CEO Stories: Communicating Success

Sandy Hillman
CEO of Sandy Hillman Communications

Sandy Hillman on her rise as the “impresario of urban America” and the challenges and opportunities she’s faced as a trusted advisor to the public and private sectors. Listen to the podcast below to hear her inspiring story of how she became a female entrepreneur.

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City Makeovers

Baltimore needed an image makeover in the 1970s. Sandy Hillman was essential to the city’s revitalization. In her role as executive director of Baltimore’s Office of Promotion and Tourism, Hillman garnered favorable attention for successful projects such as the waterfront Harbor Place Development. In 1984 Hillman entered private practice to boost the branding of other cities. She insisted cities required strong public-private partnerships to launch and sustain improvements, and she went beyond the traditional approach of catering to conventions and meetings, by also targeting leisure travelers.

Corporate Leadership

After seeing how much mayors varied in quality, Hillman shifted her focus to public relations and advertising. She joined a firm that grew substantially and became its CEO before realizing that she preferred running a boutique. In 2007 she founded Sandy Hillman Communications. Her clients have ranged from historical museums to household products. She’s noticed that companies with good leaders are better positioned to communicate internally about mergers and acquisitions.

Women In Mind

Hillman believes that while women and men can both add value in leadership positions, their styles tend to differ. As a leader she’s sought to manage her teams with an understanding that female employees are often also homemakers and caretakers, which includes demands that male employees may not face. For instance, she’s been a working mother for almost five decades and began her career when that was a rarity. Hillman says flexible work environments can allow women to excel given these factors.

This Is Capitalism: Sandy Hillman

RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. Sandy Hillman has been burnishing her reputation as one of the nation’s top communications professionals for three decades plus. Her Baltimore based firm helps speak for such brands as Under Armour, Caesars Entertainment, and Walmart.

But Sandy Hillman is even better known in the world of travel and tourism. For her efforts in attracting visitors to major cities that didn’t used to attract many tourists, Time magazine called her the impresario of urban America. As Executive Director of Baltimore’s Office of Promotion and Tourism, she was one of the key players in the dramatic revitalization of Baltimore in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

There was Baltimore’s legendary four-term mayor, William Donald Schaeffer–he was the most important player. There was A.N. Pritzker, the patriarch of the Hyatt Hotel family. There was James Rouse, whose Rouse Company built the Harbor Place Development, and there was Sandy Hillman. So after the Harbor Place was a hit, other cities started calling you in, right?

SH: You know, at the time Harbor Place was done, most cities had not figured out how to take advantage of their waterfronts, all of which had been industrial waterfronts. So that everybody looked at Baltimore and said “oh my God, if you could do it, we could do it.” And I eventually left the city and went into private practice in ’84 when the mayor was running for governor because I didn’t want to work at the state level–I never liked state politics–and I began representing other cities, dealing with the issues of waterfront development with them, partnered with Mr. Rouse.

RH: That was a good partner to have.
SH: One of the keys to all of this as I consulted with all of these cities, and maybe my best idea actually, was the structure that was needed within the city government: public/private partnerships to make sure that these developments not only happen but took hold and were sustained. And organizing for that was not something that most cities had done.

For the most part, at that point in time, cities had convention and visitor’s bureaus, which were membership organizations for the most part with some civic funds, obviously. They were marketing just to meetings and conventions as opposed to leisure travelers. And there is a very big difference and you do need to have an infrastructure, an organized infrastructure in place in every city in order to properly do that. So it doesn’t sound like a very brilliant idea and I hardly ever think about it…But I came to realize that all mayors weren’t equal and that Schaefer’s understanding of creating this marketing organization was really another part of his genius.

RH: Tell me about Sandy Hillman Communications.
SH: Well, I left city government, went to work for an advertising and PR firm that had added the PR to an advertising agency that went from 25 at one point to about 140 employees. And I ultimately became the CEO. And then 10 years ago I decided that I didn’t really want to run a big organization and so I started Sandy Hillman Communications as a 12-person boutique. And all we do is communications and we are very fortunate that we are able just to represent companies and organizations that we want to represent.

