Only with great, committed people who are willing to work together as one team can you build a company. With the dot-com world gone, we had to change directions and develop a different business plan, and we did so as a team. It is important to build a group of people who are willing to continue pushing boundaries relentlessly, open to thinking differently and find joy in tackling the unexpected.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Binder.
Amy Binder, who is the founder and CEO of New York City-based RF|Binder Partners Inc., an integrated communications firm, with branches in Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Amy started her communications career in 1983 at the storied public relations firm of Ruder Finn, founded by her father David Finn, where she rose to become President of Ruder Finn Americas. She founded her own communications firm, RF|Binder, in 2001, first as an independently run agency under the Ruder Finn Group umbrella, and then as part of a 2014 restructuring, as a separate woman-owned integrated communications firm. RF|Binder focuses on working with major global corporations and brands on corporate reputation and brand assignments as well as with entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Amy has embraced the use of advanced analytical tools for measuring the success of social media programs and monitoring in real-time, client-related news and events. Over the past several years she has increased the firm’s commitment to corporate social responsibility for its clients and itself. In addition to overseeing the business direction and growth of the firm, Amy is focused on ensuring that every client receives consistent, high-quality service, has continual access to the firm’s best creative and strategic thinking, as well as ensuring that the firm is offering the most innovative approach to integrated communications. Amy focuses on managing the issues, opportunities and challenges that emerge when an organization is undergoing critical change and transformation.
Under Amy’s leadership, RF|Binder has won over 200 industry awards since the company’s founding, including Creative Agency of the Year from Holmes Report, Best Places to Work in NYC from Crains, and from PR Week as a finalist for Best Mid-Sized Agency. Clients have included such diverse organizations as Ameriprise, Bank of America, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cargill, Chubb, Citibank, Dunkin’ Brands, McGraw Hill Education, Rockefeller Foundation, edX, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Charles Schwab and Pax World Investments.
Amy currently sits on the advisory board of Columbia Business School’s Family Business Program, and is a member of the Arthur Paige Society and the Women’s Forum of NY. She has served as a member of the Brand Leaders Forum for the Center of Global Brand Leadership at Columbia Business School and was on the Communications Advisory Council at Brown University. She has been committed to furthering the public relations industry, having served on the board of the PR Council. She has been a recent speaker at National Association of Corporate Directors events for public company directors focused on the relationship between Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) issues and corporate strategy. Amy received her A.B. with honors from Brown University and her MBA from Columbia Business School.
Thank you so much for joining us Amy! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like many entrepreneurs, my career path has not been a straight line. After college I started working as a freelance photographer. It was a great way to start a career because I learned how to find my own assignments as I was basically in business for myself. Photography also taught me that there were many ways to see and think.
After a number of years, I decided to switch careers to public relations. I knew the industry very well because my father, David Finn, ran his own public relations firm, Ruder Finn, which he started in the late 1940s when the public relations field was just developing.
Because I grew up with a father who built his own business, I always thought it was a very natural thing to do. So after working at Ruder Finn for several years, I decided to get an MBA. I had grown up in a family and worked at a firm where creativity was paramount. Business school shaped my thinking in a very different way. The focus was more on strategy and processes which I learned were not antithetical to creativity but — in an interesting way — additive. I eventually combined the three forces — creativity, strategy, and data analytics — and started my own communications and consulting firm in 2001. It was evident to me that communications was an untapped resource for companies and institutions. It needed to be recognized as a strategic function critical to a company building and protecting its reputation.
Launching my own company was one of the most exciting, invigorating, and daunting moments of my entire life.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I began to develop the business plan for my company in early 2000, when it felt like a great time to start something new. The dot-com world was booming and business was bountiful. We launched in June 2001 with a number of great clients. But, as with any business, you have to expect the unexpected — which I had not done.
The unexpected hit us pretty quickly and pretty hard with 9/11 and then the dot-com bust shortly after. It was hard to believe that everything collapsed overnight. It took us 18 months to rebuild the company. By 2004 we were in a strong position, and the company started to grow again each year.
But those 18 months were tough. There was one Friday night we all went home and weren’t sure that we were going to make payroll on Monday. After spending the weekend developing a plan for moving forward, the senior team agreed to take short-term pay cuts, and support the plan without impacting the culture we had already built.
I learned a number of really critical lessons from this period:
- A strong team is critical to success: Only with great, committed people who are willing to work together as one team can you build a company. With the dot-com world gone, we had to change directions and develop a different business plan, and we did so as a team. It is important to build a group of people who are willing to continue pushing boundaries relentlessly, open to thinking differently and find joy in tackling the unexpected.
- Cash is king: This age-old saying couldn’t be more true. When working with a number of dot-coms that went into bankruptcy, we were never paid for our time or expenses incurred, which resulted in our first-ever cash flow issues. From that point on, we learned to ask for deposits from clients and watched our accounts receivable very carefully. We also built up cash reserves for similar emergency situations.
