When Joanne and I first met in 2014 through a mutual friend in the Women Presidents Organization, I wasn’t looking for a business partner. I had recently witnessed a bad breakup of partners at an agency I loved, and I was focused on growing my own agency, my way. However, within weeks I found myself in need of creative support to prepare a pitch for a substantial project for the USDA. We ultimately won the business together, and over the next six months I grew attached to Joanne, the energy of the BNO team and the business she had built. I’m happy to say that the experience completely changed my perspective. It’s easy to see the benefits of partnership when you find the right partner.
Joanne originally founded Baldwin & Obenauf Inc. in 1981 with Mark Baldwin, and when he was ready to retire in 2008, she was not ready. She was also acutely aware that agencies are often bought for their clients and not their people, and she was not about to let that happen. Joanne knew she had more work to do to grow BNO and she wanted to find a suitable leader to take the reins when she was ready – one who would appreciate and deeply value the team who helped build the business.
From the day we joined forces to announcing my transition to CEO and hers to board chair last month (a succession plan several years in the making), I have learned a lot about leadership from Joanne.
Constant evolution is crucial, not only in the business but with one’s own skills and leadership style. When BNO was in its infancy, Joanne led from the front. She was the chief salesperson and built the business from nothing. As the business matured over time, Joanne transitioned to a facilitator role embracing the vision of others and making room for them to lead. This was also a key to a successful transition.
There is opportunity in adversity. BNO has survived four recessions. That sort of resilience is only possible if you adapt to meet the challenges that adversity brings. Joanne never viewed adversity as a time to hunker down, but as an opportunity to grow and change. She always doubled down on the company’s prospects. I am happy to have carried this legacy forward in adapting our business once again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Diversification provides stability and growth. Joanne took a page from the playbook of one of our agency’s earliest clients. Critics liked to suggest that J&J need-ed to focus because they were trying to do too much – consumer, pharmaceuticals, medical devices. But Joanne saw the brilliance in how J&J diversified and built BNO the same way.
It is tempting to dive into just one area and focus, especially when that area is growing rapidly – our current employer brand marketing business is a great ex-ample, as was our video business a few years ago. However, we never lose sight of the sustained diversity that has fueled our growth and stability. Keeping our hands in work across multiple industries and service areas also keeps us sharp, which is one of the things I think is special about us.
Focus on problem-solving at the core. The cornerstone of Joanne’s business philosophy is to always keep the client at the center. She recognized early on that if we can solve our clients’ challenges and help them meet their goals, we will meet and exceed our own goals. Doing so breeds trust. Instead of viewing us within a narrow capability set, our clients see us as a partner that can tackle tough challenges and help them win. This has led to tremendous growth of our service footprint over the years.
Take care of the people that take care of the clients. This is most important, and Joanne’s greatest lesson. Joanne always thinks in terms of, “How will this decision affect this team or that team; this person or that person?” She cares deeply about having everyone share in BNO’s success – not just one person or one team.
Driven by this desire to protect her valued team, Joanne created an extremely durable foundation with strong business fundamentals. While many agencies staff up for a big client and then restructure if they hit a bad patch, we manage our core business so that we can withstand a down quarter or even a tough year without making drastic changes to our staffing levels. We have team members who have been with us for more than 10, 20 and even 30 years. (And clients like J&J that have been with us even longer.) I think that’s amazing! And again, all Joanne’s doing.
There is so much to be proud of at BNO, from our company values to our clientele, five of whom are currently among the Fortune 100. So much of the company’s success is owed to Joanne’s savvy leadership and authenticity. I am fortunate to be her partner and hope to build on BNO’s 40-year legacy for years to come.
Trista Walker is president and CEO of Baldwin & Obenauf Inc. in Somerville.