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Sports Stars Align for Maryland Firm

By Thomas Heath
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Maroon PR President John Maroon is set to board a commercial jet this morning to fly to St. Louis, where he will tend to his firm's most important customer -- former Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. -- during Major League Baseball's annual All-Star Game week.

Maroon won't say that the Hall of Fame shortstop is his most important client. But I can say it. Call up the Maroon PR Web site, and Cal's company, Ripken Baseball, is front and center.

For today's visit, Maroon plans to make sure Ripken doesn't run into any surprises as he runs a youth clinic for State Farm Insurance, which pays Ripken to link his name to the company. Maroon will make sure Ripken knows which media outlets are present. Which reporters will be asking questions. Whether there will be a request for a live television interview.

"He has provided a service to me that I badly needed," Ripken said. "How you manage [the media] can either allow you to keep going undistracted or be labeled. John has a good understanding of both sides, what the needs of the media are and . . . the value of public relations."

Keeping one of the most respected people in baseball happy is smart business. The Ripken connection helped reel in Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer (a former Oriole) and Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis. Maroon even landed a contract from a local real estate business that was attending a meeting of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

The Ripken association bestows other benefits, too. When Maroon PR ran the grand opening for the Sullivan's Steakhouse in Baltimore, Maroon got Ripken to appear at the event. The restaurant donated $10,000 to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

"Having Cal Ripken as a client when we opened our doors was a huge benefit and gave us instant credibility," said Maroon, 44, who runs the business from an office in Howard County. "Cal Ripken is a big brand name, so by osmosis I garner some of the value of that, whether it's deserved or not. But we have also grown from just having Cal and the Babe Ruth Museum and four of us to 20 clients and a team of nine."

The company recently split into two divisions, with one serving sports clients and the other everyone else.

The key to getting good publicity for a client is knowing exactly who does what in the media world. Maroon and his staff scour dozens of magazines and newspapers and follow TV in search of the best fit between a reporter's beat and the client's story. One employee bought several months' worth of Men's Journal looking for the right person to write a story about Moyer.

"If you pitch the wrong journalist, you will never hear from them again," Maroon said.

Maroon did public relations work for the Orioles and the Redskins before starting off on his own. He founded the company in 2006 with his wife, Carolyn, and two full-timers, and a $150,000 line of credit with a bank.

Ripken, for whom he had worked, offered to be the first client.

"One of my biggest fears when I started was, 'Look, I understand public relations. But who is going to bring in these clients?' I had an innate fear of that. I never considered myself a salesman," Maroon said.

But he comes from entrepreneurial stock. His father ran car dealerships in northern New Jersey before founding several successful restaurants. His sister owns a children's shoe store. His brother owns a corporate real estate business.

Maroon started reading trade publications and newspapers, looking for new businesses that were opening or coming to town. He learned that Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native, had fired his foundation's public relations team by reading it in the newspaper.

Word of mouth and networking are crucial. One client came from a tip from a next-door neighbor.

Once he finds a lead, Maroon starts business inquiries with an e-mail to the company because he doesn't like the pushiness of a phone call.

Sometimes he doesn't even have to call. The executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum, who knew Maroon from his Orioles days, called when he heard that Maroon had started a business. One employee met a friend at a Towson University alumni event who worked at a television production company called Renegade; it is now a client.

Not everything has been sweet. Anthony and Maroon PR mutually decided not to renew the contract for Web site work on Anthony's foundation. Maroon said a promising interview with USA Cycling in Denver didn't pan out. And the company lost one of its first non-sports clients, author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar.

Maroon wouldn't tell me what he charges individual clients, but the monthly retainers run $4,000 to $10,000. The work can be varied, whether it's getting better media exposure for a brand, building a Web site or handling media requests. Maroon also likes to help clients strategize on what kind of image they want to project.

The first year, Maroon PR made $305,000 in revenue. Revenue more than doubled, to $622,000, in 2007 with the addition of several new clients. Last year, Maroon PR grossed $723,000, and Maroon projects that this year's revenue will come in at about $900,000 -- or about $75,000 a month.

With expenses running nearly $60,000 a month, Maroon PR is profitable. The monthly payroll costs $35,000, which covers nine people, including Maroon and his wife. The company provides health care to its employees at a cost of $4,000 a month. Rent for his Marriottsville, Md., office is $3,500. The BlackBerry bill is $1,200. Travel and entertainment on the corporate credit card is $2,000 more. There are printing bills, utilities, insurance and laptop computers for everyone.

Maroon wouldn't tell me exactly what he earns from the company. I estimate he takes a draw that puts his annual pay in the six-figure range.

The goal now is to keep his client base, build on it, and eventually sell the company for several million dollars.

"We . . . have the allure of some very well-known and intriguing clients and could be of interest to one of the large agencies," Maroon said.

I love Ripken, but I don't think of him as alluring.

Follow me on Twitter at addedvalueth.

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