Mike Pigott, Mark McNeely, Katy Varney, and Keith Miles

Recorded June 11, 2008 Archived June 11, 2008 01:01:17 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: NPL000337


These 6 business partners came to the booth to tell the story of the beginning, growth, and success of their company, McNeely, Pigott, and Fox.

Subject Log / Time Code

Mark explains how he came to found McNeely, Pigott, and Fox, then known as McNeely and Associates.
Mark talks about the company being voted one of the best places to work in Nashville, and why he thinks that is so.
David tells a story about the company retreats, and Mark and Katy singing “I’ve Got You, Babe” with a karaoke machine.
Katy shares what she’s proudest of with regard to the company.
Keith shares his hopes for the future of the company.


  • Mike Pigott
  • Mark McNeely
  • Katy Varney
  • Keith Miles

Recording Location

Nashville Public Library


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00:00 All right. Have fun.

00:05 Give me all that for a day.

00:15 I'm Dave Coulier. I'm 46 years old today is June 11th 2008. We are at the Nashville Public Library. And this is the partner. We we are the partners from McNeely pigott and fox and Keith miles on 51 and a business partner at M P and F.

00:35 Hi, Mike. Pigott. I'm 54. Today is June 11th 2008. I'm at the Nashville Public Library, and I'm with Benelli picking and talks to

00:45 I'm Mark McNeely Fox 58. I'm Katy Varney, and I'm only 51.

00:54 And I'm David Fox on 57 in a partner in PNF.

01:01 Okay. So how did the how did this partnership get started to begin with?

01:08 Mark Mark Mark, we don't have time in 30 minutes. Started started as a one-person operation not because we wanted it to because we can figure out how to do it financially couldn't figure out how to how to drive enough Revenue YouTube. I have a baby fox and Mike pigott myself a hole in a business together when we didn't have any clients or know what we were doing. So I kind of try to be the guinea pig and see if we can do it that way and it started off as a one-person operation in 1987. Mckneely & Associates. Mike came and joined with me and November of 1988 after about 11 years at the banner.

02:04 12 mile and a half of winning every I think conceivable reporting award there was two to put to receive and daily journalism in the state of Tennessee and David came a year just a little over a year after that. And so we had talked as a reporter friends for years about in a business together and finally when David came in 1990, we we struggle around for about another year before we change the name to McNeely pigott and fox from McMillan Associates, and then things started really moving.

02:44 Hey Mike, you want to talk about when it was McNeely and Associates were one of the things we used to do tomorrow is very proud of starting the business and he was in what people call the Darth Vader building downtown which was a new skyscraper and it was operating from an APA sweet there any call Dan McNeely and Associates, but it was really just Mark you know it and so is a joke we call and ask to speak to his associates all the time, and and he finally had to take David and me and so that he really did have some people that worked with him, I guess.

03:21 Can I can I just jump to hear? Okay, so so I joined the company and in 90 and we were McNeely and Associates and the decision to change the name was driven by the fact that we had to use all the stationary up that said Haley and Associates. If it before we could change the name so finally in like it was October of 1990. I went to lunch with this this guy Brian Sullivan from Anglo American Auto Auction to basically said we were going to he was going to offer us an opportunity to go to work with them. They would become a T T Automotive and then get bought by Mannheim and I came back from that lunch and we sat in Mark's office and said we were going to have to make a presentation to the CEO of the company in 2 weeks.

04:17 And we basically said we need to go ahead and change the the thing for the purposes of this presentation and then we're out of stationary. So that was what led to the tonight cuz I wanted when I came in it was McNeely pigott and fox and then I was the partner who joined after Fox. I thought we had a change it to McNeely pigott and foxes.

04:42 Mark that first year your your total salary was what for your total. What would the company made the first year the company grossed almost $12,000 and then 21 years later. We did what I must

05:03 8 million

05:06 Net-net

05:16 We're the largest public relations firm in Nashville, the largest public relations firm in Tennessee, and one of the three or four largest independent public relations firm in the Southeast and we've got

05:31 Staff of 70 and it is an amazing group of people and the success of the company is all because of the people that work there and the kind of wacky way that we've managed the company not exactly the best business model, but one that keeps us looking forward to coming to work every day.

05:55 Keith talk a little bit about our vision. And what does make us who we are, you know, I think one of the one of the important things one of the things that the story I most enjoyed is Big because I was also a reporter and and and even though I'm much younger and handsomer than the first three was vaguely aware of them has these kind of titans of Journalism in thin and I played around the periphery but but journalism was a hard business it's still a hard business and and and is really a place of tough deadlines and in a kind of a tough work place in and and I so remember Mark in Mike and Dave a talking in those early days about you know, we've worked for some real Knuckleheads in and we want to create the kind of place where we want to come to work and then where people want to come to work for us in and really I think if there is

06:53 If there's a major Legacy, I think the really think that's it that you can you can see on all the faces of everybody who comes in there in the morning that that they're really excited about coming to work every day and then learn a new things and being treated with respect and and and I you know, I just think that's probably the key to our success and it's the the one in during thing that will probably leave long after we're gone.