- Reputation is built on quality work: Customer satisfaction is the best sales tool that you have, no matter what industry. As a professional services firm, we have many clients who have been with us from the very early days. That’s primarily because we have consistently delivered outstanding work for our clients, and worked hard to exceed expectations. We realized in the beginning that as communications professionals, our job starts when someone says no. If it were easy to get a yes, then a company wouldn’t hire us to shift perceptions and opinions. We needed to show every day that we could make the impossible happen — and we did.
- Building a business is about pushing your creative boundaries: We worked 24/7 to grow the business. We never stopped looking for new clients — every new business pitch was like an all-out sprint effort at the end of a marathon. We had to demonstrate even before being hired how we could be both strategic and creative at the same time. For one pitch to a chocolate company, the client told us that professional chefs did not like their product. We proved that we could shift that mindset by engaging with a chef at an important restaurant to bake an extraordinary cake for us. This approach gave them a taste of the commitment, strategic thinking and creativity we would bring once they hired us.
Without having that creative spirit, solutions-oriented mindset and the attitude that we will do whatever it takes, we might never have gotten the business off the ground after those tough first six months.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Hard work and a great team. I know that sounds so simple, but it really isn’t an easy task to find the people and the motivation to make success happen. I was lucky to have a founding team that didn’t question hard work — no one ever asked if they had to do something, they just did it. We always went into this business knowing that we had to do the impossible. It was an inspiring environment to be in, and I feel so lucky to have some of those founding members with us still today.
That perseverance and passion is what drove us to success in the beginning, and it’s still one of our strongest guiding principles today. You really don’t get anywhere in client services unless you’re consistently going above and beyond. It takes a special kind of team not to accept work that’s just “good enough.”
What might be even more critical is checking egos at the door and fostering a truly collaborative environment. We never ignited any competition between teams, and we specifically structured the company under one P&L to ensure we were all working together, not against each other — we were working to build one company. One of the most special things about RF|Binder is that we’re a community, a real family. We have maintained that sentiment throughout all 19 years of our business.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Ultimately as CEO, you are the one that has to make it work. As much advice as you can get from your team and the people you trust, you are still the ultimate decision maker. I think people believe leading a company is glamorous and exciting, but having that decision-making power is more complicated than it looks. There’s never black or white, right or wrong, and there’s always two (or more) valid perspectives on every issue. As CEO, you learn quickly that most business successes come with some trade-offs. And it never gets easier to make those hard decisions.
- Every single person that you hire matters. Especially in client service, but really in every industry. At RF|Binder, we always wanted work to not feel like…work. It should feel good to come into the office every day and you should enjoy working with the people you’re surrounded by. Hiring someone with the right credentials is not enough. Neither is hiring one kind of person — diversity makes a team better, as each individual brings different perspectives and life experiences to make us stronger. To build true collaboration and foster an environment where people are always looking to push the boundaries and work hard, everyone needs to feel that they are an important part of the team. Before 2003, I had gone through three CFOs. They were all qualified, but we all had a different understanding of what the role entailed and that was problematic, not just for me, but for everyone on the team. For me, being a CFO is more than just crunching numbers. It is about strategically using an analysis of the numbers to help us define the business plan and develop processes that help us understand the financial strengths and weaknesses of the company — all leading to a better understanding of how we can best grow. In 2003, I found our current CFO and he has been with us ever since.
- You never actually “get there.” No matter how much success you have or how much you accomplish, there is no such thing as being “done.” Once you reach one goal, it’s critical to move onto the next. Change is abounding, and nothing is constant — from politics to technology to societal and cultural norms, you can always expect something new. As a business owner, you can’t settle for one success — you need to be one step ahead and think about what’s next, always.For instance, in the communications business, the internet and social media have changed the communications paradigm. In addition, access to data is more important than ever, as we can now, through data, gain an understanding of the stakeholders that we need to communicate with and make smarter decisions about messaging and channels of communications. In the past, we had to guess or make decisions only based on past experiences, while today we have information to make these decisions. This has led us to hire very different types of people and build a whole new area of our business that I would not have considered 10 years ago. We live in a changing world and we need to understand that change is constant.
- It’s really hard. Everyone says it, but no CEO believes it until they’re in those shoes themselves. When you own a business, you’re responsible for the well-being of others. Every decision you make and every push for profit is all to make your employees and clients lives and businesses better. You don’t realize how significant that responsibility feels until you’re living it daily. A couple of years ago, we lost one of our largest clients. While other agencies would likely fire the account team, I made the decision not to. I felt that if I had a good team that I had invested in, I did not want to lose that talent. Like with everything, I looked at the challenge as an opportunity. We leveraged our great talent and strengths to replace the business. I have no doubt this was the right decision and am proud that I stuck to my values and believed in my team.
- Incorporate purpose into everything you do. I’ve always believed that business can be a force for good and I try to keep that in mind every day when running the company. What you do should feel good and feel like it’s truly making a positive impact on our world and our future. As I’ve mentioned, running a business is not easy, but doing good is. Work never feels as good as when it impacts people or our planet positively. It’s important to keep your moral compass on, no matter how much easier acting profit-first makes life — we’ve turned down cigarette companies as clients and set strong standards on the types of clients we will take on…social good is at the core of our business.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I strongly encourage everyone to actually take their vacation time and make it a priority to get out of the office. I feel the same way about weekends and holidays. It is really critical to put your mind and body in a different place.
