The Handshake that Changed Everything, with Bernie Swain

04 Sep The Handshake that Changed Everything, with Bernie Swain

My guest today is Bernie Swain. Bernie is the founder of the Washington Speakers’ Bureau, one of the most successful and well-respected speakers’ bureaus in the world. Since launching in 1980, the bureau has represented US presidents, prime ministers from Great Britain, countless American and world leaders, business and economic visionaries, authors, media personalities, sports legends.

Bernie’s bureau represents some of the most successful people and well-respected minds in the world. He knows their well-told and well-known stories as well as many of the behind the scenes stories too. Recently he put all of that in a book called What Made Me Who I Am. In this book, Bernie does an incredible job of collecting a series of lesser-known stories from well-known people. Tales of grit, determination, sometimes involving love, sometimes involving luck, but great stories of real people doing extraordinary things.

So I wanted to have Bernie on to talk about his story and some of his favorite stories from others as well, so let’s get to it.

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INTERVIEW:

Bernie, welcome to DREAM THINK DO.

Thank you, it’s great being here. I appreciate the time you’re sharing with me.

It’s an absolute honor. Often when I have people on for DREAM THINK DO, they walked out a dream and sometimes it was a lifelong dream. Something they dreamed of doing as a little child, but if I’m understanding your story, you weren’t five years old dreaming of someday having a speakers’ bureau.

No.

It sounds like this started in a completely different fashion.

It was totally different. In fact, I was in my early 30s when the change took place. No one in my family, to give you an idea of where I started from, and maybe this will tell the people that are listening to the podcast, that no matter where you begin from, you can succeed in life. No one in my family ever attended college before. In fact, my mother and her family were farmers who grew up in Central Virginia and basically lived off the land. My father, with five sisters, a brother and assorted relatives, grew up in just a two-room house in the poorest of mining towns in West Virginia. When my grandmother couldn’t take care of him, he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. So, when I was in high school, there was never really any conversation in my home about my going to college.

That wasn’t a given. Yeah.

My family, I think, expected me to do well and find a job and succeed and be happy, but there was never any conversation. I had a teacher in high school. He was the athletic director and the football coach and he encouraged me to go to college. In fact, I would have never gone if it hadn’t been for his input and influence in my life. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to be something as a football coach or an athletic director or teach physical education. So, he set me on this path and I went to college and graduated from college. My first job was the football coach and the junior high school ninth grade phys ed teacher at the junior high school I had previously gone to.

Wow.

I spent a year there and went back to school to get a master’s degree and then went on to become the intramural director at George Washington University, and then the assistant athletic director. I was months away from becoming the athletic director at the university when a friend of mine sent me a copy of Fortune Magazine. In the magazine was a story about this lecture agency called Harry Walker. In the article, it told how Harry Walker went to the Gerald Ford White House and signed Gerald Ford, who was the president at the time, Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig to speak for him after they left office. At the end of the article, Henry Kissinger is quoted as questioning the high commission rate that Harry Walker wanted to charge and says, “Why don’t I simply sign with one of your competitors? Harry Walker’s response was, “I have no competitors.”

I took the article home and I left it on the coffee table. A couple days later when I came home, my wife says, “Have you read this article?” She said, “He has no competitors.”

So she sat me down and she said, “You know, you come home two or three times a week and you complain about the bureaucracy of university life despite the fact that you’re on this career path and you’re about to become the athletic director at a university – your dream job. I don’t think you’re ever going to be happy unless you can do something and build something on your own. So, over a period of weeks, she pushed and she prodded me and she convinced me to resign from my job and start a speaker’s bureau with her and the gentleman that sent me the article in the magazine.

We had no plan and we had no experience. We had never run an agency, let alone started a business before. We had no money, so I put a second mortgage on our home and now we had 50,000 dollars of mortgages on a 60,000 dollars house at above 18% interest rate.

Oh my goodness.

We didn’t have money to get an office, so a friend of ours, his name was Chuck Hagel, who would later become the secretary of defense for Barack Obama. Chuck offered to rent us his stationary closet. Now, to give you an idea of what it’s like to start a business in a stationary closet if Chuck needed any stationary equipment, he would come into our closet. If we needed to leave the closet for any reason, we would often have to wait for Chuck’s meetings to be over, because to leave our closet, you had to walk through Chuck’s office, through the secretary’s office just to get out.

It was all glamour, Bernie, is what you’re saying. All glamour.

