Bernie Swain has one of the more interesting people I’ve interviewed. He quit his job to start a speaker’s bureau, signed his first deal on a handshake, represented President Ronald Reagan – and now he’s written a terrific book.
In this conversation, we talk about taking the risk of starting an agency, how he was able to secure President Reagan as a client, and what’s next in his world. We laughed, we shared stories, and Bernie gave us some terrific advice on how to become a success.
More about Bernie, from his about page:
Bernie Swain – founder of the pre-eminent lecture agency in the world, Washington Speakers Bureau – comes from simple, humble, and resilient stock.
His mother, Patricia, grew up working on her parent’s farm, hunted, fished and yet loved to fly; she befriended Charles Lindbergh and other aviators of her time. Bernie’s father lived with his single mother, five sisters, one brother and numerous relatives in a tiny two-room house in one of the poorest mining towns in West Virginia; he spent part of his childhood in the local orphanage.
The couple married and settled down in Arlington, VA, where Bernie and his brother grew up listening to New York Yankees games on the radio and idolizing Bernie’s hero, Mickey Mantle.
Inspired by his high school football coach, Bernie planned on a career in college athletics. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from George Washington University. In the last few months of graduate work, he met his lifelong partner, Paula, a special education teacher. The two of them started a family during Bernie’s five-year tenure as GW’s Assistant Athletic Director.
At GW, Bernie created one of the first college athletic marketing programs in the country. He also managed the baseball team; its performance was so strong that the team made it to the N.C.A.A tournament for the first time in 20 years. By the time Bernie reached his early thirties, he was well-prepared to become GW’s Athletic Director upon his boss’s imminent retirement.
The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was President. Headlines of the times consisted of the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island’s nuclear accident, and Britain’s election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. The Bee Gees were popular as was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff, and Sony’s Walkman.
“A friend’s half-serious note spurred us to abandon our careers and risk our family’s fortune on a preposterous idea.” ?Bernie
This was also the time when Bernie and Paula’s friend, Harry Rhoads, sent them the note that inspired all three of them to turn their lives upside down. They quit their jobs to start a lecture agency?without experience, without a plan, and without a single client.
“Bernie, you will never be truly happy until you control your own destiny.” ?Paula, 1979
The trio started Washington Speakers Bureau from a small supply closet belonging to Chuck Hagel, who would later become Secretary of Defense. For eighteen rocky months, they sat in that closet with their savings running out, unable to compete against the dozens of established agencies up and down the east coast.
“What have I done?” ?Bernie, 1980
Just then, Bernie got his first exclusive speaker, sealing the deal with a handshake. That handshake became a “defining moment” for their company as word spread in the small town of Washington. Their roster of speakers started to grow and their market share increased.
“You gain a certain confidence?and optimism?when you build a business yourself.” ?Bernie, 1990
In just eight short years, WSB became the top agency in the world. Then their growth and their reputation expanded.
Over the last thirty-five years, WSB has represented three US Presidents, four prime ministers of Great Britain, countless American and world leaders, business and economic visionaries, authors, media personalities, and sports legends.
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