious nature as the reason she dec­ided to go it alone after years as an agency staffer. ‘She's got a lovely manner, but behind that is a steely determination,' says Michael Murphy, one-time CEO of Weber Shandwick Europe, now Trimedia International CEO. ‘She's hard working, and has the attitude that makes a successful businesswoman.'

For now, besides running a multi-million-pound business, Syltevik is concentrating on raising her 10-month-old son, who will speak both Norwegian and English. Not that she is planning on a stay-at-home-mother role. In the past two weeks alone, she has been in Frankfurt and Milan, checking in with Hotwire's continental off­ices.

She says global expansion is not on the cards for the immediate future, but she will not rule it out in the medium term. ‘Maybe we'll set up an office in the US one day,' she muses. ‘We have affiliates across Asia and the Pacific, but we can service the whole of Europe from our own offices. That's a big thing to do in seven years.'

CV
2007 Founder and MD, Skywrite (a tech start-up PR specialist). Sold Hotwire and Skywrite to Photon Group
2000 Founder and MD, Hotwire
1996 MD, Miller/Shandwick
1995 Account director, Miller/Shandwick
1992 Consultant, Johnson King
1989 Account exec, Penn Communications

TURNING POINTS
What was your biggest career break?
It was in 1996 when I was offered the job of running one of the Shandwick subsidiaries in London, Miller/Shandwick Technologies. For the next four years I had fantastic mentoring and a full-on intensive crash-course in running a PR agency.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Join a PR agency. By working with experienced people and many clients you will be exposed to many more experiences than if you are in-house. Then, join an agency and a sector that are growing. The faster they grow the faster your career will grow too.

Who was your most notable mentor?
Andrea Der Boghosian was a fantastic mentor and support in the 1990s when I got to grips with the difficult task of people management on a large scale. I would also like to mention my grandmother. She was a businesswoman in the 1930s who showed me that through hard work
and faith you can run a successful business.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A successful PR person has an interesting mix of qualities and personality traits. In addition, every agency has a profile that fits them. Top of my wish list is enthusiasm with no trace of arrogance, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves.

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