All glamour. So, we sat in that closet and six months pass and nothing really has changed. We would sit there and we would write letters to different famous people that we could think of and we would get these letters back from lawyers saying, “Don’t write my client, this famous speaker, again. If you do, we’ll sue you.”

Wow.

So, the thing you have to remember about what Harry Walker said in that magazine article about no competitors, back in 1980 when we started the company, there was no internet.

There was no way for us to determine whether Harry Walker’s claim of no competition was true or not true.

Right. You couldn’t go to Google and test that.

You couldn’t look it up in the yellow pages because if there were agencies, they were scattered all over the place.

We soon discovered six months after being in that closet that there were actually seven or eight large agencies throughout the United States and that most of the people we were thinking of were already represented by other agencies.

Wow.

So, 12 months pass and nothing has really changed except for one thing: we were going broke. We had about spent all of our money on mailing lists and brochures which contained people that were available to any organization that you could call direct because they were not exclusive to any agency. We had wasted it on the closet rent and other things. We were about to close the closet door when I get a call from a guy named Steve Bell. Steve was the news anchorman for a news show that had started in 1975 called Good Morning, America.

I had briefly met Steve when I was at the university. I let Steve use the swimming pool for a news story he was doing. Steve had been under one of those written contracts, but this agency hadn’t produced for him and the contract had expired. So, I went over. He had called me on the phone and he said, “Come over and let’s sit down and talk.” I went over there and I asked Steve if we could represent him. We agreed and I shook his hand.

On the way back to the closet to tell my wife that we had just signed our first speaker, I realized that I hadn’t signed him to a written contract. I had merely shaken his hand.

Right, there’s no paper. There’s no pen.

So I get back there and I try to justify my mistake by saying, “Well, what good would it do to hold him to a contract if he’s not happy.” That mistake on my part became a defining moment for us because Steve then went and told other people, his friends, other journalists in Washington, D.C., that if you don’t want to sign a written contract and stuck with an agency for one or two years, you can go with these new guys in town, shake their hand and walk out on them any time you want. That’s how we began. Suddenly within six months to 12 months, we represented four or five Washington journalists and we were on our way.

Gosh, there are so many elements to that. There were so many different opportunities to just throw in the towel, but you guys chose to stay with it. I also love that even though it wasn’t necessarily your immediate or initial strategy, the handshake – a mistake – turned into something that was foundational for you. That’s amazing.

Right, and there were moments in our growth over the years in which we started thinking, “Well, maybe we ought to sign people to a written contract,” but what that handshake did was establish an environment of trust and honesty, because they knew that we were depending on them and they knew we would work hard because they could walk out on us any time. So, we worked hard on their behalf, and that atmosphere and environment of honesty and trust not only developed into relationships with our speakers, but it developed into a relationship with our employees. It developed into a relationship with our customers. We felt an obligation because of the way we had begun the company and how successful that had become to live up to every word and obligation and promise that we made.

That’s amazing. I would imagine that it really did then speak to the culture. If somebody wasn’t there out of obligation because of a contract holding them, they were there out of choice. So having that be top of mind, I’m sure, inspires people to deliver excellence so that your clients will stay.

It made the employees in our company feel empowered as part of the company. They felt obligated to live up to the idea of being honest and trustworthy and working hard and caring about the person that they were dealing with. Not only the speakers they were dealing with and getting work for, but also the organization, so that if they said something, they didn’t have to go back later and say, “Well, yeah, maybe I said it but it’s not in the contract.” That kind of an excuse never took place in our company. We’ve been in business now since 1980, so over 37 years we’ve never signed a speaker with a written contract. It’s all been on a handshake and that’s been three United States presidents, six prime ministers of Great Britain, countless leaders of other countries, journalists and authors and sports legends all on a handshake.

In this day and age, that is amazing. That’s one of the best success stories. I mean, not to mention the list of people, but the greatest success story of being able to continue to do it in that fashion, that’s incredible. I would imagine that really was a part of the tipping point – for Steve to go out and tell all of his friends, “Listen, come over here. It’s a handshake. It’s not a 400-page contract that you’re just gonna feel weighed down by. It’s a handshake.” So I would imagine that was also a part of your continued growth as well.

It was, and you know, if you think about it, any relationship that we have, whether it be with our family or be with the bank where we put our money and write the checks from or the people we buy services from, if you think about it and you give hard thought to it, you realize that what brings you back to that organization again, what brings you close to your family is the idea that you can trust them. That you feel in your heart that they care about you and in return, you know you’re obligated to care about them.

That’s where loyalty comes from.

