Gershon Kekst, founder of Kekst and Company, dead at 82

Colleagues and competitors alike remember him as an "avuncular sage figure" who vaulted PR into the boardroom and fathered the modern practice of M&A and financial comms.

NEW YORK: The competitive and tight-knit world of high-level corporate communications mourned the passing of one of its greatest pioneers, Gershon Kekst, founder of Kekst and Company.

Kekst founded the eponymous comms shop in 1971 shortly after migrating from Ruder Finn (then known as Ruder & Finn). At the time, M&A and financial PR, a space in which Kekst and Company would flourish, was starting to ramp up.

Kekst’s highlights included the attempted takeover of dental manufacturing company Sterndent by Magus Corporation, a case made famous by "The Jewish Dentist Defense." He also had a hand in advising McGraw-Hill during American Express’ unsolicited bid for the publishing company, as well as the attempted hostile takeover of Mead Corporation by Occidental Petroleum.

Kekst and Company’s handling of the Time-Warner merger in 1989 caught the attention of The New York Times, who profiled the firm and referred to it as "the public relations firm of choice" in the "often ruthless and invariably complex world of mergers and acquisitions."

Kekst stepped down as CEO in 2010, naming Lawrence Rand his successor, about two years after being acquired by Publicis and integrated into MSL Group. Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy had met Kekst in the 1980s while working on a common client.

"He was wise, always spoke the truth, even as unpleasant as that can sometimes be, and over time, became a trusted adviser whose opinion was sought after by CEOs, lawyers and bankers alike," Lévy said in an internal memo. "He pioneered new avenues of PR and created the concept of strategic communication as we know it today."

Today, Kekst and Company’s services include restructuring and bankruptcies, crisis communications, litigation support, among other things. The late PR pro’s insistence upon not only thinking about the immediate comms challenge, but also the underlying business challenge, was a "fundamental shift in conceptualizing corporate comms" that endures in the Kekst and Company today, according to current CEO Jeremy Fielding.

"[Kekst] left an indelible mark in the world of business, creating the modern day field of strategic and financial communications," Fielding said via email. "In addition to pioneering M&A communications, he also believed the firm could help its clients with other challenging communications situations, resulting in our firm now having deep expertise in other critical areas."

Fielding went on to credit Kekst with ushering in a whole new generation of PR pros from a myriad of backgrounds.

Ed Adler, a Finsbury partner and former head of comms at Time Warner, also credited Kekst with having invented the field of strategic comms and "elevating the practice to the board and CEO level and ensuring PR always had an important seat at the table."

During his time at Time Warner, Adler worked with Kekst, whom he called an "avuncular sage figure," and his agency for more than a decade. He remembered one night when they were walking home from a meeting and the senior PR pro shared some advice about listening.

"He said: listen to those around you and think carefully about what you are going to say and make sure what you are saying is adding value and perspective of the discussion at hand," Adler reported. "It was great advice and if you ever were in a meeting with Gershon, he was often the last to speak but what he said spoke volumes. He was a quiet presence, but when he held forth everyone listened. He will be missed."

Admiration for Kekst’s legacy extends beyond his allies. Joele Frank, managing partner of Joele Frank, Wilkinson, Brimmer, Katcher, and a fierce competitor, expressed her condolences as well.

"Gershon Kekst was a visionary who all of us admired and wanted to emulate," she said via email. "Our firm recognizes his great contributions to our industry and will feel his loss."

Calling Kekst a "game changer," Elliot Sloane, founder of Sloane & Company, said via email that he "brought a measure of integrity to which we should all aspire."

"He help[ed] create the industry where all of us have built careers," Sloane added. "He gave smart, measured advice and always kept the focus on his clients. His legacy extends beyond his professional life with significant and important contributions to the Jewish community."

Kekst was chairman of both the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel for nine years and the Jewish Theological Seminary for 18 years. He also served on the boards of other institutions such as Brandeis University, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -WNET Thirteen, Montefiore Medical Center, and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Also, he was an honorary vice president of the American Jewish Committee and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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