There was no lack of challenges for Lynn Casey during her first year as CEO of Minneapolis public relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley. The dot-com crash and 9/11 had taken a big bite out of her agency’s business. Padilla had never laid off an employee. “But then,” she recalls, “I had to.” The business case was incontrovertible. “But I figured the world would just end for these five or six people,” Casey says. She was so distracted on the day of the layoffs that she left her car running in the Padilla parking lot for nearly three hours.
-Padilla Speer Beardsley had 85 employees and $8.2 million in revenue when Casey became CEO in 2001.
-The agency’s largest client is BASF.
-PadillaCRT has offices in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Norfolk, Va., Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.
Casey uses the emotions of that day as a guidepost. “It’s a reminder that if I don’t make a difficult decision with that pit in my stomach, I’ve lost my humanity,” she says. Contrast Casey with Steve Jobs, who is viewed by many as the archetype for the transformative CEO in America. He demanded the impossible, instilled fear in his subordinates and pitted his best minds against one another in a war of creative attrition. By this yardstick, Lynn Casey would arguably be deemed a failure. But by any objective measure, and many subjective ones, she’s the consummate success story.
“My leadership is rooted in a concept known as ‘servant-leadership,’ ” Casey says. “It’s based on the idea that the traditional command-and-control dynamic doesn’t work anymore, especially in service businesses.” A servant-leader puts people ahead of his or her own power, instead focusing on helping employees develop and perform at their highest level.
“We have an incredible tradition of servant-leaders in the Twin Cities,” Casey says. “Win Wallin [Medtronic], Bill George [Medtronic], Chuck Denny [Honeywell], Mary Brainerd [HealthPartners], and others. They lead from a position of inclusiveness.”
Casey, a Bismarck native, has led the agency now known as PadillaCRT for 13 years. She brought it through the post-9/11 downturn and led it through a sizable merger last year. “Lynn is the face of Padilla,” says Dave Mona, retired founder and chair of Weber Shandwick Minneapolis, and one of Casey’s longtime competitors. “She will be very difficult to replace.”
Casey hadn’t aspired to be that face. “I grew up thinking I would not want to become a leader,” she says. “I spent my time building skills competencies.” So when CEO John Beardsley approached her in 2000, Casey was not expecting it. “I was building the business outside of the local market,” she says. “He said, ‘How about getting off the road and succeeding me?’ ”
An intensive retreat at the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina—where “they shrink you to complete introspection in front of a group of your peers”—convinced Casey she could do it, in her own way. “My challenge was not leading others,” she says. “It was convincing myself.”
Under Casey’s leadership, Padilla has evolved, along with its remaining peers, from a traditional media-outreach public relations agency to a one-stop shop of communication and marketing services, including advertising, website design, and content creation and management. “I have watched peers turn their backs on new ways,” she says. “There will always be a place for working with media in our business. But I have seen those who don’t take necessary risks go out of business.” Responding nimbly to the changes in the industry has been key to her success as Padilla’s leader. “I would never have been in this role this long,” Casey says, “if I had been closed-minded to those opportunities.”
The biggest of those opportunities was the acquisition in 2013 of CRT/tanaka, a Virginia-based agency nearly Padilla’s size. “I was looking for a small New York-based agency that was consumer/food-and-beverage-focused,” Casey says. “It’s difficult to get traction in that business from the Midwest. CRT was larger than we envisioned, but it was in the right spaces.” With the merger, Padilla has added such clients as Hass Avocado Board and Wines from Rioja to its existing portfolio, which includes Allianz Life, SAP, Rockwell Automation and 3M.
The Twin Cities has long been disproportionately influential in national advertising, marketing and PR, but in the consumer arena, “some decision makers believe that New York-based firms have better talent, so we had to bow to that reality,” Casey says. The alternative was to be acquired by one of the many agencies controlled by the vast marketing holding companies—an Omnicom, Publicis or Interpublic. As a servant-leader, Casey saw being absorbed into those behemoths as something “that would kill our culture.”
Part of that culture Casey zealously guards is Padilla’s status as an employee-owned company. “It’s much easier when everyone has an ownership mindset,” she says. “And it is a mindset. We try to keep a flat organization. If we have a good year, everyone gets a bonus. Everyone is incented on behalf of clients. It’s on me to make the workplace experience different and special.” That means, she says, being open about finances and strategy, having leadership that is visible and approachable, and “living a strong commitment to pro bono work.”
Though Casey has no plans to retire, she does say that the main job in what remains of her time as CEO will involve fully integrating CRT into Padilla. She says that the effort will take “a few years” and that (as with any merger) it is not without its pitfalls. “I would like to see it through,” she adds. “But I’ve asked my colleagues to level with me if I’ve outlived my usefulness.”
Casey’s efforts on behalf of Twin Cities nonprofits may be an even greater legacy than her impact on the public relations field. She recently ended her tenure as chair of the Minneapolis Foundation’s board and is the incoming chair of the local United Way. “She really puts in her time and rolls up her sleeves,” says Sarah Caruso, Greater Twin Cities United Way CEO and president. “Lynn is very effective in taking ideas and concepts and helping us make them resonate with a broader audience, which helps us become more motivating to donors. She just has impeccable judgment.”
Casey looks back on her tenure with some bemusement. “It’s been a good period to have a high tolerance for ambiguity and change,” she says, of a landscape rocked by tectonic changes in how people gather information and communicate. “Folks like me are having the time of their life.”
Lynn Casey's Timeline
Born in Bismarck, N.D.
Earns master’s in mass communications from the University of Minnesota.
Joins Minneapolis PR agency Brum & Anderson.
Earns MBA from University of St. Thomas.
Brum & Anderson merges with Padilla & Speer.
Padilla Speer Beardsley establishes employee stock ownership program.
Wins Alumni Award for Excellence from U of M School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Named nonprofit director of the year by Minnesota Chapter, Women on Boards.
Padilla named Holmes Report’s Best Large Agency to Work For.
With fellow local executives at a Habitat for Humanity “CEO Build” in 2010.
Receiving 2011 JA award, with senior vice president Tom Jollie (left) and husband Mike Thornton.
Padilla acquires CRT/tanaka.