Wow. That’s amazing. That is so impressive. I love that, especially in today’s day and age, but like you said, it’s one thing to have relationships out of convenience. It’s another thing to have relationships out of obligation, but a relationship based on loyalty and trust is an entirely different thing. I would imagine that especially in this business where you don’t want to be switching speakers all the time, I’m sure adding new great speakers is important, but you don’t want to be having speakers moving in and out in a revolving door. You want those relationships to last.

There’s such a great foundation to it. Think of the conversations you have with your friends and family, and how many times that you will say to them on occasion, “I’m dealing with this person or this organization and this is really great,” or somebody asks you, you know, “What would be your recommendation for using this store or this bank or this organization?” You gravitate to the people who look after you and care for you. It made the job easier for us because we didn’t have to go out and recruit speakers. A year after shaking hands with Ronald Reagan, I get a call from him and said, “Margaret Thatcher’s gonna retire and she’s gonna go with you.” I had never met Margaret Thatcher up to that point.

That happened so many times on so many different levels in our business that we would end up representing somebody that either was not in our top of mind or just up and coming. We get a call in the late 1980s and from somebody in Ronald Reagan’s office or George Bush’s office about a woman working for one of the security agencies. They thought she was going places and thought we should represent her – that was Condoleezza Rice.

Oh my gosh.

So, you see that when you look after other people, they look after you. There’s an example of George Bush looking after us and saying, you know, “This would be a good match because I like this woman and I like this agency and I know I could trust them to take care of her and that she would do a good job for them.”

That’s incredible. I love it, and the fact that that’s still the way you do it is just amazing. The fact that speakers are staying with you because of what you deliver as opposed to out of obligation is just incredible.

Now, I want to switch gears just a little bit. Many DREAM THINK DO-ers, are still in the closet of somebody else’s office trying to make it work.

You guys are in this stationary closet. Things are not happening. You and Paula and then Harry Rhoads, are doing this thing together. What kind of conversations were you having? How did you keep things on track? I know my wife and I run our business together and thank you, God, there have been seasons where it’s been really thin and it seems like there are days where I have all the confidence in the world and she’s a little worried, and then there are other days where I’m worried and she’s got all the confidence in the world, so we balanced out.

It might not seem like it now in the scheme of having 35 plus years of success, but that was a long time. How did you guys keep it on track? What kind of conversations did you have and how did you keep each other encouraged?

Well, I think part of what you said, your relationship with your wife is exactly what I would say to others. The three of us working together was a good match. If one of us did get down, the other one was lifting us up, and every day somebody would come in with a new idea. While we were getting letters from lawyers saying, you know, “Leave us alone or we’re gonna sue you,” we were constantly thinking of new names.

Just to give you an example, when we got Steve Bell, here’s the problem. We’re competing against agencies now. Even though we have our first exclusive speaker, we’re competing with agencies that have many exclusive speakers. Many organizations will come to you and say, “I want two or three speakers,” we couldn’t do that really. We couldn’t get people to answer our phone calls to talk about Steve Bell.

Steve had obviously not done well with the other agency and so there was a track record. So, while we couldn’t get people to answer our phone calls, we sat in the office and we said, “Okay, if we can’t bring these people, if we can’t get to these people, if we can’t get to the end of their office or get them to answer our phone calls, let’s bring them to us.”

We went to a hotel and basically bartered their ballroom in exchange for the business we were going to bring them in the future. We then went to Steve Bell and we said, “Steve, we want you to do a free speech for us. It’s a showcase. We’re just gonna invite people to come and see you speak and hopefully, this will allow people to see us and see you.”

We then spent the rest of our money and sent out invitations to people saying, “Steve Bell will be speaking. It’s free. We’d like you to come. There will be refreshments.” We sent out maybe six or seven hundred hoping we’d get 60 or 70 people. We got four or five hundred people to show up at this event.

Wow.

Now, we’re standing in front of these people and for the very first time, I’m standing up there, my wife is standing up there and our partner is standing up there and they see us, and they see that we’re good people. We’re trying to relate to them and we’re introducing Steve and telling a few funny stories. I have my baby with me because I want them to feel that I’m a family person, that they can trust us. Steve does a great job. We end up getting four or five organizations that wanted Steve Bell within the next two or three days. Then as other journalists came on board over a period of weeks and months, we showcased all of them. Now we’ve established a rapport not only with the speakers we have but with the organizations that book them.

For the people who say, “I just can’t do it. I’m ready to give up,” I stand as an example. The three of us who started this company stands as an example of those who say, “Yes, you can do it.” You just don’t give up, and it’s not as hard as you think not to give up. It’s just surrounding yourself with good people.

