Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My Good Clients

Contrary to my “Clients from Hell” series, I enjoyed working with most of the companies.  Here are commentaries on some of the best.

  • Old Republic International.  The agency tried to land the diversified insurance company as a client for 15 years before finally succeeding in 1990.  I worked directly much of the time with CEO A.C. Zucaro, a straightforward, no-nonsense guy who told investors the unvarnished truth, not what he thought they wanted to hear.  Al is still CEO but will be retiring within the next few years.

  • Budget Rent-a-Car.  Budget had just gone public when I joined The Financial Relations Board (FRB) and was assigned to the account team.  CEO Clif Haley was another great leader, respected by employees and investors alike.  Together, PR Director Jody Wilson and I published their only annual report before Budget went private again, for which we won the Financial World award for the best IPO annual report of the year, as voted on by professional investors.

  • Chandler Insurance Company.  Although the reinsurance company was headquartered in the Cayman Islands, its operations were run by its captive primary insurance company in Chandler, Oklahoma (sorry, no trips to the Caymans).  This was the only client I worked for over my entire 8 ½-year tenure at FRB.  CEO Brent LaGere, President Ben Walkingstick and CFO Mark Paden were easy to work with; for my efforts, I was rewarded with tickets to one of the great Orange Bowl games, Oklahoma vs. Miami, in 1988.

  • Malan Realty Investors.  After leaving FRB in 1996, I picked up Malan again shortly thereafter and represented the Detroit-based real estate investment trust (REIT) until the company was liquidated in 2004.  My contact was Michael Kaline, Al’s son, and we managed to squeeze in some business after talking baseball.  He’s now my insurance agent, having left real estate after the liquidation.

  • The Toro Company.  Despite having a well-known brand, most investors did not know the company had diversified beyond snowthrowers to high-growth areas of the irrigation and golf-course management businesses.  My contact, Dennis Himan, was a finance guy, and he welcomed my suggestions on communications.  He called me once rather sheepishly to ask whether one of the women working on the account was single; the CEO (divorced) wanted to know.

  • Fourth Financial Corporation.  Once there were strong regional banking companies in the U.S., and Wichita-based Fourth Financial was one of them.  They requested a new account team and were about to go out the door.  CFO Mike Shonka and I figured how to navigate around some of the internal craziness and forged a successful program.  I knew the end was coming when he cancelled their East Coast investor meetings, and shortly thereafter the company was acquired by Boatmen’s Bancshares, a St. Louis-based bank holding company.  Mike went on to serve as CFO at Cessna Aircraft for several years.

  • Valassis Communications.  Detroit-based Valassis would only be a one-year client.  CEO Dave Brandon (later CEO of Domino’s Pizza and current athletic director at the University of Michigan) told VP Corporate Communications and Investor Relations Lynn Liddle that she could hire an IR agency for one year to learn the ropes, then she was on her own.  Because of industry dynamics, Valassis’ main business – freestanding inserts in the Sunday editions of daily newspapers across the country – always consisted of two companies with 50 percent market shares.  Several companies tried and failed to enter and one of them was trying during our tenure, backed by massive debt from Morgan Stanley.  This prompted one of the great replies to an analyst’s conference-call question.  Asked if he ever envisioned a three-company industry, each with a 33 percent market share, Dave answered, “The planets will collide before that happens.”  Some thought he was being arrogant but he proved to be correct.  Lynn followed Dave to Domino’s, where she is currently an executive vice president.

  • Summcorp.  Another regional banking company, Fort Wayne-based Summcorp had signed up as client but accepted a buyout offer before backing out and remaining independent.  CEO Richard Doermer, who passed away this year, epitomized the old-time banker: soft spoken, gentlemanly and honest.  My contact, Beth Miller, always made everything simple.  The company had the most unique annual meeting in the United States: a sit-down dinner in the basement of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum following the legal business.  Beth took me upstairs so I could see where the Fort Wayne Pistons had played (ice was down for the minor-league Fort Wayne Komets).  Like Fourth Financial, Summcorp was gobbled up by Detroit-based NBD Bancorp.

  • Giddings & Lewis.  I never minded the three-hour drive to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to meet with the executives of what was once the largest American-owned machine-tool company.  There are enough interesting things about the company, its executives and the town to merit a separate post.

  • Patterson Dental.   Now the Patterson Companies after diversifying outside the dental industry, this company is a wonderful success story.  As Patterson Dental, it was just another one of the Beatrice Company’s far-flung acquisitions.  Rather than letting investment bankers take a large percentage of the company, President and CEO Peter Frechette and CFO Ron Ezerski purchased St. Paul-based Patterson from Beatrice with their own money.  Patterson became a client shortly after its IPO, and the stock performed very well, making Pete and Ron’s bet pay off big time.  It couldn’t happen to two more deserving guys.  Ron, who retired early to play tennis and enjoy life, still owns about 1 million shares.  Pete retired as CEO a few years back and is chairman of the board. He owns 1.5 million shares.

  • Aeroquip-Vickers, Inc.  My most notable Golin-Harris client was Trinova before it changed its name to its two operating units.  The third – thus the “tri” – had been sold years before.  Although we never progressed far with the Maumee, Ohio-based company due to circumstances from both parties, I enjoyed working with IR director Warren Bimblick, a real pro and coincidentally one year behind Janet at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn (didn’t know each other).  After Aeroquip-Vickers was acquired by Eaton, Warren took a job with a magazine publisher in New York.  We had a memorable dinner together at Café Luxembourg, where shortly after we were seated, GE CEO Jack Welch sat down at the next table. 

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