Women Leaders in PR: Margery Kraus On What It Takes to Create a Successful Business

In this week’s installment of the Women Leaders in PR series, we talk with Margery Kraus, who launched APCO Worldwide in 1984. Though the firm is now a well-established, international business, it was once a startup, like many of the organizations that Kraus had worked with before striking out on her own.

For Kraus, the most important factor in having a successful business is being a daring (though strategic) businesswoman. She tells us what exactly that means, and what you need to get your business started.

Tune in next week for the final (bonus!) installment of our Women Leaders in PR series.

Margery Kraus, APCO Worldwide

“You have to know how to seize opportunities, raise money, find money, get the support you need, and build a network of people that endorse what you’re doing.”

These are some of the first words that Margery Kraus, founder and CEO of APCO Worldwide, said to us when we interviewed her for this article. She was talking specifically about the days back in 1971 when she was launching the Close Up Foundation, which provides students in Washington D.C. with civics programs. But she could have been talking about any business at any time.

At its inception, Close Up was “an idea,” says Kraus, without a clear plan or supporters. But Kraus knew she needed to drum up some attention for the new organization. Today, the Close Up Foundation is a successful nonprofit organization with 725,000 alums, funded by the U.S. Congress, Department of Education, C-SPAN, and other groups. She was with the group for 14 years and is still involved with it.

After that, she was approached by the law firm Arnold & Porter to establish a consulting affiliate.

“When I decided to do it, it wasn’t like someone had some grand design,” she says. “I had to figure out how to make something from nothing; leverage the fact that there was an idea, but not resources, and earn a way. It wasn’t so much a scary thing. It was just a fact. No one was going to hand you the business and say this is what you’ll have to do.”

Making a way and starting with a good idea are the two things that each of Kraus’ business endeavors have in common. Kraus says that when she started APCO in 1984, “I’d never worked in an agency. It wasn’t about PR.” Still, APCO is an international PR and public affairs firm with clients that have included Mercedes-Benz, IKEA, and the government of Madagascar.

“It was more about making something happen for clients,” says Kraus. “Communications as part of the solution but sometimes not the total solution.”

From the beginning, she says there was a focus on reaching different target audiences around the world. And she feels that the firm filled (and continues to fill) a need in the market.

Other necessities for creating a successful company: the guts to not be “risk averse at critical times,” such as when deciding to make a big business leap. A little luck. And cash.

“When you get started, you need to have working capital, unless you can go without a salary” she says. “I had three kids and my husband works. I was 38 and had one child on the way to college. So I think you need to have a sponsor.” Having a sponsor includes having financial support and determining whether or not you’ll have a client base.

“It’s hard to convince those first clients that they should trust you when you’re not a proven commodity,” she adds. “Once you do that and start to show results and people appreciate a job well done, then it’s easier to build a business.”

Another factor for Kraus was being a female business owner. “I always thought I could be angry or make this an advantage. You know I’m the one person in that room that’s going to be remembered when that dinner is over. I always had a couple of good ideas that would give people a reason to pay attention.” Nowadays, one must still be mindful of crossing lines when establishing professional relationships between men and women, but more women in the working world has made things easier.

More importantly these days is the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the elections taking place around the world.

“Globally, more than 50 percent of people in the world are having an election or change of government,” says Kraus. “We’re trying to be proactive about the impact that an election is going to have on our clients.” A big focus area is global health and all of the myriad things that touches on, including water issues and sustainability.

Here in the U.S., Kraus expresses concern about the “heated rhetoric” of our presidential election, the “unanticipated consequences” that can have, and all of the money involved.

“There’s too much money that sloshes around during elections and it becomes about who has the most resources rather than who’s the best candidate,” she says.

APCO has a strict “church and state” policy about employees donating to political candidates; support must be separate from day-to-day work.

Where there’s overlap is in marketing disciplines. Last month, APCO announced that it purchased an ad agency, StrawberryFrog. Kraus wrote about it for the Council of PR Firms blog and we discussed the blending of advertising and PR here.

And there’s a balance that’s struck between work life and personal life.

“I’m not only building the firm, but balancing a family — three children, 10 grandchildren, and married 45 years,” says Kraus. “It’s a disservice to think about a career like mine without family values and the relationship to the business. It’s what keep you straight and narrow. The pressure on both sides makes you think about where you have to take things.”

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