Yeah, I love it. I love it. Okay, so, an entirely different question, but I just have to ask it. Especially with over the 35 years plus that you’ve been doing this, I can only imagine the number of events you attended. I know that you’re a successful speaker yourself. Your clients are some of the best in the world. When you think back through all those years, what’s one of those standout experiences? What’s a standout memory for you?

Well, I think the key for me, and it’s the reason I wrote this book and it’s the reason I examine my own life and it’s the reason I came up with this thought about looking at the turning points in our lives and realizing that the turning points in our lives are the things which, if we pay attention to them, can change us. You know, Yogi Berra once said, “When I get to a fork in the road, I take it.”

The problem is that’s what most of us do. We get to a fork in the road, a turning point in our lives, and we pay very little attention to it. So I’m sitting in my office one day and I get a phone call from Alex Haley, the great author of Roots. Alex says, “I’d like to come and meet you.” I said, “Sure, when?” He said, “Look out the window.” He’s waving to me from a phone booth below.

Wow. Alex Haley.

Alex Haley came up to my office and we sat there for several hours. During the conversation, he repeated a phrase to me. “When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning.” Over a period of conversations over months and years, I came to understand what Alex was trying to say to me, and the fact is that each of us has experience in our lives that we need to learn from those experiences, that each of us has turning points in our lives, that if we pay attention to them, we can learn which way to go in life.

That was the reason I started looking at the speakers I represented. I started looking at their lives and realizing that most of the people I’ve represented came from very humble beginnings much like myself and that they succeeded in life because they paid attention to something in their lives that made a great influence and changed their life. Much of our accomplishment in life and our success in our life depends on us paying attention to these turning points.

So, Alex Haley coming to my office that one time and saying to me, “When an old person dies, it’s like a library burning,” I suddenly realized that I had to look at life a lot different than I had before. In meeting all these famous people, the difficulty becomes you start thinking of yourself as more than really you are. I think it would have totally changed my life if it hadn’t been for Alex Haley because I would’ve started to think of myself, “Well, look what a smart, bright, famous person you are because you represent all these famous, bright, smart people.” The reality was, I’m really no different than anybody else who started a company, and the people I represented over the years, many of them never came from anything but humble and modest beginnings and they made something of the turning points in their lives.

That’s awesome. I love the fact that one of your favorite experiences wasn’t necessarily in a room filled with 7,000, 10,000, 25,000 people. It’s you and Alex Haley sitting in your office. I mean, that’s just incredible. It is so, so true that everybody’s got a story to tell. I love your book because it just draws out some of the great stories from great people, but they’re lesser known stories. A number of them, I’d never read before or heard before, so I would know the name but I didn’t know the story and it was so powerful, especially when it comes to those turning points.

Okay, DREAM THINK DO-ers, the book is What Made Me Who I Am. It’s written by Bernie Swain. Go check it out. You will be glad that you did. Bernie, thanks so much for being a part of DREAM THINK DO.

It’s on Amazon and I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn. If you look me up sometime, I’d be glad to answer any questions that anybody has or I certainly will respond because I look at the life that I had where I began from and I know every now and then you need a helping hand and I’m glad to help anybody that wants it. I think the book is good. It’s good because it gives you a lot of stories from other people and you will see yourself in this book.

It’s so, so true. Well, thanks for being generous with that offer as well. I appreciate it, Bernie, and really appreciate the wisdom that you share and the heart that you do it. I can tell you, too, you’ve challenged me to raise my game, to think about where I can inject more handshakes into our business in what we do I love that thought, love that mentality and I appreciate the wisdom.

Well, thank you very much. This has been a great … It’s such an honor for you to allow me to do the podcast with you. Thank you.

Absolutely.

All right, DREAM THINK DO-er, I hope you’re doing awesome.

What’d you think? Gosh, I just loved Bernie’s story. I loved his heart.

One, can you imagine just being in your office talking with Alex Haley? Alex stopped by to chat. Stories like that just pop out. I loved the story of the handshake. I don’t know about you, but man, as an entrepreneur, I always want to try to put my own mark on things. Wherever you’re at in the world, you’re listening to this. You’re a DREAM THINK DO-er. You want to leave a mark. You want to do it differently. You want to do it better. You want to do it with excellence, right? Not because the world says you have to. It’s just who you are. It’s why you do it, right?

I’d love to hear from you!  What stood out to you from all of Bernie’s stories and experiences? What’s something that’s going to stick with you? I’ve love to hear from you.

Leave a comment and let me know.

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