Stephen Conafay has worked in the healthcare business for most of his business life. And when he took over Shandwick’s New York offices in May of 1998, he found an ailing patient. Growth projections for 1998 were nearly flat, while the office lost almost a third of its staff in the four months following his arrival. Conafay, a trained lawyer with a background in lobbying, was also new to PR agency life and couldn’t tell you the difference between an entry-level account coordinator and an account supervisor. He was a most unlikely doctor.
Stephen Conafay has worked in the healthcare business for most of
his business life. And when he took over Shandwick’s New York offices in
May of 1998, he found an ailing patient. Growth projections for 1998
were nearly flat, while the office lost almost a third of its staff in
the four months following his arrival. Conafay, a trained lawyer with a
background in lobbying, was also new to PR agency life and couldn’t tell
you the difference between an entry-level account coordinator and an
account supervisor. He was a most unlikely doctor.
Nevertheless, he has given Shandwick NY a major injection of life since
that time. Revenues for the office doubled between 1998 and 1999, from
dollars 7.5 million to dollars 15 million. Conafay has taken the office
into the top 10 in the Big Apple, and for his efforts was recently named
president of Shandwick NY and managing director of North American
’At first some of us were hesitant because Steve’s background is so
different. But he has an excellent sense of how and where we need to
grow,’ says Linda Recupero, national consumer practice director at
You can be sure that healthcare would be part of the mix given New
York’s prominent position in the market and Conafay’s background. He
also had an eye for the growing capital markets, consumer and tech
areas. But with 20 years of lobbying experience, it’s his ability to get
’disparate groups behind a common goal’ that provided the glue.
’I think the fact that I’m old and heavy gave the place a sense of
stability,’ he jokes. Conafay’s keen sense of humor and upbeat
personality have given the formally moribund office a much-needed boost.
And his business philosophy provided exactly what many agency chiefs
promise, but which Shandwick NY lacked - an emphasis on its staff.
’Steve knows business starts with the people who work for you. He treats
people with a great amount of respect, and they give him 300 percent,’
says Burt Rosen, a former co-worker at Pfizer. Conafay is a born leader,
whether in Vietnam, where he served as an infantry platoon leader, or in
the milieu of corporate America, where he has held senior management
positions since 1972.
As the staff exodus continued, Conafay stayed focused on the
He showed staff that management would deliver on its promises by
ordering long overdue computers and consulting employees on their needs.
’In PR we drive people hard, so we need to give them a fun place to
work,’ says Conafay.
In the trenches
Conafay started in the trenches, fostering a sense of camaraderie among
his staff. A NY Giants baseball fan as a child, Conafay arrived too late
to see the team play in the Polo Grounds. Instead, he built his own
softball team, the Shandwick Sharks, to foster intra-office
relationships and have some fun. Conafay also initiated other rituals
such as a weekly employee break.
But he was not always the warm, fuzzy type. ’In my younger days I was
more driven and less sensitive to the people who worked for me,’ he
Conafay has learned that a worker’s personal life is more important than
his job, in part from his experience raising a son with cerebral
He advocates flextime for employees, especially those with children. The
efforts may seem small, but the overall effect has cut the turnover rate
in half. In fact, Conafay has expanded staff from 71 to 117 since his
Conafay succeeded in settling things on the home front, but he also was
charged with growing Shandwick NY’s profits and client base. He decided
to follow an organic model of growth, the natural choice for growing
business when he was a partner at the law firm Jones, Day, Reavis and
Pogue. ’The emphasis on new business is out of proportion in the PR
industry,’ he claims. ’The best way to grow business is with the clients
you already have. You have to polish the diamonds you have before you
look for new ones.’
Investing additional time in current clients has paid off. Kodak, Sharp,
KPMG and other major brands have expanded their accounts. New clients
include Dun & Bradstreet, Bristol-Myers Squibb and iWon.com.
Conafay has added two new practices to the office, one in national media
and another in public affairs. He has also played a key role in
Shandwick’s recent acquisition frenzy, focusing on healthcare and
The 1998 acquisition of Brown Powers & Associates, a top healthcare PR
firm, added dollars 1.5 million in revenues and is currently a dollars 2
Similarly, the Miller Technologies acquisition later that year added
dollars 1 million in revenues in 1998, increasing to the present dollars
2.5 million, according to the company.
In comparison with other Shandwick US offices, New York remains
relatively small. Rumors suggest that several larger deals have fallen
through, including investor relations firm Morgen Walke. ’We are in no
way disappointed with our current acquisitions,’ is Conafay’s response,
adding, ’We are clearly looking to spend more in the next year.’ He is
expecting to infuse dollars 10 million into acquisitions in 2000, and
says he is in negotiations with several shops.
On other deals, Conafay has held a behind-the-scenes role, working under
US CEO Michael Petruzzello. He served as a negotiator in the November
1999 headline-grabbing acquisition of the Cassidy Companies that truly
put Shandwick on the US map, bolstering its national revenues to dollars
In his new role, Conafay will assume greater responsibility for
Shandwick’s North American profits and management, working closely with
chief operating officer Mary Jeffries. He will continue to work on
acquisitions and oversee the NY office, which will move to new Midtown
digs later this year.With projections for this year just in, Conafay
intends for his office to be one of the top five in the New York
He jokes that he’s old and heavy. But Steve Conafay has clearly got a
new lease on life. Is it any wonder he’s known in the office as the
President, Shandwick NY
MD, North American Operations
VP, government relations Pfizer
SVP, corporate affairs Glaxo
Partner at Jones, Day, Reavis, Pogue
EVP strategic & legislative affairs Pharmaceutical Research &
Manufacturers of America
Managing director, Shandwick NY