You might not imagine Karen Harris as the driving force behind Geronimo PR, which has just been snapped up by public sector services firm Tribal Group in a £13m deal.
Warm, friendly and motherly, the firm's 34-year-old MD even apologises for her out-of-the-way office in Mill Hill, north London.
But the multi-million pound deal, announced last week (PRWeek, 15 August), and the recent naming of her firm as the fastest growing agency in the 2003 PRWeek Top 150 shows that this initial image is just one side of Harris.
Original thinking comes across clearly from Geronimo PR's 'hybrid structure', founded by Harris, the firm's 85 per cent shareholder, as a division of Geronimo Marketing in late 1999.
The company, which became a separate entity in 2001, specialises in public sector business and is a cross between an in-house operation and a conventional agency. Teams handle only one account at a time, but are able to exchange ideas and move between accounts.
Harris says this approach is vital for the public sector. 'You've got a lot of policy to understand. You can't do that part-time.' This, she says, has been the reason of the agency's growth, because staff can dedicate themselves to the client. She believes that other agencies whose teams service multiple clients cannot compete.
Geronimo PR's results defy what Harris calls 'murmurings in the industry that it would never be profitable', when the firm was established.
Harris, a mother of four, has carefully juggled family and work. The Tribal deal was postponed to allow her to take a holiday in Turkey, which she spent indulging her passion for water-skiing. She applies the same principle to her employees. 'I ensure that they don't work late. I don't want them to travel far. I insist on them having a balanced life, because if they're not balanced, they don't make good employees.'
Behind the fluffy exterior, however, there is clearly plenty of what her Jewish family would call chutzpah. As a graduate comms trainee at Clarke Hooper Consulting, she was asked by the then CEO, Barry Clarke, to sit on the pitch team for the Home Office crime prevention account in the first month, on the strength of her dissertation on criminology.
Feeling the team were following 'the wrong strategy for the government of the day', she raised her concerns directly with Clarke. He promptly told the team: 'This is the new strategy. Listen to Karen.' Clarke Hooper won the pitch, although she cringes at it now, and was taken off the team because the account director refused to work with her.
Harris marketed FMCG brands at Clarke Hooper for two years, then continued in the same sphere at sales and promotion firm IMP from 1993. Three years later, director Julian Dodds and a third IMP executive, Francis Wybird, established Geronimo Marketing, with Harris as associate director.
After her first child was born, Harris focused on public sector clients, working from home. In 1999, she broke into PR after winning the Inland Revenue's marketing account for self assessment. When the client asked for help with the launch, Harris had the idea of placing an elephant in central London draped with a banner saying: 'Remember, remember, 30 September - tax return day.' It generated massive media attention. 'I think it showed me that PR was the job for me,' says Harris. It also helped Geronimo win a second government account from what has since become the Department for Education and Skills.
Harris is gushing on the acquisition. 'Tribal is a specialist professional services group working purely with the public sector, so the fit was perfect, plus they literally want to leave us alone and just provide investment in beefing up the senior management team.'
She would like to use the cash injection to hire more senior staff, provide second tier managers with business management training and upgrade the firm's IT systems.
More importantly, it gives Geronimo PR 'critical mass', says Harris.
'To bid for some of the larger contracts within the public sector - the £2m-6m contracts, you need to have a turnover of a certain size. We could never for have gone for a bid of £6m before whereas now we can, with a turnover of £5m.'
Dodds says: 'Right from the early days, she knew her stuff. She is a very good people person. She was born to do well because of the attitude of her family, which was that hard work pays in the end.'
On the future, he says Harris will need to balance remaining close to clients against relinquishing some control to senior management to set the stage for further growth. 'I think Karen is looking forward to that challenge.' He adds: 'She is quite remarkable in the way she kept her career going while having a family.'
1991: graduate trainee, Clarke Cooper Consulting
1996: Associate director, Geronimo Marketing & Communications
2001: Founder & MD, Geronimo PR
2003: MD Geronimo PR, within Tribal Group