Dallas’ PR man about town Andy Stern sells Sunwest after 35 years in the corporate sunshine

October 20, 2017

In late 1976, Andy Stern was looking for a new gig.

President Gerald Ford had lost his re-election bid, and the 27-year-old White House staff assistant was out of a job.

“I wanted to be appointed the interim ambassador to the Bahamas. [Dick] Cheney [chief of staff] laughed at me because, we all wanted to do something silly like that,” Stern says over lunch.

Stern is being typically tongue-in-cheek — or at least I think he is.

Stern’s ability to spin a yarn while giving a peek at high-level maneuverings and backstage social and political drama has made him a mainstay in Dallas public relations.

In 1982, he launched Sunwest Communications with corporate communication strategy as its focus.

Now, after 35 years of running his own agency, Stern, 68, is ready to hand off Sunwest to a new owner so that he can focus on a public health initiative that’s top of his mind. “That’s my project for the next two to four years. I can do that if I don’t have to go sell PR business.”

Besides, in 2019, he’ll turn 70 and have to start drawing from his 401(k), and Sunwest’s lease in One Galleria Tower will be up.

So last month, Stern sold Sunwest to Crayton Webb, 45, a former  KTVT-TV (Channel 11) reporter who most recently headed Mary Kay’s corporate communications and social responsibility departments.

Stern has agreed to hang around for three years as a senior counsel and mensch.

Chance of a lifetime

So why sell to Webb?

In many ways, Webb is Stern 2.0.

Both have political pasts. Webb was Dallas mayor Laura Miller’s chief of staff. Both have corporate PR underpinnings, tight ties with Dallas’ philanthropic community and enviable contact networks that include established journalists in town.

“Investigative reporter,” Stern says. “He’s curious and nosey. Worked for Laura, so he understands City Hall and knows what’s important to Dallas — and that’s getting crazier by the day, trust me.

“And he’s a lot younger,” says Stern. “He’s me 25 years ago coming out of corporate.”

Why would Webb, who is married with four young kids, leave the security of Mary Kay to be the owner and CEO of Sunwest?

Webb wants to earn his own pinstripes by building Sunwest, which has $3.5 million in annual billings, while maintaining its family culture.

“I call this standing on the shoulders of giants. That’s what Andy is,” Webb says. “The number of people who still own their own PR firms in Dallas 35 years later and who were part of Dallas’ mad men of the ’80s is a few to none.”

Less than a handful by my account — and that includes a couple of mad women.

What’s a FedEx?

I’ve worked with Stern since he made his way to Big D in 1977 and took over corporate communications for Wylain Inc. The New York Stock Exchange conglomerate, one of our early corporate relocations, was about to go on a buying binge.

But I’d never heard just how Stern, who grew up in Cleveland and went to college in Delaware, came to be in Dallas after working in the White House.

Dallas PR executive Andy Stern, as a staff assistant in the Oval Office with with President Gerald Ford. (Ricardo Thomas)

For starters, his wife, Sabina, nixed any notion of living with their two kids in New York.

They picked three or four potential jobs in places that they thought might work out for the family.

One was at an upstart in Memphis called Federal Express with a guy named Fred Smith.

“When they asked me to send my resume, I thought I’d be cute and send it via FedEx,” Stern recalls. “The only place you could send a FedEx package from Washington, D.C., at the end of 1976 was at National Airport.”

He met Smith in the company’s office located in an airport hangar.

“I spent the night in Memphis. Looked out the hotel window and thought, ‘I can see Mississippi from here. This is out.’ ”

He thought he’d taken a job with Halliburton and was ready to move to Dallas.

“But in mid-January, [CEO] Tom Cruikshank called and said, ‘We just got indicted by a grand jury in New Orleans, and we think we’re going to hunker down and not hire you.’ ”

He wound up here anyway, first with Wylain and then the Associates Corp. of North America.

Raising profile of PR

In 1981, he went into business with the legendary Dallas ad man Morris Hite and his company, Allcomm, which was formed from the leftovers after selling TracyLocke’s advertising unit to BBDO.

“There was no C-level PR in this town,” says Stern. “Everybody was doing entertainment or social parties. Morris and I saw that as an opportunity. The question was: Would the companies accept us as equals with their lawyers? And they did.”

A year later, Hite was killed in a car crash while headed to the Byron Nelson golf tournament.

Allcomm imploded, with the heads of each subsidiaries going their separate ways.

“That was 35 years ago,” Stern says.

Sunwest handled PR for Exxon and Kimberly-Clark, after they moved here, and for Boeing when their top dogs came to for a look-see. “They made a big mistake,” he says of the one that got away.

When NCNB took over the failed First RepublicBank Corp. in 1988, he and his crew made sure that a yellow rose was placed on every employee’s desk statewide the following Monday morning.

Finding and placing thousands of state flowers on desks in just two days took a world of doing, he says. “NCNB liked it so much that they said, ‘Let’s do it again next year,’ ” Stern recalls.

For the 10th anniversary of DFW Airport, Sunwest did a promotion with KVIL radio celebrity Ron Chapman in which two listeners were picked for a trip around the world on airlines that flew internationally from here. “One was British Caledonian,” he says. “That’ll tell you how long ago that was.”

Sunwest’s future won’t be much different than its past, Webb says. That’s one of his assurances to the agency’s 16 people, who have an average tenure of more than a decade.

“One of the managing directors asked, ‘Do you need to see us at our desks?’ I said that’s the wrong question. ‘Where do our clients need to see you?’ is the right question,” Webb says.

“I know that there’s a lot that I don’t know. So my big job is to follow the old Mary Kay Ash-ism: ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Use them proportionally.’ ”

Andy Stern

Title: Founder and senior counsel, Sunwest Communications

Age: 68

Resides: Far North Dallas

Grew up: Cleveland

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Delaware, 1970

First job after college: White House staff assistant to President Gerald Ford

Personal: Married to Sabina for 45 years. They have two married sons and four grandchildren.

Crayton Webb

Title: Owner and CEO, Sunwest Communications

Age: 45

Grew up: Portland, Ore.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in speech communications and political science, Willamette University in Salem, Ore., 1994

First job after college: Reporter for a TV station in Bend, Ore.

Personal: Married to Nikki for 12 years. They have three sons, 9, 7 and 5, and a 19-month-old daughter.

Sunwest Communications

Headquarters: One Galleria Tower, Dallas

Founded: 1982

Annual billings: $3.5 million

Employees: 16

Speciality: Strategic corporate marketing and public relations and crisis communication

Cheryl Hall, Business Columnist
Dallas Morning News