RH: So it’s a lot more fun.
SH: It is a lot of fun, I have to say.

RH: And I see your clients have included the World Series of Poker, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Zico Coconut Water, Caesars Entertainment, and The Star Spangled Banner. How do you represent The Star Spangled Banner?

SH: Well, several years ago was the 200th anniversary actually of the writing of The Star Spangled Banner. And so we…And this was all led by Governor O’Malley at the time who is himself actually a real historian. He decided that on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the writing of The Star Spangled Banner, he wanted to make sure that most Americans knew where it had been written and that we could get people to come here to Fort McHenry and view the flag that flew over the fort while Francis Scott Key was off in that boat in the harbor.

So we put on a major 10-day event, which drew actually millions of people, hundreds of thousands of them actually were tourists from outside of Baltimore. It was a fun time and based on research we know that we increased the percentage of people who were aware that The Star Spangled Banner was born in Baltimore.

A lot of our work though, as you mentioned, has been with museums. We have loved that work. The National World War II Museum is really quite extraordinary. And again talk about cultural capitalism, if you will, a gentlemen by the name of Dr. Nick Mueller started the museum with his buddy, Stephen Ambrose. And it is quite extraordinary. It’s got four buildings now, it’s on the way, and really tells the story of America’s entry and then fight in World War II. It’s all seen from the American perspective. Quite extraordinary and beautifully done.

But Stephen died and Nick carried on. He was a history professor who figured out how to raise money, how to spend money, how to build buildings, and how to market. And the museum is the fifth most-visited museum attraction in the United States now. But again, if you circle back on all of this, it all goes back to leadership, and leadership understanding how to access capital and then how to use that capital and expend it properly in order to meet whatever the goals of a particular program are.

RH: And in terms of really being in the middle of building a brand or a name, which you have done many times over, do you have one favorite example?

SH: Of brand building?

RH: Yeah.
SH: Well emotionally probably the World War II Museum because I feel an incredible kinship to that and I’ve learned so much from it. On a more commercial level, we represent Under Armour, which was a brand that was born in Baltimore.

And Kevin Plank, who started Under Armour, and the gentleman who started Zico have a lot in common and that is that they both were extremely focused. They never deviated. They knew exactly where they were going and how to get there and maybe tweaked it along the way if they made a mistake. But I admired not just their persistence but their focus and I think both of them were extraordinarily successful because of focus and their ability to tell their story.

RH: Also, considering your expertise in corporate and reputation management, I am assuming you must be amazed about the lack of communication smarts that are still so evident in certain high-profile companies.
SH: I am beyond overwhelmed. [laughter] Well, not just companies. You know, I mean we could have a long conversation about what’s…but we won’t…about what’s going on today.

RH: Yeah we could leave out one major city just to the south of you.
SH: Right.

RH: I’m talking just in the corporate world, I mean it’s incredible the lack of communication smarts.
SH: Right.

RH: So what does that tell you about instilling better communications?
SH: Part of the lack of communication within organizations has to do with hubris at the top. And I think there is a lack of appreciation for and understanding of what really drives either the business or the institution. And when that happens and you have leadership that does not connect with people below the C suite, then you have a communications problem.

One of my favorite things to do actually is the communications with mergers and acquisitions, the internal communications. I love to do it for many reasons but it is extraordinarily satisfying because frequently what happens is you have an M&A event and nobody talks to anybody else except the guys at the top who make the deal and the board, you know, boards of directors. So everybody from middle management down is left to try and figure this out and hope for the best.

Those are not good deals. I think deals where everybody understands that were it not for the people, the thousands of people who work for us, this company wouldn’t have any value, and therefore we have to communicate with those people and keep them informed and make them feel engaged and show them respect. Those deals end up being the successful deals. We’ve been involved in a number of them and it is actually in many ways my favorite work.

RH: Is there one company that you would site where the people at the top level, the leadership level, really get it in terms of culture and how to instill that culture perhaps in their acquisitions?
SH: Actually I think Under Armour does get it and that’s a very young culture that is very communication-savvy and oriented. I do think that they understand it and while their acquisitions have been of companies that certainly are not their peer in size, I think they’ve been very smart the way they have integrated them.

