Powell Tate's Post-Merger Exodus

By Judy Sarasohn
Thursday, February 24, 2000

The Washington government/public relations world is buzzing these days about the former Powell Tate people leaving for other shops now that Powell Tate has been taken over by Shandwick Public Affairs.

One by one, for various reasons, a half-dozen or more have left Shandwick Public Affairs-Washington in recent weeks. Some former Powell Tate staffers and competitors say more are expected to bolt.

Among those who have left are Read Scott-Martin for The Rasky/Baerlein Group; Ken Vest for his own firm, Vest Communications; Jackie Nedell for Porter/Novelli; Thomas McMahon for Brodeur Worldwide; and Julia Sutherland for Ketchum.

Shandwick International, one of the largest PR companies in the nation and itself bought in 1998 by Interpublic, acquired the Cassidy Cos.--the parent company of Powell Tate--late last year.

Few Powell Tate folks wanted to comment on the record other than to look forward to their new opportunities. It was clear, however, from current and former employees, as well as competitors, that the uncertainty over the merger and a potential clash of cultures at the Powell Tate and Shandwick operations were significant factors. Powell Tate people generally are more senior Washington operators, while Shandwick Public Affairs people are said to be younger, high-tech specialists.

"When we knew this acquisition would occur, I did some soul-searching on whether I wanted to be part of a global operation. Powell Tate was a special place," said one person who decided to leave.

"Shandwick is a very, very large company," said another public affairs specialist. "If you were a person romanced by working for a company that was bootstrapped up by Jody Powell . . ."

Jody Powell, who burst onto the Washington scene as President Jimmy Carter's press secretary, said that the departures are "not a grave concern" to the company and that the newly constituted Shandwick Public Affairs is bringing new people on board at the same time.

"It's almost inevitable that you lose some people in a merger like this," said Powell, now chairman and CEO of Shandwick's public relations operation here. "I'm a paternalistic guy and I hate to lose anybody. . . . There's always a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing."

A reason for the wave of departures, he said, is that people who might have left over a longer period of time stayed on through December to vest in the company's employee stock ownership plan. "It was eight months of normal attrition packed into four weeks" because of vesting.

Powell, who has an employment contract at Shandwick, acknowledged that he had had concerns about being part of a giant company years ago when he made the move to Cassidy to avoid becoming part of the WPP Group conglomerate. "I changed my thinking a couple of years ago. The world has changed. . . . [Clients] want an agency of record that can do it all for them."

He also said he has "no doubt that [he's] running a much stronger company now" because of Shandwick's added resources and new people joining the office.

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