PROFILE: Stern's civic sense helps companies ease into Dallas

Sunwest CEO Andrew Stern may just be the most connected PR person in Dallas, considering the charity boards on which he serves and the corporations that seek his help.

Sunwest CEO Andrew Stern may just be the most connected PR person in Dallas, considering the charity boards on which he serves and the corporations that seek his help.

"There's a myth that I know everybody in town, says Andrew Stern from his office deep in the heart of Dallas. "It's not true, he adds demurely.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a PR person more familiar to the Dallas business elite than Stern, chairman and CEO of Sunwest Communications.

Cracking that clique couldn't have been easy, considering he hails from Cleveland by way of Delaware and Washington, DC.

Stern can be found wherever the Dallas powerful meet in the name of charity or civic duty. He's on the boards of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the EDS Byron Nelson golf tournament, and Medical City Dallas Hospital.

His past credits range from the mayor's task force on high technology to the Dallas Museum of Natural History. And he's the first PR person on the city's influential Citizens Council.

"I'm a joiner, Stern admits. "I enjoy the interaction - the give and take of being on boards."

But civic involvement isn't only about self-fulfillment; it's one way Stern builds business relationships. He cultivates chances to rub elbows with CEOs, and mildly chides competitors with suburban addresses. He frets that too few of New York's PR leaders get involved with United Way or Carnegie boards.

"You've got a choice of competing by filling out RFPs or by relationships, says Stern. He sees the first option as an impersonal transaction leaned upon by firms without roots, and the second as a more reliable source of steady business.

In Dallas, a successful entrepreneur must pay his dues, but not necessarily with his own money, says Stern. He shuns PR committee roles in favor of volunteering for fundraising positions.

"Andy gives people in PR a good reputation, says Merrie Spaeth, president of Dallas' Spaeth Communications. "He's talented, he's successful, and he's generous with his time."

Beyond-the-call civic involvement built Stern's reputation as a go-to man. Known for its strategic communications and crisis work, Sunwest serves clients like ExxonMobil, The Meadows Foundation, Omni Hotels, and Haas Wheat & Partners, a private equity firm with heavy investments in Playtex Products. The firm does affiliate work with Ruder Finn and MS&L as well.

Two years ago, Sunwest formed its Sun Agency arm focusing on consumer and hi-tech clients such as Liquid Nails and Philips Electronics' telephony division. Sunwest also fell into helping companies move their corporate headquarters to Dallas from elsewhere.

Stern moved to Dallas after working two years in the White House as President Ford's staff assistant. "I jokingly say to people that I carried his briefcase, Stern says. Doing advance work for the President, Stern recalls traveling all or part of 50 weeks from November 1975 to November 1976.

Today, displaced Presidential staffers can walk right into lucrative private-sector jobs, but few PR positions existed in Washington when Ford's term ended. Stern used his connections with Ford's friend Trammel Crowe, a prominent Dallas real-estate developer, to land a job with Wylain, a Dallas manufacturing company, before moving on to Associates First Capital.

PR wasn't terribly cool in Dallas either in the late 1970s, but Morris Hite, CEO of ad agency Tracy-Locke, soon began appreciating its value, and approached Stern about heading up a PR firm. Thus Sunwest was born in 1982 on the heels of Tracy-Locke's sale to BBDO, and Stern bought out other investors two years later after Hite's death in an auto accident.

Sunwest now employs about 20 people, including Stern's son David and his brother Fred, who became president earlier this year after leaving hotelier Wyndham International. Fred followed Andrew into the top post at Associates, and worked there for 15 years.

The companies Stern helps settle into Dallas usually come his way through CEO referrals and don't always turn into long-term clients, but make up a profitable niche nonetheless. "Some companies want a big splash, Stern explains. "Some don't want people to know, but want to be prepared when they find out."

Kimberly-Clark mainly wanted Stern to introduce its execs to their counterparts at other Dallas companies. He helped Blockbuster set up an event at its original store when moving its headquarters back to Dallas from Fort Lauderdale, FL. And while Boeing considered Dallas, Chicago, and Denver for its new headquarters, Stern discreetly arranged local press conference sites and dinner reservations, though Chicago was ultimately chosen.

Stern also lectures at Texas' leading universities, and he finds invitations to speak to business students particularly encouraging. "If there's a challenge in the PR business, it's not telling PR people to get MBAs, it's getting MBAs to study PR, he says, claiming much of what CEOs do boils down to PR.

The current crisis of corporate confidence is a PR problem, especially when the perceptions companies tried to build didn't reflect reality.

Whether the PR team is in the loop or out, "it's the reality that counts, Stern stresses.

"(Andy is) a very honest, direct individual, summarizes Jeff West, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum. "I think he is through and through a Dallasite in so many ways."

1970 Earns political science degree from the University of Delaware.
Goes to work as press secretary for the mayor of Wilmington, DE
1972-1975 VP of PA for Delaware Medical Center
1975-1977 White House staff assistant to President Gerald Ford
1977-1980 Director of PR and advertising for Dallas manufacturer Wylain
1980-1982 SVP of corporate communications at Associates First Capital
1982 Becomes founding president of Sunwest Communications. Buys out
other shareholders in 1984 to become chairman and CEO

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