PART 1: Starting a firm in Knoxville was not in Suzanne Shelton’s plans

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first 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

Like a number of entrepreneurs who have started businesses, particularly those in the creative space in Knoxville, Suzanne Shelton is not a native of the region.

The Founder of Shelton Group grew-up in Memphis and came east to attend the University of Tennessee (UT). “I had no intention of staying in Knoxville,” she told us in a recent interview. “I wanted to be a Creative Director at a big ad agency in New York or Chicago.”

Yet, nearly 30 years after graduating from UT Knoxville’s College of Communication and Information, Shelton is Chief Executive Officer of a national firm headquartered in the Old City that is focused on energy and the environment.

“To our knowledge we are the nation’s leading marketing firm exclusively focused on sustainability,” she says. “We’ve been exclusively focused in this areas for 13 years. The first couple of years (after pivoting from working in a handful of sectors) were particularly challenging.”

Considering the area that the Shelton Group has chosen as its specialty, its leader admits that there are challenges in continuing to call Knoxville home.

“None of our clients are here,” Shelton says. “The bulk of our revenue comes from clients in Texas, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. That means I’m on planes all of the time.”

Yet, she freely admits that’s a challenge she’s decided to take on.

“I make the choice to live here every day,” Shelton explains.

Add to the airline miles that she accumulates annually another challenge: recruiting talent.

“Knoxville’s not Atlanta or even Nashville – there really aren’t any global or national marketing agencies here,” Shelton says. “As we’re recruiting people, they often say, ‘If it doesn’t work out here, there’s nowhere else to work.’”

How did the Shelton Group come into being? Its Founder admits she did not intend to start a firm when she graduated from UT in 1989. Her goal, as noted earlier, was to work for a big city ad agency. Unfortunately, it was one of those economic downtimes.

“I had to put together an ad campaign for myself,” Shelton says in explaining how she pursued her first full-time job. She targeted 30 to 35 agencies and was hired by a local agency. When business slowed down and layoffs started, she wondered if she would be the next person terminated. Instead of waiting and wondering, Shelton took the bull by the horns.

“I contacted a friend at Philips Magnavox to see if there was any contract work,” she said. There was some . . . writing nine brochures.

Seeing that she might be able to have the best of both worlds, Shelton proposed shifting to a part-time role at the agency while continuing to provide some non-competing services on her own. What was the reaction? “They basically told me to not let the door hit me on my way out,” Shelton says. “Poof; I had a business.”

So, between gigs as a drummer in a local band to help pay the bills and an early four-month contract with the old Watson’s Department Store that lasted four years, Shelton was off to the races. She also worked with WBIR-TV on its separate cable channel named TNI.

As she progressed into the middle part of the 1990s, Shelton also made a decision that is arguably one of the hallmarks of her business.

NEXT: The Shelton Group’s reputation for market research.

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