PART 2: Suzanne Shelton’s pivot was a wise decision

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series spotlighting Suzanne Shelton, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Shelton Group.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Youth has its advantages, but there are also challenges as Suzanne Shelton says she discovered in her dealings with clients.

“How do you tell a client, ‘This is not going to work’?” At the time, she was 27 years old and in the early period of building her firm. The answer was straightforward, which is characteristic of the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Shelton Group. “We built a research department to prove our clients wrong or right.”

That was nearly 20 years ago just on the cusp of utility deregulation, but it was a major decision that has propelled the Knoxville-based marketing firm to being what Shelton describes as “the nation’s leading marketing firm exclusively focused on sustainability.”

At the time, Shelton Group was also working with clients in areas like higher education and healthcare, so the research that it was conducting covered several sectors. Its early interest in the utility sector was advanced in the early 2000s with an engagement to help TVA’s “EnergyRight® Program.”

By 2005-06, Shelton says the firm had grown to 15 people, but she saw a future that was much larger.

“I paid a consultant to help us with a growth strategy,” she said. “He came back and said we had to specialize.” The competition was sizable in healthcare and higher education, but relatively sparse in the utility sector, so the decision seemed fairly obvious.

“You need to remember that, at this time, 60 percent of our country’s power came from burning coal,” Shelton said. After a year of discussion and efforts to build consensus with her team, Shelton Group’s CEO decided to focus all new business development activities in the energy and environmental industries.

It was a decision that had a significant impact at the outset.

“Eighty percent of the staff left during this period,” Shelton says. Some said that working for utilities would be boring. Others were burned-out, and a few believed it would be much harder work than they wanted to do.

“I had a lot of nights when I was awake at 2 a.m.,” she says, wondering if it was the right decision. The jury is no longer out; it has proven to be a successful growth strategy. Shelton cites a contract with BP Solar where Shelton Group was named the North American agency of record as being a major early success.

It was a great run for four years,” she says of the BP Solar work. “It paved the way for us to recruit nationally.”

As the firm has continued to grow, Shelton cites the in-house research team as a significant differentiator. “Most firms do not have their own research department,” she says. In fact, a third of the firm’s revenue comes from research with another third from working with clients on market strategy and the final third coming from creative activities.

“We publish two or three studies a year that we fund,” Shelton says. “They keep us sharp and knowledgeable, and they are a good business development tool.”

Even as she travels extensively, the Memphis native and University of Tennessee graduate has an interest in her adopted hometown. Yet, as you might imagine, it is centered on the path that she has chosen to grow Shelton Group.

“I’m all about doing something in this community, but not just philanthropy for philanthropy’s sake,” Shelton says. “It has to help make Knoxville a model of sustainability.”

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