The CEO of Caissa Public Strategy on crisis management, supervising drill sergeants, and beating Nashville.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
Brian Stephens arrived in Memphis 14 years ago having taken a path less traveled. From Lakeland, Florida (his hometown), to Boone, North Carolina (college at Appalachian State), from infantry duty in Kuwait (Desert Storm) to Tulsa (law school), Stephens has managed to settle in the Bluff City — with his wife and 8-year-old daughter — only after stretching the norm in career-building pursuits. Now CEO of Caissa Public Strategy, Stephens specializes in making the problems and challenges of other businesses his own. Any crisis can be “won,” according to Stephens, but only when you put the right people in the right position. A position where success becomes expected, if not inevitable.
According to Stephens, public strategy firms — you’ll find scores in Washington, D.C., and one here in Memphis — are born either from existing law firms that need more marketing tools (like Caissa when formed in January 2011) or from a marketing company that adds the legal elements. “I’m not a public relations guy,” says Stephens. “My primary business is crisis management. We deal [with clients] when there’s a problem, a threat, or when there’s somebody against you. We’re specialists at it. A public relations firm might deal with one crisis a year. I deal with that weekly. Our job is to navigate clients out of pickles. Could be an internal problem or the classic: What if one of your trucks hits a bus? How do you deal with that? And with a finite deadline. It’s either a win or a loss by a certain date.”
Caissa’s nine-person team — which includes former City of Memphis CAO Rick Masson — typically serves around 20 active clients, with several more in the background, Caissa on retainer. Members of the team are each tasked with managing a client’s growth within his or her specialty. (If a conflict is government-related, expect a call from Mr. Masson.) Still establishing itself as a young company, Caissa already has clients beyond the Mid-South. Stephens cites a recent land-use issue in Florida, for which Caissa hired a local PR firm to drive the client’s message and a law firm to handle the legislative process. “I’m the primary crisis guy,” notes Stephens, “and some clients just have needs in the public-strategy arena.”
During his time in the Army, Stephens found himself supervising drill sergeants twice his age, which made for an interesting test of leadership skills. “As officers, we had to learn how to manage those personalities,” Stephens says. “We were there to make sure they don’t go off in a different direction, but also to give them enough latitude to train the privates as the military saw fit. They had their methodology, so you had to let them go but motivate and keep them constrained a little bit. Because sometimes a drill sergeant could go off the wire. You had to deal with a delicate hand. The blessing of military school [for me] was that I’d been under people like this for years. First day, I said to one of them, ‘Tell me where to stand — so I don’t make an idiot of myself — and tell me what you need to do your job well. I’ll get those things and stay out of your way.’ We got along fine.”
Stephens formed and sold three start-up companies before his 35th birthday, but emphasizes he learned most from the last, a “god-awful” experience with an organic lawn-care company. “There was a niche, and we grew that company for more than two years,” explains Stephens, “all with the purpose of selling it. But it took a nosedive when the economy did [in 2008]. We had to break it up into pieces and sell it in 2010, at a loss. You can win in a good economy or a bad economy, but we didn’t see [the collapse] soon enough. We didn’t make adjustments fast enough. We were the leaders [the company had four partners], we were in charge, and that’s the end of it.”
Spending his workdays evaluating the strengths — and frailties — of others, Stephens noticeably pauses when asked to evaluate his own brand of leadership. “The one thing I think is important is being direct,” he says. “That means you have to say ‘no.’ I don’t have a lot of patience with someone who isn’t interested in growing as a human being. You’ve got to grow and expand. Read. We have a book-of-the-month program; everyone reads the same book, theme-related. So we can discuss and maybe challenge the concepts of the book. That’s half the fun.” (Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City was a recent title.)
Stephens identifies a pivotal leadership role Caissa plays in helping clients achieve that essential growth: an accountability partnership. “We sit down with you and look over the plan we produced and developed together,” he says. “Did you meet these goals? Did your teammate meet these objectives? If not, why? There are things you can count at the end of the year to see if the plan worked. I won’t do strategic plans now unless that’s part of the deal. Being judged and held accountable is tough. But if you want to get better, you’ll do the hard things. Even when you’re nervous and scared, you’ve got to push through it anyway.”
An avid (and competitive) mountain biker, Stephens raises money for charitable causes by riding with Boscos Cycling and, when able, travels to compete in races ranging from 75 to 120 miles long. While Memphis may be mountain-free, the city has other extraordinary virtues, some Stephens feels aren’t appreciated as much locally as they are from afar. “People who grow up here don’t [always] understand how cool Memphis is,” he says. “[They think] the grass is greener the on other side. I don’t want to be Nashville. I want to beat Nashville. Let’s win!
“There’s change going on, and this is exciting,” says Stephens, who formerly served as Shelby County Election Commissioner. “Some great people are moving on: John Moore at the Greater Memphis Chamber, Larry Cox at the airport. I’d like to see the leaders of the community take a more active role in selling Memphis outside of Memphis. Tour the world. Tour the nation. Bring in companies that will bring jobs. Everyone already here will feed off that.”
Is there a chance long-distance fans of Memphis love the city merely for its association with barbecue and Elvis Presley? Says Stephens, “Who cares?! We don’t have to be everything to everybody. There are people who will move companies here because we have a low cost of living, a good climate, and barbecue and Elvis. Anytime you have something different and unique … brand it. And sell it. Somebody will buy it.”
Stephens is a board officer for Leadership Memphis. For more information on Caissa Public Strategy, go to caissaps.com.