Our Founders' Story
By Co-Founders Paula and Bernie Swain and Harry Rhoads
Every great accomplishment has a story – a narrative of grit, turning failure into opportunity, and setting standards that did not exist before.
With no experience or real plan, our founder’s ended successful careers, and for them such a story began.
Their first WSB office was literally a stationery closet. It held supplies for Chuck Hagel, who many years later would become U.S. Secretary of Defense. Our three founders, Paula and Bernie Swain and Harry Rhoads shared two small desks and two telephones. When Chuck or his staff needed supplies, they walked into our founder’s closet/office. When our founders needed to leave, they often had to wait until one of Chuck’s meetings was over. For 14 months, they sat in that closet hoping someone would call them. But no one ever did.
Within weeks of running out of money and closing their closet doors for good, they got a call from Steve Bell, the anchor for a new morning show, Good Morning America. Steve had been represented by another agency and his contract had expired. He had known Bernie Swain when Bernie, who had been the assistant athletic director at George Washington University, let him use the school’s swimming pool for a story.
Bernie went to see Steve at his office and asked if they could represent him. Steve agreed and they shook hands. On the drive back, Bernie realized he had not signed Steve to a written contract. When he got back to the closet, he tried to justify his mistake to Paula and Harry by saying, “Well, what good is a piece of paper if someone is unhappy with us?”
Bernie’s apparent mistake turned out to be a “defining moment” for their new little company. Steve soon told his friends, other Washington journalists, that if they didn’t want to sign a written contract with an agency, they could go with these new guys in town and walk out on them any time they wanted. Soon, a surprising number of Washington journalists – Hugh Sidey, Carl Rowan, Robert Novak, and Mark Shields among them – shook hands with Paula, Bernie, and Harry. Knowing they could lose their new speakers at any time, our founders worked hard to make them happy.
For the next seven years, they did what many start-ups must do to succeed. Our founders, and their growing staff, arrived to work every day at dawn, didn’t leave the office until late at night, obsessed about every small detail, and learned from their mistakes. There were no vacations. They often worked seven days week.
In 1989, Ronald Reagan shook hands with Paula, Bernie, and Harry. Soon followed handshakes with Margaret Thatcher, General Norman Schwarzkopf, General Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, George H. W. Bush, Tony Blair, and so many more. Three U.S. Presidents, the last five prime ministers of Great Britain, countless world and national leaders, journalists, authors, iconic business leaders, and great achievers of all kinds.
The roster of clients they would represent, it has been said, became the greatest in history since the very first agency, the Redpath Agency, represented Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and other notables of the post-Civil War era.
Every great accomplishment has a story, a narrative of grit, turning failure into opportunity, and setting standards that did not exist before.
This is our story. The story of the grit it took to survive 14 months of failure in that stationary closet. The story of turning that mistake of shaking hands with Steve Bell, rather than signing him to a written contract into a great opportunity. And the story of how that handshake created a new standard for our company and industry, and a culture of trust, honesty, and care that still guides us today.
Our Founder’s Book
Throughout our history, we have shared much time and many experiences with our speakers – some of the biggest names in world leadership.
What Made Me Who I Am, by Bernie Swain, recounts our own story and the lessons of entrepreneurship. It also shares the powerful influences and defining moments – the turning points – in the lives of many of our speakers.
It is our hope that you will see yourself in many of these stories and they will inspire you to recognize and learn from the turning points in your own life.
They did that for us.