In a few weeks, my public relations firm will begin its 42nd year. Hard for me to believe. It has been a wonderful journey blessed with memorable experiences, friends and opportunities.
The journey began in unsettling economic times when my boss, famed architect Charles Luckman, merged his successful practice into a gigantic New York-based conglomerate leaving me as a young professional with two options – accept an attractive PR position on the East Coast with the parent Ogden Corp. or remain (and possibly stagnate) with him.
Luckman discouraged both. Rather, he strongly suggested I start my own firm. He was so confident that “you will make it big on your own” that he neither became a client nor underwrote the proposed agency. Sadly, my secretary and I were given 30 days to leave his glamorous Sunset Boulevard headquarters and move to an unpretentious 13th-floor core office in Mid-Wilshire.
Our initial two clients were Norris Industries (Ken Norris Sr. was chairman of USC’s board of trustees), which agreed to pay us $2,000 per month for the first year, and a struggling real estate developer who managed to come up with $800 monthly. The combined retainers barely covered expenses. Both deals were consummated with an old-fashioned handshake. However, four months later, Ken Norris Jr. called me into his office and abruptly terminated our relationship because of “compelling time constraints” confessing the fault was his alone, not mine. Nevertheless, it is not pleasant watching a man cry as his retainer – and perhaps his entire livelihood – vanishes.
As I got up from my chair with an empty feeling of total panic, rejection and sadness to head for the door, I saw Norris suddenly reach into his pocket, pull out a $16,000 check, and acknowledge, “This covers the balance of the year – we had a handshake!” He called three times in eight months for my advice.
The unique structure of my agency was not only dictated by Luckman, but also by nine local business leaders who believed sufficiently in my commitment, competency, energy, vision and sacrifice to volunteer to sit on my board, to counsel me on how to run the business, to introduce me to client prospects and to loan me $50,000 to finance my dream. They helped shape our services for for-profits and non-profits alike to include electronic and print media coverage, public speaking, graphics, special events, crisis management, networking, community and philanthropic involvement, and personal development. In return, they asked for not a dime – only for the satisfaction of helping breathe life into a young entrepreneur.
Paying it back
Years later when it came time to repay the loan, the directors arranged for me to meet our neighborhood banker so that I could wipe the staggering debt from our books. As I nervously began to ask for $50,000, the loan officer rudely interrupted to remind me that owing the backers was that sum plus more than 22 percent compounded interest. Wow! My jaw dropped; my face turned pale white; my enthusiasm and self-confidence became sour and diluted. I couldn’t begin to count that high.
Sensing my utter despair, my board chairman exclaimed: “The directors and I shook hands with Carl on the original loan. We want no interest – only the return of our initial investment; the dollars are few compared to our belief in his successful future.” Thus I was reminded one more time of the magic of an honest understanding.
Our history is replete with more than 5,000 clients in Los Angeles and throughout the country. Most have been easy, some difficult. A lot of accomplishments, a few disappointments. A bucket of tears and upset, an avalanche of joy and rewards. But with the exception of only three government agencies that required a signed contract, the many we have served were born out of a handshake.
Alas, attorneys be not angered, distressed or even suspicious. I am not advocating that mankind gives up on legal counsel, ironclad agreements and formal documents. I’m not really naïve. I guess there will always be a demand for lawyers. The billable hour isn’t going away soon.
I merely suggest that business relationships can often be heavily impacted by the parties involved by honesty, motive, principles, reputation and trust. Give the integrity of the spoken word and the firmness of a handshake a fair chance. Let the basic goodness and decency of most men and women, especially today, influence the sacred being of your business plan.
On my forthcoming corporate anniversary, I will once again quietly thank my founding directors and the Norris family for graciously honoring a handshake, giving my career a chance to survive, and ultimately allowing me to help launch USC’s famous Norris Cancer Center, which ironically one day would save my life.
Carl Terzian, often called the “King of Networking,” has operated his West L.A. public relations firm since founding it in 1969.