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Staying Centered

Political advisor, chief executive, spokeswoman, working mother – Fiona Hutton wears all these titles. In the offices of Fiona Hutton & Associates Inc., a public affairs communication agency in Studio City, the walls are covered with campaign mementos. Her firm represents many state trade associations – including the high-profile California Association of Health Plans, California State Outdoor Advertising Association and the Association of California Water Agencies – plus corporations, non-profits, public agencies and municipalities. However, as a non-partisan firm, she won’t touch candidate campaigns. The company, founded in 2001, ranks 12th on the Business Journal’s list of fastest growing private companies with two-year revenue growth of 105 percent. Hutton met with the Business Journal in her office to discuss the lucky break in her career, why she put her firm in the Valley and how advocacy work provides her daily “brain food.” Question: How did you become one of the fastest growing Valley companies? Answer: The funny thing was I didn’t have a master plan to build a big enterprise. I knew I didn’t want to work for some else. I had this unique niche because I knew water issues. (In 2001) I came out, and I was able to capitalize on that. It helped build the base of my firm. We’ve since worked hard to diversity that base. What factor limits your growth? Staffing. Because we are specialized and high intensity, we need incredibly talented and smart professionals. It’s so frustrating because I turned away three potential clients that I would die to work for last week. But my name is on that door. I will turn the work away if I don’t think I can do it right. It’s all about finding the right talent. Where do you recruit? People who know politics are in Washington, D.C. or Sacramento. So a lot of them here I’ve taught. It’s easier to bring in really smart young people and teach them my philosophy. What is your philosophy? You have to work hard, you have to be smart, and how you conduct yourself in this industry is really important. You have to have that drive to service clients in a certain professional way. So what services does your company provide? I describe it as the three Cs: complex, controversial or crisis. Everybody that comes here is in one of those situations and is trying to figure out how to manage external communications. Whether it’s trying to influence a legislature or a regulatory matter, a ballot measure or litigation support, it all comes back to those core concepts. We are not a consumer PR firm. What issues do you handle? Water, energy, infrastructure, transportation, health care. Anytime you pick up the paper and look at the big issues, we are involved in some way. What do you look for in a client? Successful companies integrate communications at the top level. Unsuccessful ones have it as an afterthought or a luxury. I communicate with general counsels and CEOs. I tell clients, “You may be able to do your project from a technical point of view, but your project could still get killed in the court of public opinion.” We look for clients that are willing to integrate us at the top level. What makes your company different from the competition? In public affairs, there are a lot of small independent practitioners – one- or two-person firms. They are personality-based businesses. Then you have large conglomerates that have a public affairs practice, but it’s still led by a personality they have recruited. We live in a unique spot. I have 10 to 12 employees. We are large enough to do that big work, but not so big that we are constrained on overhead and pushing the work down to lower-level workers. We believe in senior-level work. How did you get started in this career? I came out of politics. My first job was working for Gov. Pete Wilson. Then I went to large public relations agencies downtown. And then I worked for public companies and handled corporate communications. It all melded together to prepare me for running my own firm. Was there a “lucky break” in your career? Yes, I worked on Prop 71, the cell stem research initiative (in 2004). I managed all media relations. That was significant nationally. We had been doing well, but when I was on NBC Nightly News as a spokesperson, it launched us to another level. That was the turning point. How did you survive the Great Recession? By working harder. There were a lot of strategic communications firms at the time that just wanted to give advice. Think big thoughts around the table and walk away. In the downturn, people weren’t paying for that anymore. You had to handle implementation – press releases, the grind. How do you spend your time in the office? I am literally blocked every hour on conference calls. My poor family suffers sometimes because I come home and don’t want to talk. What do you like best about your job? This job is brain food. I can move from health care to manufacturing facilities to water to digital billboards. I love the pace and I’m learning every single day. I adore the fact that I have so many clients in so many issue areas. What do you like the least? There is no off-the-clock in this business. That frenetic pace doesn’t turn off easily. It’s hard to relax at the end of the day. What is your favorite funny story from your career? I don’t have any funny stories. No funny press events. My clients are in hard situations – not all bad, but complex and challenging. What personality qualities make you good at this job? I can see the playing field so clearly for clients. It’s innate. I can see where we need to go. But you can’t turn it off. The brain keeps going. Why is your company located in the Valley? I live in Laurel Canyon, and that’s why I put the office here. I’ve had people say, “You have to have an office on Wilshire Boulevard.” And I firmly don’t believe in that. Quality of life is important to me. I cannot grind an hour and a half home every day. In the morning I can come down Laurel Canyon, drop the kids off at school and be here in 10 minutes. My risk, when I started my own business was, “Who knows if this will be profitable?” But my reward was no commute. Clearly you don’t have to be on Wilshire. What is your goal for your company? More crisis work. And there is not a shortage of that work. It suits me well, because you have to see the playing field. You have to be confident to create order out of the chaos. I would like to see steady growth for the next five years. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs? You have to see the market and move with it. If the land use market is going crazy, I won’t put my book of work all in land use. We have been conservative and diversified. I don’t want to staff up and then let people go. How did your family life prepare you for your career? Both my parents were entrepreneurial. My mother, who passed away when I was young, came to the United States from England to nurse after college. My father started publicly traded companies in genetically engineered crops. I grew up in Davis on 5 acres with horses in my backyard. What’s your favorite pursuit out of work? Traveling. When I was growing up, my mother would take us to England every summer. We would live with my grandmother and traipse around. I have tried to do the same with my kids. Where do you go? England, France, Italy. I’m the one in the family with the travel bug. Any last thoughts? I’m a big believer in promoting women. There are a lot of women in PR, and a lot in corporate enterprises, but not a lot running their own firm. Right now, this is an all-female workforce here. Not by design, but I’m so proud of what I’ve accomplished and I want to help other women get there. I spend a lot of time mentoring these women who come here. I’m a big believer in the lean-in idea. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.
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