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Secret to success lies in communication skills

Published on Friday, 11 Dec 2009
Paul Hicks and Lynn Grebstad have forged a strong partnership despite economic difficulties.
Photo: Oliver Tsang

Mutual respect, a professional attitude and complementing skills and experience are the ingredients for success of the partnership between Lynn Grebstad and Paul Hicks, founders of Grebstad Hicks Communications, since 1997.

The boutique public relations (PR) agency is established upon the combined expertise of the founders, with Hicks a former journalist who used to work in British broadcasting and Radio Television Hong Kong, and Grebstad who comes from the hospitality industry where she worked as a communications specialist for more than 20 years in Hong Kong.

"Because we both have had extensive work experience in the communications field, we thought it would be a good opportunity to start a business together based on the combined expertise," Hicks said. "Besides, I have known Lynn for some time and we get along really well."

The two partners also complement each other in their temperament. With a more forceful and direct character, Grebstad brings energy and drive to the business, whereas Hicks has a calmer and more easygoing personality.

"Paul has a good track record in the media scene and he is very much a good thinker. As for me, I have built good connections in the hospitality industry, which helps whenever there is an opportunity for new business development," Grebstad said. "We are always together when pitching for new clients."

Apart from drawing the best of both worlds, setting up a business partnership has also allowed Grebstad and Hicks to share the hefty costs that a sole entrepreneur will have to bear alone, including expenses incurred from rent, administration, utilities and staff. 

"Sharing the costs can put one's cash flow in a better position and streamline the overall costs and workforce as opposed to running two separate companies," Grebstad said. "Besides, two brains are always better than one when it comes to devising business plans."

Some business partnerships have split up as a result of personality clashes or the partners' inability to resolve differences in viewpoints. But the threat seems remote to Grebstad and Hicks, who believe there is nothing that cannot be fixed particularly in arguments over business matters.

"We both have a very clear understanding that whatever we do in this company is always for the best interests of the clients. Our differences in seeing things should never stand in the way of providing professional services to them," Hicks said. "With that in mind, we work beautifully so far and we always compromise well with each other."

For example, if one of them feels that a member of the team should be laid off for underperformance, but the other disagrees, termination of that employee will not take place until a consensus is reached. In the meantime, the staff concerned will be notified and given a second chance to improve performance in a specified period. 

And if one of them wants to invest in a new office but the other is not yet convinced, then again they will wait until both have agreed on the timing of investment. Neither will insist on any decision to be made even though it may seem like a good investment opportunity. Ultimately, Grebstad and Hicks think that mutual respect is the key to maintaining a good partnership. 

Over the past 12 years, Grebstad and Hicks have successfully built their business from a team of just a few people to around 40, with offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore. Together, they have tackled big and small challenges, including the recent financial crisis. "Increasing income and decreasing costs are the two ways to keep a business healthy in spite of any financial blow," Grebstad said. "Since increasing income was not going to be easy, as most of the clients were not doing much by way of PR activities, we focused on cutting operating costs. We had to make some tough decisions and reduce our manpower a little, as well as being very cautious on other expenses."

Faced with stiff competition, Grebstad and Hicks are fully aware of the need to constantly provide quality service to meet their clients' needs. The reality check is that, nowadays, companies tend to quantify every dollar they spend for measurable results. 

"Clients are very demanding these days and they have every right to be," Hicks said. "To meet their needs, we have to closely monitor what is available in the market in terms of the latest and the most cost-effective online marketing tools, together with an effective strategy for their consideration. This is what the clients are looking for; otherwise there is no value in the agency."

Ten things I know

  1. Learn to understand andcompromise No one is perfect and there are no two identical characters. In a business environment where two people work as business partners, conflict is inevitable. The only way to resolve it is to seek compromise with one another and learn to understand.
  2. People are a business asset Running a public relations agency is unlike running a retail store. There is no stock of merchandise. People are the company's asset. Therefore, always make sure they are happy in their work and treat them with utmost respect.
  3. Know how to delegate with trust Running three branches in Asia, besides Hong Kong, we travel regularly to see if things are under control. We entrust someone in the office to look after the day-to-day operation while we are away. Of course we always make sure we are reachable in case of emergency.
  4. Broaden your business andsocial networks Normally, new business is developed through word of mouth, referrals from existing clients or friends, but it can be through people we meet in business/social circles. After all, it is all about people business and broadening a people network is vital to business development.
  5. Deliver on your promises We value our clients, regardless of their size and budget, because nobody can tell what the future is and we are hired to grow with them.
  6. Hire good talent For a people-oriented business, such as public relations, the rise or fall of the company rests very much on the quality of the staff. We aim at finding the most qualified candidates to deliver quality work.
  7. Value teamwork Teamwork is the only way to go in a public relations business environment. It is not possible to assign only one person to look after an account, no matter how small. This is because a successful campaign needs people from the creative, media, production and account-servicing teams.
  8. Seize the opportunity Running a business in this competitive market, we never let go of any potential opportunity.
  9. Keep your pulse on the market It is important to always keep eyes and ears open to the latest concepts available in the market and offer this to clients if it is productive and economically feasible.
  10. Learn your client's business well To earn your clients' trust, show them you really know their business inside out. After all, they are not looking for simple customer service, they want to work with professional people who are business savvy and can help their business grow.


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