News defined the careers of Clyde Lee and Diane Willis for a combined five decades. And it was the nation’s biggest news event of the last decade-9/11-that served as an ominous backdrop for the duo’s first entrepreneurial venture.
“We incorporated in August 2001, and less than a month later, 9/11 hit, and we thought, ‘Oh my,'” Lee recalled.
But more than four years later, Lee/Willis Communications is still standing-and prospering.
The fiscal swoon that followed 9/11 caused many companies to scale back on the public relations and communications services Lee/Willis offered, but the small firm persevered, gained a foothold, and grew exponentially during those formative years.
Lee and Willis became household names in Indianapolis, co-anchoring the evening news for WRTV-TV Channel 6 for 14 years. Both were award-winning journalists. Lee built a reputation covering a variety of topics, from health care to motorsports, while Willis collected Emmy Awards for reporting on everything from natural disasters to foreign wars.
In January 2000, the duo married and later that year began to consider leaving WRTV to start a business.
Lee said the two “reversed the polarity” of their careers by forming a firm specializing in public relations, crisis communications and training corporate executives to deal with the media.
Based more on intuition than a formal business plan, Lee/Willis Communications snagged three clients its first year, doubled that its second year, and now has 12 clients. Willis said two more “are waiting in the wings,” and she hopes the total will climb to 16 by late 2006.
“Just from talking to people, sources and other contacts, while at [WRTV], we assumed the need [for Lee/Willis Communications],” Lee said. “We started with no commitments from potential clients. Maybe that wasn’t very business-savvy.”
Though Lee and Willis won’t divulge their client list, they mentioned work for Hanover Col- lege, the Lumina Foundation and the Indiana Children’s Trust Fund, their first client.
Lee said the duo’s personal income is at least as high as it was when they anchored at WRTV, an amount estimated at $300,000 combined, according to salary statistics kept by the Radio Television News Directors Association. Lee wouldn’t disclose the firm’s financials.
Simplicity equals success
Though they lacked a business plan, Lee and Willis made several moves that made success more likely. They kept overhead low-not hiring any staff, renting a small office at Woodfield Crossing near 86th Street, and taking on no investors. Lee and Willis forked over a few thousand dollars for computers, cell phones and BlackBerries, some business cards and letterhead, and little else.
The couple also decided not to bill clients by the hour. After assessing a client’s needs, Lee and Willis estimate the total cost of the project.
“We work on straight retainer,” Lee said. “And if the project requires more work than we anticipated, we simply do it.”
Lee/Willis, despite offering marketing services for clients, does little formal marketing of its own.
“In public relations, I don’t think you can chase business,” Lee said. “For us, it’s been word of mouth.”
The pair’s straightforward approach is one thing that attracted Hanover College’s Rick Haskins.
“You know what you’re going to get with them,” said Haskins, Hanover’s vice president for advancement. “One of the things that has always impressed me is their integrity. No matter what, they don’t cut corners.”
Lee/Willis has helped Hanover gain media attention and promote several of the school’s programs and offerings in multiple markets, including Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Louisville.
Confidence born of journalism
Part of the duo’s confidence in launching their business came from their journalistic background.
“I think it would be tough to beat us in dealing with the media, just because of the experience we’ve had,” Lee said.
Not only does that help in crisis communication, Willis said, it also helps them craft corporate messages in a way that gains the most media attention.
“We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work,” Willis said. “We know what makes a good story and know how to pitch a story. And we aren’t afraid to tell a client they don’t have a story or we need to put more meat on it.”
It would be difficult to match Lee’s and Willis’ backgrounds, said WISH-TV Channel 8 News Director Tom Cochrun, because so few broadcast news anchors leave those plum jobs.
“Their name recognition alone has great impact and value,” said Cochrun, who left an anchor position at WTHR-TV Channel 13 in 1995 to found Nineteenth Star video production firm. “It gives them a lot more instant credibility than they would have otherwise. And they have a distinct advantage coming from inside a newsroom. There’s no way to replicate that kind of experience.”
But Cochrun said Lee’s and Willis’ pasts are no guarantee of a successful future in business. Amid financial challenges in 2003, Nineteenth Star faded away.
“Clyde and Diane are probably finding they’re working harder now than they ever have,” Cochrun said. “At WRTV, they didn’t have to worry about who was writing the checks. Now, they have to create a revenue line. It’s all on them.”
Letting go: The bird in the hand
So why leave the anchor desk?
“You’re starting to run out of real estate when you get to [age] 50,” said Lee, 56. “I had spent 30 years in journalism and I was ready for another challenge. I had always considered running my own business.”
As exciting as news anchoring is, Cochrun agreed there’s nothing quite like operating your own business.
“If you have an entrepreneurial itch and a sense of adventure, sometimes the desire of starting your own company is something that’s difficult to resist,” he said.
Lee, who worked at TV stations in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi before coming to Indiana more than two decades ago, said he was ready to give up the constant nighttime grind and also sought to step out of TV’s limelight.
Willis, 57, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Augastana (Illinois) College and earned master’s degrees from the University of Chicago and University of Missouri, spent six years teaching English and journalism before becoming a broadcast journalist. She said she was less ready than Lee to leave the anchor desk.
“[Broadcast news] satisfied me in ways that nothing ever will,” Willis said. “But the world changes and life changes. And you have to change with it.”
Willis still keeps her hand in broadcast work. She recently returned from Morocco, where she worked on a documentary about children and orphanages there.
Overall, Cochrun said, Lee and Willis have made their transition look almost easy.
“Clyde and Diane haven’t merely relied on their reputation and name recognition to build their company,” Cochrun said. “That would have been the easy way to try to do it. They’ve proven in the [public relations] industry that not only are they very good communicators, but they’re very good at putting together a message and articulating what works on air and in print.
“In the end, that’s going to carry them a lot further than who they were in their previous careers.”