Elise Mitchell says entrepreneurship is a little like parenting. If you wait till you’re old and wise, you’ve probably missed your chance.
So she had doubts when she set up her own PR agency in 1995 in Fayetteville, where her husband, Raye, had become a partner in an orthopedic surgery practice, but jumping in “with both feet” was the beginning of a great success story.
That story will get another chapter on Friday when Mitchell receives the Woman Business Leader of the Year award from the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. It’s the latest accolade for a leader who built her firm from scratch and turned it into one of the 10 fastest-growing PR concerns in the world, adding Arkansas giants like Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt Transport and Tyson Foods as clients. At the end of 2012, when Mitchell had more than $14 million in annual revenue, she sold the firm to the Tokyo-based Dentsu Network. She won’t disclose the price, but the deal was worth millions, and she took on a top role for Dentsu.
In the meantime, she discovered motorcycling, which became a touchstone in her life and in her business philosophy. Mitchell, 54, appears with her bike on the cover of her memoir/business book, “Leading Through the Turn: How a Journey Mindset Can Help Leaders Find Success and Significance,” coming out from McGraw-Hill in January.
But first, how did an entrepreneur emerge in a 13-year PR professional whose only experience had been working for others?
“I had only a dream and determination. And something else that was incredibly valuable — my first client, Promus Hotel Corp.”
Promus is where she had been director of corporate communications.
“I told my boss I was leaving to start my own agency and wanted Promus to be my first client. It only took him 24 hours to say yes! We said goodbye to dear friends and colleagues in Memphis and moved with our 1-year-old daughter Mackenzie to Fayetteville, and I got to work.”
Her big challenge was finding enough help as the agency grew, because she refused to hire employees away from clients, and the talent pool wasn’t deep in northwest Arkansas 20 years ago.
“I reached into my professional network nationally and hired top talent based in other markets — people I knew who for one reason or another were off on their own or no longer working full time. I was the main client contact, meeting and working with clients daily, setting strategy and planning the work. But most of the team was based elsewhere. I ended up building a virtual company before that became popular.”
The firm’s great growth spurt began in 2008. Over the next five years, revenue rose more than 500 percent and the full-time local staff of 13 grew to 76. Mitchell also kept the virtual team, which now has 40 professionals in 14 states and is known as LocalLink. “We were honored to win awards, including being named Agency of the Year twice in our industry’s biggest competitions (PRWeek and the Holmes Report); we were named Business of the Year in the Arkansas Business annual awards, and twice named as one of the 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies in North America.”
Mitchell credits her “incredibly strong executive team,” including Sarah Clark, agency president; Michael Clark, COO; Blake Woolsey, executive vice president; and Larry Templeton, CFO.
The growth and awards attracted attention, and Mitchell soon got calls from prospective buyers. She was reluctant to sell, but was convinced by Tim Andree of Dentsu, the world’s largest advertising agency. “Tim made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He not only wanted to buy our company, he wanted us to lead the effort to acquire other PR agencies and build a global PR capability for Dentsu. I maintained my role as CEO of Mitchell but also became CEO of Dentsu Public Relations Network.”
Still, Mitchell says being a wife and mom are “the best jobs I’ve ever had.” Mackenzie, now 22, is a first-year law student at Penn State. Her brother Jackson, 19, is in his second year at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he plays football. Mitchell’s other baby is a red Honda CBR300R. But to fully understand what riding motorcycles means to her, wait till January and read her book.