Abernathy MacGregor has upped Tom Johnson, most recently the firm’s co-president and head of mergers and acquisitions, to CEO. He replaced James Abernathy, who had been the firm’s sole CEO since 1984, when he founded the agency with James MacGregor.
Johnson chatted with PRWeek about taking the reins from his mentor, celebrating "the best year the firm has ever had," and staying the course.
Do you see this promotion as a generational shift for the firm, since you're taking over from a founder?
No. Jim Abernathy is a legend in this business. He’s one of the people that helped create the financial and strategic communications business. He had a pretty heavy hand recruiting me 10 years ago. He’s been a great friend and mentor. It’s a very humbling experience to be CEO number two. [Abernathy] and Jim MacGregor are still here and very active in the firm, and they’ll continue to be active in the firm. I’ve gotten to work with some talented people. While I’m new to the title, it’s really the same team here, which is great.
What brought you to Abernathy MacGregor and kept you at the firm for 10 years?
I was a financial journalist for about a dozen years. I had gotten to know the firm when I was a reporter for Reuters. This was a firm that I crossed paths with quite a bit. It’s a small universe in terms of firms that do this kind of work. The executives saw me as somebody that would be a good cultural fit, which is a very important here, as well as someone who could walk in with expertise in M&A, which our firm does quite a bit of. It’s sometimes not easy for a journalist to give up being a journalist. I was looking for a way to be more entrepreneurial. Here you get to wake up and do something new every day [and experience] new challenges. You get the opportunity to work alongside new executives. It really gave me a chance to roll up my sleeves and be entrepreneurial.
How long was this transition underway?
I’m not sure Jim [Abernathy] in his mind had a definite time. The co-president role has existed for a long time, and I was co-president three of my ten years. Jim really made the determination about when he was ready to step aside. This really was his call. It wasn’t like he said to me, "[This will happen] in this amount of time." He’s been doing this for 32 years.
How do you plan to grow the firm?
Things are going well. We are coming off the best year this firm has ever had. So I think what’s first is building on the successful 2015.
We had very significant growth. What drove that was we grew across all of our practice areas; we had strength in M&A, crisis, IR, activism, transaction, and restructuring. We had nice solid growth across the board. We are looking to build on that and looking to hire. We are actively looking in all four markets that we’re in [New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston]. We’re very optimistic. One of the things the firm does very successfully is we’ve deepened our relationships with the C-suite for the clients we represent. And we’ll continue to bring in new clients.
What are the most important issues your firm should focus on in the new year?
The way our business has changed, clients that come to us are leaning on us more and more for strategic counsel. Many years ago, we got hired for projects, and logistical work went along with our business. With modern technologies that help with that other piece, companies increasingly come to us for strategic counsel to help them get through situations, for transitions, for deals, executive change, IR, to help get them through that and work alongside them. The way I see our business evolving is we’ll continue to evolve on that curve. Providing that strategic counsel is where I think we can make a difference.
What do clients want now that they did not want in the past?
I’m not sure their needs have changed all that much. They want more of things like strategic counseling. They want us to have the ability to think across practice areas. Our core philosophy is we’re here to help accomplish clients’ business goals. Because news travels so quickly these days, you can’t afford to not think through things ahead of time. We do far more scenario playing for clients than we did before. With a crisis, for example, you can’t wait until that moment to figure out how to react. That has been the biggest change: planning for the unexpected.
What cultural changes at the firm should we expect under your leadership?
I don’t think you’ll see many changes to the culture. If you walked around the halls, culture would be high on everyone’s list of values. This is an extremely collaborative place to work; an entrepreneurial place to work. We don’t have any plans to change it.
What changes will you make to recruitment?
Our culture is a very powerful recruiting tool.