Whether climbing mountains or ascending to the top of New England's agency heap, Steve Schwartz is driven to face obstacles head on and not let the fear of taking risks stop him.
Whether Steve Schwartz is helping clients like Jboss hone their messaging or traversing Nepal's Everest region, it's really two sides of the same coin.
"His devotion, energy, and commitment - be it in communications or climbing - is always the same," says Harry George, a partner at VC firm Solstice Capital. Schwartz's agency, Schwartz Communications, represents many companies in Solstice's portfolio.
Like many people who go into PR, Schwartz never intended to do so. But after he realized writing fiction wasn't going to be as easy or lucrative as he'd hoped, he put his writing skills to work at Schneider & Rich Associates, a political advocacy agency.
Schwartz developed his skills over those initial years at other agencies, including Richard Weiner and The Rowland Company.
But it wasn't until Schwartz took an executive speechwriter job at General Electric in 1979 that he met one of his biggest influences.
A few years into the job, Schwartz was promoted to be CEO Jack Welch's speechwriter.
"I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot about business and writing," says Schwartz. "I learned a lot about the power of brevity. He was a master of saying profound and powerful things in just a few words. I learned a lot in aping his style."
After five years at GE, Schwartz joined desktop publishing software company Interleaf as VP of communications, and later VP of marketing.
But it was Schwartz's wife, Paula Mae, who convinced him to enter the PR agency world by together opening their eponymous agency.
"She had the idea to start something together to see if we could stay married through it," recalls Schwartz. "And I had some unusual expectations. I had no interest in creating a small consultancy. If we were going to do this, we were going to be the biggest agency in New England, which we have achieved."
It was the challenge of starting a business with his wife that inspired Schwartz then. A different challenge - that of helping technology and healthcare companies tell their stories - is what drives him today.
"I'm electrified every day," asserts Schwartz. "I'm here by 6am. You don't do that unless your driven by what you do."
Schwartz loves a challenge, and that is reflected in his love of the outdoors, says Dave Stiehr, VP of marketing for medical-device company BARRX. "He is curious about a lot of different things. That's one reason he started his firm, because it represented a big challenge. And that's why he's very active in outdoor and environmental issues."
Schwartz serves on the boards of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the American Alpine Club. He has hiked all around the world, including the Everest region of Nepal, New Zealand, Norway, Costa Rica, Iceland, Wales, the Alps, and the White Mountains of New England.
And if he's not rock or ice climbing, he's most likely kayaking in the ocean.
Schwartz points to a quote from Italian photographer and rock climber Walter Bonatti: "The mountains are the means; the man is the end. The idea is to improve the man, not to reach the top of the mountains."
Some of the happiest times of Schwartz's life have been in the mountains or out at sea, he says, where he tests himself physically and mentally. He cherishes the challenge and welcomes the risk.
"The outdoors is a good place to learn how to manage risk," says Schwartz. "As a culture, we've become much too risk averse. That's true in business, as well. The pendulum has swung too far in risk aversion. And you can be paralyzed by that. Companies succeed because they understand and take risks."
The most recent challenge to entice Schwartz is starting a film company with his wife. Chockstone Pictures is still in its infancy, having only been founded last year. But the production company already has a few projects in development, including a feature film with a climbing theme, based on a story Schwartz wrote.
But in the PR agency world, the biggest challenge is hiring and nurturing the right people, he says. Finding and putting the right person into the right job has always been, and will always be, a key challenge for the PR industry. That's why Schwartz exudes so much pride in reporting that the top 20 people at his Waltham, MA-based firm have been around for an average of nine years.
And that initial challenge of starting an agency with his wife has presented more rewards than obstacles, he says. Schwartz explains that he and Paula Mae set ground rules early on: No matter how small the agency office, their own offices were as far apart from each other as possible. They didn't talk about work in front of their son or at home. And if either one felt particularly strongly about something, the other person deferred.
"There are husbands and wives who work together and then can't turn it off at home," says Schwartz. "The tension at work spills into the home life, and you don't have fun anymore."
Besides that delicate life-work balance, Schwartz also attributes his success to building relationships with clients, not just churning out press releases for them. He tries to work with companies he believes in and strives to build close bonds early on, so that those relationships become long-term ones.
"Steve is driven, but in a wonderful way," says Andy Falender, executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Club. "He always wants to be on top of whatever he's doing, whether it's mountain climbing or his business. On our board, he helps us push the envelope and make sure we expand our thoughts and activities in every possible way. You always hope to have someone on board like that. And we can count on Steve to be that person."
President, Schwartz Communications
VP of communications, then VP of marketing, Interleaf
Speechwriter for CEO Jack Welch, GE
Speechwriter for senior executives, GE
VP, The Rowland Company
Senior account executive, Richard Weiner
Writer, Schneider & Rich Associates