Heather Kelly doesn’t back away from challenges — she looks for a difficult task or job as a way to add to her skills and a good way to build a successful career.
That attitude helped her move from an intern’s desk at an Indianapolis branch office of a Chicago public relations firm to the top job in 15 years. While she moved up the executive ladder at what is now SSPR, she helped change the focus of the company from restaurant franchises and new store openings to technology and startups, and moved its headquarters to downtown Colorado Springs, where the agency employs 25 people.
Kelly accepted a three-month internship at SSPR’s Indianapolis satellite office in the summer of 1997 after graduating from the University of Indiana to see if the public relations industry was a good fit. After the internship ended, she was offered an account executive job in the Indianapolis office and was later promoted to vice president, senior vice president, executive vice president, president and became CEO in 2015.
“I knew I wanted to work in media, advertising or public relations, so I took the job to see if it fit. I loved it. I helped companies tell their stories, reporters find sources, I just fell in love with it right away,” Kelly said. “I just kept moving up from there. In terms of growth, I leaned into the hard things. That’s the best way to build your career, by taking on the toughest clients and the most challenging stories to be told.”
Just one year into her career, she thought she might have to find a new job when she and medical student husband Leon Kelly moved to Colorado Springs for his residency at Penrose Hospital. Kelly is now El Paso County’s coroner and has worked most of his career in the Coroner’s Office. Heather Kelly asked SSPR’s then-CEO Steve Simon, to allow her to work from home and a year later she started a tiny branch office in the Springs.
In 2014, former SSPR CEO and owner Steve Simon was grooming Kelly to succeed him as CEO. He died in January of 2015, and Kelly moved the company’s headquarters from Chicago to Colorado Springs after becoming CEO and co-owner of SSPR with Simon’s widow.
Kelly met with The Gazette last month to talk about her journey from intern to CEO.
How did starting as an intern help you later as CEO?
I learned a lot by being an intern — understanding the industry was the hardest part of the job. You learn the daily grind of the press, the names of the reporters and how to help tell your client’s story. It helped form how we do that job today. We want our internships to be a profound learning experience that influences how you shape your career either with us or someone else. I saw things in the industry — it is fast-paced and cut-throat — and I wanted a different culture, so we have opportunities for the staff to get paid time for volunteer work, 24 hours a year. We also allow our employees to have flexible schedules — you can work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. if you want to. Our focus is on getting the work done. I don’t want to miss school events for work, and don’t expect anyone on our staff to either.
How did SSPR end up in Colorado Springs?
We came here for Leon’s residency intending to return to the Midwest after a year. He did a rotation during his residency at the Coroner’s Office and wanted to go back to that office. I asked the agency to allow me to work from home and after a year, I told the CEO I needed people to interact with and asked him to start a satellite office. We opened a small office above the Sparrow Hawk shop downtown, but the intent to have a tiny office morphed into a 25-person office that is now half the company.
How has the public relations business changed since you were an intern?
Just look at how media has evolved. Many have talked about the death of print media, but what happened is that we have gone from a monthly magazine to daily coverage online. People consume media differently now and we have to be able in our industry to quickly adapt to that change. The media industry is constantly changing and we have to be able to live with that. We had dealt with everything for our clients from a hostage situation and an embezzlement to a CEO dying under questionable circumstances.
How did the death of the previous CEO affect you?
He was getting me into a position to take over the organization and we talked a lot about succession. We were planning the transition for seven to eight years. He died during that transition, so it became a transition by fire. Suddenly I was CEO and I had lost my mentor of 20 years. I was missing him at the most difficult time of my career when I needed him most. But I had to pick up the pieces, keep moving and be a leader. Everyone was looking to me on how to react. We kept the name the same as an homage to him — he had started the company in Chicago in 1978.
Who are some of SSPR’s typical clients?
We do a lot of big events with national athletic brands, including one in Chicago affiliated with the World Cup. We work with technology companies, including some in Denver, such as Altruistic Investing in Colorado Springs and Quark software in Denver. We have about 80 clients and they run the gamut from startups to Fortune 100 companies.
What is your goal for the company over the next few years?
I really want to continue to grow the business by helping companies tell their story. Social media will play a bigger role and we will continue to evolve. I see us continuing to grow in Colorado and across the country as we find companies with good stories to tell. A good example is Groupon — we had to educate people on what a group coupon was, and do it during an economic downturn. We found that people wanted to still go out during the recession, so we started with restaurants and local merchants offering online coupons that were only usable if enough of them were sold. I want to stay small enough that everybody in the company has access to me but big enough that we have the tools we need to do the job.
Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.