The first integration that I did, which at the time was textbook successful, was when Harrah’s Casinos, which I have represented since 1984, so for 33 years, acquired Caesars. And that was bringing together a workforce, I don’t know, about 100,000 people. I don’t remember the exact number but a lot of people. Two very disparate cultures. And the gentleman who ran Harrah’s at the time, Gary Loftin, who was a Harvard Business School professor, really did understand the importance of communication and bringing people together. And I think that he oversaw a really brilliant communications effort.

RH: Was there one key moment to that integration that stands out to you?
SH: The first thing was that the SEC allowed them to begin a communications effort in advance of the final signing of the deal. That was really, really important. Because if you think about it, an organization like Caesars, you’re talking about thousands of people in very disparate jobs from Harvard Business School graduates to wait staff to housekeepers. All those people had to know that the coming together of these two companies was not going to negatively affect them.

And at the end of it, Gary very smartly went around and visited every single one of the properties that was involved in the merger so that they could identify the leadership with a real person. And I think that was extraordinarily important and he did a very brilliant job.

RH: I bet you would’ve loved to have worked on an airline merger and handled communications between those two disparate workforces that tend to hate each other because of seniority and all these other issues.
SH: Right. [laughter] That’s true. I did represent the airline industry at one point in time. The airline industry, the U.S. airline industry, owned a charge card called the Air Travel Card?

RH: Yeah, I forgot about it.
SH: It was actually the first charge card in America. And if they had been smart, of course, it would’ve become American Express but that’s a whole other story. Yes, you’re right, the airline industry is really complicated. But you know what? Every industry is complicated but they are all about people at the end of the day.

RH: Am I correct in reading that you are the first woman to be named as a distinguished alumna from Penn State?
SH: I don’t remember now.

RH: It says that in your bio.
SH: I guess I was. [laughter]

RH: I just find that so amazing that there haven’t been many.
SH: [laughter] I guess so.

RH: Just as capitalism is leveraged, can you leverage that award in some sense to help other women in communications, the sense of recognition?
SH: I have been a working mother for almost 50 years. And I started working at a time when there weren’t a lot of women at the table. I have always wanted to run my businesses, the organizations that I headed, in a way that really was sensitive in particular to women because, like it or not, the fact of the matter is we are the ones that take care of the kids, for the most part, take care of the elderly, are responsible for keeping the house going. And so I think that women require a little more flexibility than most men. Now there will be a Twitter storm around that but I think it’s certainly the case.

RH: Hasn’t that case already been proven pretty well, the fact that women-led companies tend to out-perform male-led companies?
SH: You know what, I don’t know that statistically…

RH: Oh I’ve seen it statistically.
SH: Well then, I will defer to that. I like that.

RH: I thought you would.
SH: You know, I think women lead differently. I was in a group at Harvard, business women that came together I don’t know twice a year or whatever, and interestingly somebody was doing a study on the brains of female executives and whether or not they were more similar to or not to male executives. I don’t know what the result of that research effort was but I remember at one point in time being up at Harvard and some scientists from outside came in to talk to us about that particular study.

RH: So what of that study? Well in 2013, the Harvard Business Review cited research at the University of California Irvine which found that men have about six and a half percent more grey matter in their brains, with the brains of women holding almost ten times more white matter. So if we take that information and apply it to corporate leaders, it suggests that male executives would tend to be better at processing large amounts of information, female executives would tend to be better in terms of assimilating and integrating information.

With a little side trip into cognition, This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Ray Hoffman: Ray Hoffman, a veteran business journalist, is highly-regarded for his news and analysis features and insightful CEO interviews. Representing BusinessWeek on air for twenty-one years, Mr. Hoffman was the morning business news voice on the ABC Radio Networks from 1995 to 2006. Mr. Hoffman also represented The Wall Street Journal, on air, for eleven years. His daily WCBS CEO Radio feature was recognized by the New York Press Club as best radio business news report in both 2012 and 2015. In this podcast, Mr. Hoffman invites some of America’s most dynamic CEOs to share their stories as business builders and perspectives on free enterprise.