Monday, May 30, 2011

A Hand in my Gym Bag

Last week, the public relations firm Ruder Finn announced that Peter Finn, son of co-founder David Finn, is establishing his own agency under the RF corporate umbrella. From my dealings with the agency, I’m not surprised, given one of his sisters did so a few years back and his other sister is running the agency. Peter is not one of my favorite persons, in part due to a maneuver that led to a very quick start-up of a successful business.

I worked for what was then Ruder Finn & Rotman in the mid-1980s. The Ruder name is a bit misleading, since co-founder Bill Ruder, who passed away earlier this year, was out of the business by then. The Rotman name came from the merger with Chicago-based Harshe-Rotman & Druck, which was run by Morris Rotman and his son Richard. I’ve known Richard since grammar-school days, which helped land my job there. The New York and Chicago offices interact very little, mainly due to animosities between the Finns and Rotmans. In fact, the Rotmans kept me from getting axed when management demanded cuts in Chicago, despite the agency suffering from lower billings nationwide.

 My first experience with Peter Finn involved the transfer of the View-Master account from Chicago to New York. Despite running a very successful account for the then publicly owned toy company, the client wanted it moved to New York, where View-Master had an office in the Toy Building on 23rd Street. The transfer was scheduled during the Toy Fair in New York, but I ran into a huge problem: nobody from New York would return my calls regarding the account. Finally, two days before departing for New York, I called Peter Finn but was told he probably couldn’t make it into the office from Westchester because of a forecast of snow. Exasperated, I said bluntly, “Look, I’m handing you a good account, and you don’t have to sell to get it. Just get somebody there.” They did, but Finn never made an appearance to meet the CEO.

Ten years after leaving the company, I found myself back in Ruder Finn’s Chicago office, but not as an employee. The Rotmans sold out in 1987, and the Chicago office went through a series of general managers and steadily declining billings to the point it employed less than 10 professionals. My position at Golin-Harris had just been eliminated, and the person who had hired me at GH – Paul Rand – was now the general manager at Ruder Finn Chicago. In a very short tenure, he quadrupled billings and brought the place back to life. Still, the full-floor offices had so much vacant space he put a plastic sheet over the entry into the west section and told visiting clients the area was undergoing renovation. The art-conscious Finns sent their curator to check out the office (typical of their priorities), and she immediately torn down the sheet. It went back up minutes after her departure.

I rented an office at Ruder Finn for a nominal charge, working on my own accounts and helping out on RF accounts, including a large project for Standard Register. When Paul left Golin-Harris (I was still there), he suggested we eventually start our own agency. Since he is a bright guy and very entrepreneurial, I agreed, knowing it wouldn’t be immediate. About the time I arrived in late 1997. Paul told management that he was going to leave to start his own agency, not go to a competitor, and would stay on as long as needed to show the new GM the ropes. They said that given the large amount of empty office space, we should explore a joint venture. At their request, Paul sent them a business plan. Peter Finn and two other executives agreed to meet with us on a Friday in mid-January 1998 and discuss arrangements over lunch.

We knew something was amiss when after calling from the airport, it took about two hours for them to reach the office. Upon entering the conference room with a fourth mystery man, they summarily booted me out. From what I gathered, they had picked up a local attorney on the way and the fun would now begin. About an hour later, they walked into my office and said sternly, “Paul Rand has been dismissed and ordered out of the office. The computer system has been taken down and the locks have been changed.” They then told me I was he was “in trouble” and probably so too was I, then ordered me out of the office and to come back in three hours to discuss my fate. “Back in the USSR,” I thought.

Like the Golin-Harris people, Finn and his boys didn’t figure they’d be tussling with somebody with brother at a top labor law firm. Before leaving the office, I called him in Denver. First off, he told me, they would have to go through eviction proceedings to get me out of the office, since I wasn’t an employee and had cancelled checks showing their tacit approval of the rental agreement. He also told me get local counsel to sit in on the afternoon meeting. Feeling relieved, I returned two hours later and plunked myself down in my office. The RF boys suddenly got more polite when informed I’d have a lawyer present. Paul figured they had polled the Chicago clients and found all would go with us (and a third partner), which led them to play along with the joint-venture scheme until the Friday massacre.

The RF boys obviously knew they had nothing on me – they’d hinted at some kind of conspiracy bullshit – so the negotiations came down to an annual report I was writing for one of their clients. At first they told me not to tell the client that Paul was gone; since I knew they already knew, I told them I wasn’t going to be party to such charade. In addition, RF knew they needed me to finish the report or they wouldn’t get their money either, so we made a fair agreement.

To facilitate my departure that day – I would henceforth work at home – I told them they could search my things, figuring they wouldn’t want to be bothered . . . but they did. They wanted to look through all the files on my computer discs, which they had no right since I had my clients’ work on them. But the crowning touch was having the great Peter Finn search my gym bag. I’d planned on a noon basketball game but never made it. I watched him rummage through a shirt, shorts and socks before suddenly halting at the touch of an athletic supporter. I bit my tongue to keep from both laughing and making a snide remark. After retrieving my discs from the CFO, I told him, “Tony, just for the record . . . tell Peter the jock strap was clean.”

So here we were, ready to start a company, sooner rather than later. We each bought laptops over the weekend (the third partner was coerced into staying at RF) and borrowed office space in the same building from the marketing firm designing the annual report I was writing. Within two years, the agency grew to 50 people; an office in Austin, Texas; and billing of $4.5 million. Doing well is the best revenge.

The pettiness didn’t stop there. Bea, the RF Chicago receptionist dating back to the Harshe-Rotman days, retired in early 1998, and several alums – including Paul and me – were invited via telephone to her farewell party. About a week later, the inviter, a veteran staff member who was a colleague there back in the mid-‘80s, called and started the conversation with a very embarrassed “I’m sorry, this wasn’t my idea but they’re making me do this.” Management had demanded the guest list, then told her to un-invite certain people. So pardon me if I don’t send Peter Finn a potted plant or work of art for this new office, although an old athletic supporter just might be appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Brule, it made me smile and then laugh with recognition of similar situations in my own working life. Love the last sentence, as with several others of your posts. I had a great visit to your city last November with my daughter Beth, featured in one of my Flickr sets. I got to your blog via Flickr where my name is deep south.
    My intermittent blogging is at
    Thanks again, Jim.