PROFILE: Theroux builds an island firm with a stream of clients

Sheila Donnelly Theroux's propensity for developing close bonds with every client helps explains why an increasing number of companies the world over seek out her Hawaii-based PR agency.

Sheila Donnelly Theroux's propensity for developing close bonds with every client helps explains why an increasing number of companies the world over seek out her Hawaii-based PR agency.

If you question the viability of a Honolulu-based independent PR agency achieving and maintaining global success, you haven't met Sheila Donnelly Theroux. "For those people who think most folks in Hawaii don't have a lot of energy or can't see beyond their own shores, Sheila single-handedly defeats that stereotype," says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's Today show, who met her on a press trip more than 20 years ago. Sheila Donnelly Associates (SDA), which began in 1987 with seven clients, specializes in tourism. All of SDA's business has come through referral. Today, 12 employees in Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Tucson, AZ manage more than 70 US, European, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Pacific clients. Already this year, SDA has signed Trump International Hotel, Montage Hotels and Resorts, and two Costa Rican clients - while eight others have approached in the last 30 days. It is Theroux's ability to establish and nurture long-term relationships that has helped her agency flourish. "We understand that relationships are more important in the long run," Theroux says. "It's not the hours our clients pay for. It's the hours they don't pay for that they get from us." Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Resort & Spa, met Theroux in 1994 while she was representing the Phoenician Resort, where he worked at the time. When he founded Montage last year, he never even considered anyone else to represent it. "She's incredibly resourceful, and has a gift for putting the right people together," Fuerstman says. "She also has the amazing knack for making you feel like you are the most important client, and that she has no other clients. My sense is she probably makes all her clients feel that way." According to Theroux's SVP Diana Moody, one of her first employees, media relationships are no less important than client relationships at SDA. "She made us take the media to lunch every week because she wanted us to develop media relationships and stick with them," she says. "It's all about loyalty. Sheila has gotten where she is because she has such a good reputation with journalists and clients." NBC's Greenberg agrees. "She's one of the most honest PR professionals I've ever met," he says. "She won't represent clients that she doesn't believe in. She also doesn't do one-dimensional pitches, meaning she doesn't pitch a story where she doesn't see a bigger-picture piece. She isn't hesitant about mentioning companies that she doesn't represent if their story is indicative of a trend that supports her client's story. In the process, it makes a better story." Theroux's family has been in Hawaii for four generations. She says she wasn't raised to believe in working women, and never thought she would have a career. But in 1972, newly divorced with a young son, and with a distaste for alimony, she needed a job. She was referred to the founders of Regent International - Robert Burns, Adrian Zecha, and Georg Rafael - who hired her as PR director. "Service was high on our priority list, and she embraced that wholeheartedly, and became a master at it," says Rafael, founder of Rafael Hotels, and currently managing director of Rafael Group S.A.M. in Monaco. "You should have seen her juggle her first job, take care of her son, and get used to business life. It was a masterpiece how she handled it." "It wouldn't even occur to me to ask anyone else in America to represent my European-based hotel company," Rafael says. "I knew that she'd do a better job than anyone else, although she was based in Hawaii." Business has been good for Theroux, but it's been rough for her clients. "I'm trying to get them to concentrate on their backyard and on what travelers are thinking," she says. "We need to make them feel like they're coming home to the hotel." A feeling of home is something Theroux also cultivates for her employees. For example, when Moody's fiance did not want to move to Hawaii, Theroux let her go to LA to open an office. "She's not only business savvy, but she understands the importance of people's personal lives," Moody says. "We are always part of the package. When a large company kept asking to buy Sheila's agency, the first thing she did was ask us what we thought. Most of us didn't want it, so she didn't entertain it." Around one-third of Theroux's business is in Hawaii, and she travels about 50% of the time. She and her husband, author Paul Theroux, divide their time between Hawaii and Massachusetts, but Theroux is content to keep her business independent and based in Hawaii. She's happy there, doing her job, being with her family, raising her orchids, and tending to her ducks and geese. She says that she learned the secret of her success from her mentors at Regent International. "One's goal should be to be happy every day," she says. "And that, more than anything else, has guided us as a company." ----- Sheila Donnelly Theroux 1987-present President, Sheila Donnelly Associates 1981 VP, Stryker Weiner Associates 1979-1981 Regional PR director, Westin Hotels 1978-1979 Corporate PR director, Amfac Hotels and Resorts 1972-1978 PR director, Regent International Hotels

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