Analysis: Profile - Tate - Spinning her talents to suit her in TX - Kerry Tate has adapted to Austin's changing PR scene, ditching advertising and making a name for herself along the way

Kerry Tate has watched Austin grow up and her own PR firm outgrow advertising.

Kerry Tate has watched Austin grow up and her own PR firm outgrow advertising.

Kerry Tate has watched Austin grow up and her own PR firm outgrow advertising.

Tate's sidewalk view of Congress Avenue and her 16 years as a PR entrepreneur in the Texas capital have put her in an ideal position to monitor, nurture and participate in Austin's makeover.

Not that many years ago, the really big companies operating in Austin (IBM, Texas Instruments, Advanced Micro Devices) were based elsewhere - thus, their PR decisions were made elsewhere. And smaller, local businesses wanted one-stop shopping for both PR and advertising.

But then the PR scene in Austin began to grow and mature. Hi-tech startups popped up like weeds, and Austin became a hub for their communication campaigns.

'As the market drew clients with different experience doing business elsewhere, combined services diminished the perception of excellence in both (PR and advertising),' Tate says.

Focusing on PR

In 1989, Tate was VP of Bonner, a 15-year-old PR firm she would soon take over and rename TateAustin. That same year Tate helped her mentor (and boss), Cathy Bonner, build an ad department within the firm. But by the mid-1990s, Tate foresaw the day when the firm no longer needed to offer advertising, and she relished the thought of shifting all of her attention back to PR.Two years ago, she did just that.

'I was too busy pitching ad clients and debating color palettes with creatives to practice my trade. That bugged me,' Tate recalls. 'Also, as an entrepreneur, I like the margins in the PR firm better than the skinny margins in the ad biz.'

So Tate liquidated the advertising arm of Bonner and helped several employees find other jobs.

The decision paid off. She expects her 21-person staff to bring in more than dollars 4 million this year, exceeding 1998 revenue.

Bold moves come naturally to straight-shooting Tate, a former college basketball player at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX.

Her experience on the court gave her the confidence not to shrink away from competition and difficult challenges. Tate won't be found dribbling a ball these days, although she does serve on the San Antonio Spurs' advisory board. 'Are you kidding?' she says. 'I'm into golf now, the sport for chubby middle-aged people.' And she loves to fish. Her trophy catch was a six-pound trout, and she says her favorite vacation was fly-fishing in New Zealand.

Master of many disciplines

Tate describes herself as wide and shallow. 'I don't run very deep,' she says, explaining that PR appeals to her because she gets to know a little about a lot of things.

Lately, Tate says she's grown to love the HR side of the business and mentoring her own staff.

Tate was born in Vidor, TX, and the rich tradition of East Texas storytellers rubbed off on her at an early age, setting her career path. 'I was surrounded by them - the words and voices of persuasive Baptist pulpiteers, colorful politicians, fishermen prone to exaggeration and long-suffering athletic coaches,' she recalls. For her, PR seemed like the best way to get paid for telling stories.

After founding the women's sports information program at her alma mater, Tate did PR at St. Regis Paper Co. in the same town. Her job for the mill required traveling to the capital to lobby during the state's biennial legislative sessions, and the Austin bug soon bit.

But before making the Texas capital her full-time home, Tate founded Kerry Tate Advertising in Nacogdoches. After a couple of years, she realized that East Texas couldn't hold her interest forever. 'It happened about the time I felt I had every client in Nacogdoches that I wanted,' she says.

So Tate looked for work in Austin. Bonner, whose firm was then owned by Hill & Knowlton, offered her a job, but Tate decided she didn't want to work for a big agency. She instead went to another local firm but wound up getting fired three months later. So when Bonner gave her a second job offer, Tate jumped at the chance. 'Cathy had mercy on me,' Tate says.

Bonner eventually bought back her firm from H&K and sold it to Tate when she left to run the Texas Department of Commerce under Gov. Ann Richard's administration.

'She's a consummate professional,' says Bonner, who now works as a marketing consultant and recently founded a national women's museum. 'She's very wise about words and understands how a client's total communication needs have to be carefully coordinated.

Well-rounded practice

Hi-tech and b-to-b work makes up about 65% of Tate's business, while consumer PR constitutes about a quarter. Tate says she might have gotten bored with PR if not for the hi-tech explosion, but to keep things interesting, she won't let her firm focus solely on software and gadgets, either. Key clients include Samsung, Motorola, Altra Energy Technologies, iBooks, Whole Foods and Vignette.

Tate throws herself into civic and charitable causes as enthusiastically as she does her business. As Austin's Chamber of Commerce chairwoman in 1996, she advanced plans to make Austin a hi-tech center.

'When you are around her, you kind of feel the energy,' says Austin mayor Kirk Watson, who says Tate was among those who encouraged him to run for mayor. Watson still calls on Tate when he needs one of his 10-minute legal spiels condensed to a 10-second sound bite. 'She has a real candor to her,' Watson says. 'She can lay the truth out there in a way that doesn't offend, doesn't hurt and moves things forward.'

Tate looks at today's Austin PR scene with clear vision. She says she doesn't know what took the national PR firms so long to recognize the city's potential. 'I wish there weren't so many, but I'm glad, actually, that the nationals are here,' she says. 'It will raise the industry.'

'I don't think the bubble will burst in Austin,' she says. 'There's too much momentum.'



1977 - Graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University, went to work there as sports information director for women's athletics

1978-1984 - St. Regis Paper Co., regional PR representative/public affairs manager

1984 - Founded Kerry Tate Advertising and PR in Nacogdoches, TX, lectured at alma mater

1986-1991 - VP at Bonner/partner at Bonner & Tate, Austin

1991-present - President of TateAustin.

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