Unplugging from work is extremely important, not just to relax and avoid burn out, but also to help keep your mind fresh, take a step back, and think differently. We are in a problem-solving business and you need to be able to see things differently. Our biggest inspiration moments do not happen when we’re heads down at work — they happen when you’re out experiencing and learning something new. Read books, go to the movies, visit a new museum exhibition, take a class, study a new language (I am studying Italian), something to pique that intellectual curiosity that is within all of us. And don’t forget about exercising. It is not only good for your health, but also your mind.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My father had a great influence on my life at so many different junctures. My father was an incredibly creative person. He was recognized as one of the people that led to the growth of the public relations industry post World War II. He was a writer, a painter and a sculpture. But what really set him apart was his great love of photographing sculpture. He has produced over 100 books on great artists including Henry Moore, Eduardo Chillida, Marino Marini, Donatello and many more. Many have recognized him as bringing a whole new approach to photographing sculpture.
As a teenager, I started working the darkroom printing my father’s photographs and then we started photographing together. We would laugh because when we looked at our work after photographing the same sculpture, we didn’t know who had taken which one. My father really taught me how to creatively see the world. He also taught me the importance of looking at something from many different perspectives. We would never photograph a sculpture only from the front. You could only truly see a work of art if you walked around it and viewed it from every angle. Only by doing this could you really see and understand something. This sentiment has carried through to me as a business leader — viewing things from multiple perspectives is one of our strongest guiding principles we preach daily at RF|Binder.
My father also taught me that being a good writer is about being a clear organized thinker, which has been important not only in my professional life but also my personal life. He was also an early believer in the social impact that corporations could have. Long before the concept of purpose became popular, in the early 1950s my father was talking about how CEOs are important leaders in this country, and the impact through many channels they could have on society.
It was also because of my father that I went to business school. While he was the most creative person I have ever known and a great entrepreneur, I felt he put creativity before business acumen. I wanted to have a healthy balance of both skillsets, which is why I enrolled.
And finally, my father recognized that after getting my MBA, I really wanted to start my own company. He very much supported and encouraged me to go out on my own.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
There are always new goals to accomplish, and I am always striving to set new ones for myself, my team, and the company. Professionally, right now we’re focused on how, in this changing world with so much access to information, we can most effectively help our clients build, transform and protect their reputations and businesses through strategic communications initiatives. We’ve spent the last year refining and updating our proprietary approach to communications and leveraging the data and technology to drive impact for our clients. We are always looking to continue growing and expanding, and as I mentioned, staying ahead of what’s next — so our biggest goal is to continue to innovate, refine, and improve our team’s approach and processes. In this environment we are also looking to bring in very different types of people — some who might not have considered working in a communications firm. Building a culture that is attractive to this type of person and recruitment are also high priorities.
Personally, I’m extremely committed to learning Italian. Italy is one of my favorite countries to visit both on my own and with my family, and I want to continue to build more of a cultural connection with the country. I’ve been taking Italian lessons here in New York and I go to Italy to study every year. Learning a language is really hard, but it forces you to think differently. It unlocks so much about other cultures and how they interact and engage with one another, and I am consistently fascinated by what I am discovering.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
A company that plays a critical role in changing how people view communications. Communications should not be an afterthought or a bullet on a page — having a communications mindset is critical to business success. I remember when I was in business school, I was surprised that communications was not part of the curriculum. It is great to make changes in the way a business operates, but if you fail to communicate those changes, you will never change its culture or stimulate greater innovation. Moreover, communications enables key external stakeholders who are critical to survival and growth to understand and advocate for a company’s vision, mission or purpose. My goal and hope is that our company can be a part of making that connection for business leaders around the globe.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I think the movement I’d want to start is already starting, but I’m hoping to continue to build momentum for it through our work. Social impact investing can have a major impact on the world. People, through the public markets, can influence how businesses and organizations operate and make decisions. Financial markets, in turn, are very important in regulating corporate behavior. If people invest in good and put their money into companies that are addressing the major issues and challenges of our time, we will all be in store for a better, more sustainable future. We have seen this happen before: Apartheid in South Africa fell in part because institutions stopped investing in companies operating in South Africa; After the shooting in a Walmart store and severe public outcry, the CEO made the decision to dramatically step back from ammunition sales as well as certain types of guns. Companies change based on demands from the public, and if the markets value social and environmental impact, businesses will follow (and thankfully, some already are starting to). This, in turn, will help companies reduce their own financial risk. We are fortunate enough to have clients in the impact investing space and continue to advocate for people to invest in what’s good for the planet.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am active on LinkedIn and that is the best way to follow me. You can also follow RF|Binder on LinkedIn and on Instagram and Twitter @RFBinder.