Bernie Swain’s Washington Speakers Bureau has represented former presidents, Cabinet members, business executives, public figures and sports legends. (Kit Noble/For The Washington Post)
Reporter

Most every successful person acknowledges a transformational influence — a parent, teacher, boss, class, book or event — that helped shape their life.

If you stipulate that I am successful, I would have to salute an editor back in Syracuse, N.Y., named Mike Connor who taught me how to be a reporter, motivated me and then backed me to the hilt. Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten to within spitting distance of The Washington Post.

Bernie Swain, founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau, points to his wife.

“Paula saw a life for me that I would have never imagined for myself.”

The guy, now a multimillionaire, was in his mid-30s and an assistant athletic director at George Washington University — on track perhaps to run the department some day — when he walked away.

“I used to come home and complain about the bureaucracy of being at the university,” said Swain, now 70, and cozily ensconced in his home in Nantucket, Mass. “I wanted to do things on my own.”

You will always have a boss unless you break out, Paula told him.

Toward the end of 1980, when the Jimmy Carter Administration was breaking camp to prepare for the incoming Reaganites, a friend named Harry Rhoads handed Bernie a Fortune magazine article.

Rhoads was an advertising man who worked with GWU’s athletic department. He and Swain would jaw about business in their slack time. The Fortune article was about the Harry Walker Agency, “representing the world’s best speakers since 1946.”

That got him thinking. Soon, Bernie and Paula chucked their jobs — $32,000 and $11,000, respectively — to start their little project finding speaking gigs for celebrities or almost-celebrities. Rhoads joined them.

Their Washington Speakers Bureau would eventually become a dominant firm in the space and a rival to Walker, representing the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, George Stephanopolous, Ted Koppel, James Carville, Mary Matalin, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Krzyzewski and Lou Holtz, and many, many others.

By the time advertising giant the Omnicom Group bought the Washington Speakers Bureau in 2000, the company was pushing toward 100 employees and taking in north of $15 million annually as its share of the speaking fees it booked.

Sounds like a smooth, upward arc? Not quite.

In 1982, a year after they launched, the Swains and Rhoads had gone nowhere.

The couple had taken out a $25,000 second mortgage on their $60,000 house. They had no clients, no income and an office in a stationery closet in Old Town Alexandria that they had sublet from Chuck Hagel, who later became a Republican senator from Nebraska and secretary of defense.

They were scouring newspapers and periodicals, looking for anyone whom they could represent, then following up with a letter or phone pitch.

Nothing.

Things got better their second year. They grossed $700.

“I remember sitting in that closet, late at night. I would have to close my eyes and shake my head and ask myself, ‘What have I done?’ ”

But to his credit (and to his bank account’s current health), Swain didn’t quit.

“People give up too quickly,” he said.

It took a simple phone call and a misguided handshake, but by mid-1991, they were booking several thousand events annually.

How did they do it?

“One day, I get a call from Steve Bell, news anchor for ‘Good Morning America.’ When I was at GW, I helped him use the swimming pool for a story he was doing for ABC.”

Bell told Swain he had left his old speaking agency because “they didn’t produce for me,”

That’s when Swain thought he had made a mistake.

“We just shook hands and didn’t sign him to a contract.”

But Bell quickly spread the word among others on the speaker circuit that this new agency called Washington Speakers Bureau did not require a contract. You could walk away any time.

Swain’s client list began to grow with prominent journalists, including Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, syndicated columnist Carl Rowan, the team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Mark Shields, currently with the PBS NewsHour.

Bell continued to be a catalyst. He agreed to host a talk at the Rosslyn Marriott in front of 600 association and corporate types that spurred business.

Then-President Ronald Reagan did his part, too.

After three intensive interviews with Reagan staff members over several weeks, Swain got a call in February 1989 informing him that Reagan had selected the Washington Speakers Bureau, among others, to represent him.

The momentum and buzz from Reagan carried the company for years. The firm added Margaret Thatcher, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, George H.W. Bush and his troubleshooting statesman James Baker, and former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The speaker business is similar to what a Hollywood agent does for the actors, directors and writers. Each lecture agent, as they are known, actively pursues audiences best suited to a specific speaker. Swain’s agents have a yearly goal with each speaker to get a specific number of events at a certain level of audience quality. For example, some speakers insist on only addressing chief executives.

Take Thatcher. The late British prime minister wanted to speak to only think tanks, CEOs of multinational organizations and groups with world influence.

The Iron Lady was a hard sell. “She would insist on handwriting every speech and would not accept an invitation unless she could write the speech in long hand.”

Agents can make six figures with salary and commission, including a 15 percent annual bonus. Swain said strong communication skills and a knack for organization is critical. Meeting planners accustomed to juggling do especially well.

“Agents can have five to 10 speakers traveling to five to 10 different events every single day and must be able to keep everything organized,” he said.

The Washington Speakers Bureau takes 20 percent of each speech. Speeches range from $5,000 to $50,000 and far more, depending on the name.

Even Swain and Rhoads get their hands dirty. They walked off the course at Washington Golf and Country Club one day in June many years ago. They piled journalists Ken Bode, Mara Liasson, Paul Gigot, Steven Roberts and Bill Kristol into two cars and personally drove them nearly five hours to a panel discussion before the Grocery Manufacturers Association at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Bad weather had grounded air traffic and there were no limousines to rent because of other Washington engagements.

“We never took off our golf shoes,” Swain said.

One day, the phone rang and author Alex Haley was on the line, asking for a meeting. Swain asked him, “When?” “Look out your window, I am in the telephone booth downstairs,” Haley told him.

Haley became a client and confidant, spending hours in Swain’s office.

“He had this phrase, ‘When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning.’ He was trying to tell me each of our lives are filled with experiences and those experiences are like the pages in a book.”

So Swain wrote his book.

What Made Me Who I Am.”

It came out last week and, not surprisingly, is dedicated to wife Paula.