PROFILE: Graham embodies the values that built Fleishman

Job-hopping is common among PR pros, but John Graham, chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, has thrived at the same firm for 38 years by being calm, courteous, and mindful of culture.

Job-hopping is common among PR pros, but John Graham, chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, has thrived at the same firm for 38 years by being calm, courteous, and mindful of culture.

John Graham's clients are not surprised he has eschewed this magazine profile for so long. "One thing about John that has been consistent from day one is that he never wanted credit for anything good that happened," says Charles Knight, chairman of Emerson. In fact, the chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard can't seem to keep the topic of conversation on himself, jumping to his staff, his clients, even his holding company and the state of the business. Perhaps that contributes to a certain level of mystique about this courteous and somewhat formal Midwesterner, who runs one of the biggest PR operations in the world out of his hometown of St. Louis. But his enthusiasm for the business is infectious. As Graham talks face-to-face to a reporter about the agency, his genuine passion for the minutiae of everything from hiring (he still personally interviews 200 people a year) to rehearsing a pitch ("I enjoy rehearsals because that's where you see what great ideas people have") is palpable. "There aren't too many things I don't like about this business," he says with a big, open laugh, "as you can tell." Graham began his career, after a stint in the army, as a greeting card writer for Hallmark, already hankering to try working at an advertising or PR agency. "I was never interested in the corporate side," he says. Nevertheless, his first job in the industry was working in both PR and development for the YMCA in St. Louis. "I planned to be there a brief period of time, but ended up staying four years," he says. After three years, he was offered a job at a small local firm headed up by Al Fleishman and Bob Hillard, but he stuck with the YMCA another year to finish a campaign before accepting the agency post. "I had the good fortune to be mentored by both Hillard and Fleishman. Hillard was a fantastic writer and had great client-relationship capabilities. Fleishman was a great salesman, and he was always able to think of the big picture." During his first week, he worked on a crisis situation with Hillard, an experience that solidified his commitment to the job. "Fortunately, I had Bob whispering in my ear," Graham recalls. "When it was over and the crisis was resolved, I thought I had accomplished a great deal and that I'd really chosen the right profession." Emerson is one of Fleishman's long-term clients, and Knight, who became the company's chairman in 1974, has known Graham since 1972. "When John got involved, we usually had a problem - that's the way it is in his business," Knight says. "He has a knack of getting to the core of the problem. I always felt his judgment was sound. Though I didn't always agree with him, he had a very high batting average." Offering high-quality client service is practically a religion for Graham, and the firm has a reputation for truly getting inside the client organizations. "We feel if we can really get inside and become complete partners, where they bring us in on their problems and opportunities, then the client really gets the best out of the agency," Graham says. His service philosophy also informs his leadership role in the industry. "His focus is on clients and on quality," says Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, who has worked with Graham during the latter's tenure as Council chairman. "You can see it when you walk into the offices of Fleishman. There's a rhythm, and I think that comes down from the leader. He also knows when to exert influence and when to let people run their businesses." Much is said about Fleishman's culture, and it's a big part of the firm's success, Graham believes. If there is one thing he really worries about, he says, it's the agency losing its culture, which focuses on those service ideals, but also on character. "I don't want to say this firm is internally focused; it's not," he explains. "But if we don't have the internal focus on culture, we won't be able to concentrate on work with clients." Anyone bought or hired by Fleishman has to pass the culture test. "We can't get off track and forget to emphasize our culture to new hires or when we've made an acquisition." To a certain extent, the culture seems to emanate from Graham's own persona. He exudes a kind of calm authority, the type that tends to make people work harder to please him. "Presence is a big part of how people respond to a leader or manager," points out Cripps, "and John has a lot of [it]. He has a commanding presence, but he's very soft-spoken. It's almost disarming in a way because he's so quiet, but so perceptive and in touch with what's going on." Clients value his self-possession, as well as his authenticity. "He never played politics," Knight says. "He just played it for real, and I always appreciated that." Knight also marvels at Graham's unflappable demeanor. "I like to challenge people, and it never bothered him. No matter how mad I got, I never rattled John." ------ John Graham 1988 Named chairman, a post he still holds today 1974 Elected president and CEO 1970 Promoted to VP, director and senior partner 1966 Joins Fleishman-Hillard

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