Strategies & Tactics

Indy Growth: From the Living Room to the Boardroom

July 1, 2019

David and Marilyn Shank
David and Marilyn Shank

In this issue, six PRSA members tell their stories on why they pursued a career as an independent. As Jared Meade, APR, points out on Page 15, the circumstances that inspire communicators to start their own consultancies are often as varied as the professionals themselves. Perhaps there’s the satisfaction that comes from being your own boss or the necessity that follows an unexpected layoff.

For those of you either contemplating a career as a solo practitioner or just establishing your company, the owners of Indianapolis-based PR firm Shank Public Relations Counselors may serve as inspiration. The firm’s principals, longtime PRSA members David L. Shank, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Marilyn Shank, APR, retired this past spring after 32 years in business. They recently shared their work history with me.

Starting with a Commodore 64

The two-person agency launched from the family room of the Shank’s Indianapolis home in 1987. At the time, David was director of public relations at Carrier North American, while Marilyn worked for several local TV stations. “We didn’t say, ‘Let’s give it a try and if it doesn’t work we can always get our jobs back,’” David said. “We were committed.”

With this vow firmly in place, they started building the business. Their first computer was a Commodore 64 connected to a typewriter. They soon upgraded, buying two Dell PC-II desktops. “One of them had a huge 40MB hard drive and our computer consultant assured us we would never need more memory than that, ever,” Marilyn said.

Early childhood intervention program First Steps, at the time part of the Indiana Department of Mental Health, was their first client. Within a year, the company had enough work to expand to a nearby office complex and hire staff.

Through the years, Shank Public Relations — recipients of two Silver Anvils — attracted nearly 270 clients, including Home Depot, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Indianapolis Public Schools. However, the agency, by design, never had more than 10 employees during its 32 years.

“That was something we looked at very carefully. What we observed is that if you had a lot of employees, more of your time was spent managing people rather than managing client programs and the other things we wanted to do,” David said. “Keeping the company small meant we could focus 90 percent of our attention on the business at hand.”

The legacy of Shank Public Relations continues through its past employees and nearly 100 interns, some of whom moved on to Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., and other major employers.

As David said, “Our experiences have been exciting, heart-touching, painful and exhilarating.”

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994. Email: john.elsasser@prsa.org

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