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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Harold Burson

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-13

Harold Burson of Memphis, who turns 85 on Wednesday, is still going strong at the public-relations company he founded 53 years ago.

"No one ever told me it was time to leave," the chairman of Burson-Marsteller said. "It's been a journey beyond my expectations. I have had the same wife [Betty] for 58 years, lived in the same house for 51 years, I've had the same breed of dog [West Highland white terrier] for 40 years. Given the chance, I wouldn't change any of that - especially appearing at my office at 230 Park Avenue South every working day I am in New York."

In view of his accomplishments, those words seem startlingly modest. They don't quite take into account how a boy from modest circumstances in Tennessee created what became one of the world's biggest public-relations agencies. Neither does it factor in what Mr. Burson's friend and colleague, Michael Claes, refers to as the "legendary status" of the man.

To hear Mr. Burson tell it, the journey from Memphis to the glories of New York - where BM has its headquarters -was, if not linear, at least relatively straightforward. Throw in a canny ability to spot opportunities, toss in a facility to seek mentors and learn from them, work your capillaries off, listen to people, and observe, observe, observe.

There you have it - Harold Burson's version of what it takes to succeed not only in public relations and advertising - his company's forte - but also in life.

He is a sprightly, wiry man, tidily turned out, so avuncular that it's easy to be lulled into a reverie by his Tennessee twang and down-home anecdotes. But Mr. Burson watches you carefully as he speaks, anticipating questions, assessing how his words went over.

Not for nothing is he known as a raconteur. His verbal journey through 96 cities around the world - from Alma Ata to Zurich - where Mr. Burson's company has offices is replete with vignettes of meeting titans of business, media mavens, and political strongmen. His clients have included Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, DuPont, Altria, Johnson & Johnson, the United States Postal Service, and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

To put it another way, his life mirrors the trajectory of the modern world.

"I truly believe the years I have lived - 1921 to 2006 - are the most interesting sequential 85 years in all of history," Mr. Burson said. "Just think of all the changes people of my age have seen and experienced. Radio was new - first crystal sets with earphones and then radio consoles that became status symbols in middle-class living rooms; now we are bedazzled by the ever-changing progression of doodads that send and receive information and entertainment. Air travel as late as 1935 was still a novelty; about four decades later American astronauts walked on the moon. I remember the milk man delivering the milk and the iceman delivering the ice in horse-drawn wagons at a time when the staple cure-all medicines were aspirin, calomel, castor oil and paregoric and a long distance telephone call was a special event. I remember the first coast-to-coast newscasts - CBS and Edward R. Murrow - when Hitler's armies violated the Polish border in 1939.

"I remember people going to the movies - tickets cost 10 or 15 cents before 6 p.m., or wandering the aisles of downtown department stores seeking relief from the summer heat in my home town's only air-conditioned buildings," he said. "As I enter the second half of my ninth decade, no one can deny the rapid evolution to a higher order in almost every material aspect of life. In science, communications, medicine and technology generally, the progress has been mind-numbing."

"I believe that people's lives consist of defining moments," Mr. Burson said. "World War II was a cataclysm in the lives of my generation - I was almost twenty when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I was an enlisted man with a Combat Engineer Group in Europe the better part of two years. I saw first-hand the flattened cities of Germany and the ravages of almost six years of war in other countries. The impression it made on me - one of opportunity, rather than despair - undoubtedly contributed to the decision to take Burson-Marsteller overseas in 1961. That - coupled with my earlier exposure to parents whose roots were in Europe."

His father Maurice was born in Leeds, in the English Midlands, and his mother, Esther, came from Poland. Maurice Burson had been gassed during World War I while fighting for the British against the Germans, and his lungs were irreparably damaged.

After the war, the Bursons left Britain to settle in Memphis. He was taught to read from the age of 3 by his father, who used local newspapers as a textbook.

Because of the older Mr. Burson's health problems, Esther Burson was the main earner in the family, selling clothes door-to-door in what was primarily a black neighborhood.

"I learned about diversity and tolerance when I was very young," Mr. Burson said.

The young Harold also learned quite early about the workplace. At 13, he was hired by the Memphis Commercial Appeal as its high-school correspondent, and so enamored he became of journalism and so prolific at filing articles that soon he was making $60 a month - a significant sum in those days.

That income enabled him to go through the University of Mississippi. He was, of course, active on the campus newspaper, scoring a scoop with an interview with William Faulkner.

That interview was generously cited by Joseph Blottner in his definitive biography of Faulkner. Mr. Burson, to this day, keeps track of everything written about the Nobel laureate; his friend, the writer and scholar Mira Kamdar, said yesterday that she often receives clippings from Mr. Burson of Faulkner tidbits.

His correspondence with Ms. Kamdar is typical of Mr. Burson's dealings with people. Mr. Claes - who is married to Ms. Kamdar - calls it his "connectivity."

"I think it's a combination of manners, friendship, and genuine curiosity," Mr. Claes said.

Those characteristics were in display from the start of Mr. Burson's professional life in Memphis. While covering a union dispute as a reporter for the Commercial Appeal, he was recruited by an engineering company headed by Harold Ferguson of Cleveland. Ferguson mentored him, and took the young man on business trips to Washington and New York.

"He was a master salesman, and my job was my Harvard MBA - I learned so much in that time," Mr. Burson said of Ferguson.

He learned, for example, how to size up people within 30 seconds of meeting them. He learned how to be adaptable. He learned to hold his tongue, guard his opinions, and listen carefully. He learned that it was important to share credit with one's colleagues if a leader was to succeed.

He learned the value of partnership when he teamed up with William Marsteller, who ran an industrial advertising agency in Chicago and Pittsburgh, to form Burson-Marsteller in 1952. He learned how essential it was that employees feel invested in their company: BM workers got the opportunity to acquire their company's stocks from the start of their employment.

And Mr. Burson learned the value of identifying and hiring people of integrity, no matter what their background or cultural ethos.

"To everyone I've ever worked with, I say, 'Work hard, and work hard at networking," Mr. Burson said. "Other people can make you look good."

When he's hiring, he looks for smarts. He looks for highly motivated people. He looks to see if that person is a good communicator, especially in writing. He looks for the ability to be a good team member. He looks for "presence" in a potential employee.

And of all the counsel he's dispensed to colleagues - especially young men and women - what would he say was the most critical?

"Be scrupulous, always be honest - which doesn't mean you're obligated to tell the public everything you know about your client - and always keep in mind that if you find the right leverage point, you can achieve almost anything," Mr. Burson said.

So how's he going to celebrate his 85th birthday on Wednesday? Anything special?

"I'll be at my office by 8:30 in the morning," Mr. Burson said. "Am I really 85 already? I stubbornly believe there's no such thing as old age."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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