07:19 I think one of the things that you know, we want a lot of awards including national awards, but one of the things we've been most proud of is a fact that we were voted best place to work or one of the best places to work in Nashville. And I think that means as much to everybody is as anything to have to her employees about her company to be one of the best places to work as a makes you feel good.

07:43 Telephone visits perfected NBA came in here that tell you break every Rule and it's and it's been such a successful business. Wow of the people in this partnership and Beyond the partnership being such great friends and then kind of watching each other's children grow and and families come together and I'm coming apart and come back together and it's it's an amazing journey from that perspective to be such a successful place and and I was so much positive energy.

08:20 Katy I know you were actually talking about the the the the kind of corporate philosophy and and I'm always amazed because it does defy every model that we run by consensus. It's not a democracy in our partnership. It's very much of Quaker consensus, which is due to you mark not because your Quaker cuz you're not but I don't know why that works.

08:56 Keith or Mike said, you know newspaper newspaper newsrooms work back then when we did it. We're nasty smoke-filled dirty grimy filled with cynical.

09:16 I still have a bit of cleaning that I bet they really just weren't weren't nice work work places. But yeah, and then plus we every one of us were involved in political campaign. That's another great example of a case study in and garden backstabbing in it for yourself instead of the team and let them so it's not that hard to try to just take the things you didn't like about those environments and try to try at least two to structure a workplace that allow those things but just discourages him and done in fridge and where they are encouraged in those other work settings. And so, you know, we don't we've got great people that are very competitive with our competitors and they are they'll compete in many different ways among themselves, but they don't try to compete.

10:14 Against themselves

10:18 I think we have to tell some story but I don't know that I have a great one right off the top of my head by the concept of the company came about was it as typical newspaper reporters back in the

10:38 1980s I guess early 1980s David and Mark and I would go and have a two or three beer lunch somewhere and and talk about the things that were wrong with the world and how we can straighten out if we just had an opportunity. And so one time this discussion went beyond the normal kind of, you know, joking around about about others but talk more about how we could all come together and do something as a group starting our own business at the time. We thought there was some good people in the public relations business, but that there was a there was a void in the area of of people who understand who understood both the media and government in wrote. Well, it had all three of those

11:24 Components and so we are one of these lunches pulled out of cocktail napkin and Mark actually started writing down. He'd already been giving some serious thought to this obviously because he had numbers in time tables in the outside of sorts of details that he wrote out on think more than one cocktail napkin before we were through but the original plan for our company was drawn. It was Applebee's restaurant cocktail napkins over on Elliston Place in Nashville, and then we all kind of walked away and came to our senses and decide we got to go back and you could grab that regular paycheck and it was a year or two years or I know how long after that. Mark V Mark called and said, hey guys, I've gone ahead and done it and Dave and I are kind of ticked off really even made we didn't feel as if that wasn't on the napkin. But but the truth of the matter is the Applebee's discussion.

12:24 China disintegrated when we couldn't come to a consensus David thought the name McNeely was a good company named act out the name Cade McNelly Fox was a good company name and she there were all sorts of different combinations and I figured the only way I'd ever get the name first is to do it first.

12:53 There's a lot I mention competitiveness and and that's one of our strengths we weave weave weave succeeded very well for our class because we we we just got a competitive nature and anybody who has spent any time with Katy Varney or or Dave Coulier or any of these people around the table know that I wanted to famous stories in our place is about mr. Cooley and and his encounter with a nun who is running a hospital in Chattanooga Dave. You want to talk about that. We were young we were working for a Catholic Hospital in Chattanooga and we were all around the table with the employees of the hospital and the chief executive officer you happen to be in nine and we were planning a strategy to try and fight a takeover and everybody was leaning into the table and we were we were focused and excited and

13:52 Bigger and better ideas as she went around the table and we came to what would what I was hopeful would be a crescendo in I leaned into the table and I looked at the turned around in my chair and I looked at the nine squared up with her and I said

14:10 This is a fight sister its War sister and everybody at the table just went from pumped up and hopefully deflated and then one movement and wouldn't look me in the eye and I was I was suddenly the the bride in the room and she leaned in and you could hear you could hear a pin drop and she said we will have none of that and I felt like a little kid it wanted to crawl under the table.

14:42 Well, I'll tell the story and I'm not sure this is the way it happened, but it's way and tell the story cuz I wasn't there but I still as one of my favorites.

14:49 David was talking a few minutes ago about one of our I guess our longest-running client one of our biggest clients and when we went to pitch the first time that they had a New York firm's it was a big deal that we would be pitching at all. And this is back even before PowerPoint and there was a slide projector with Carousel and individual slides and

15:14 Everybody here who knows David knows it that when he's nervous he can beat Strong just a little bit tight. And so right as we go to walk in the room and they've taken a sin in that we set everything up and then the slide projector doesn't work. So Dave is a little bit nervous. They bring in another slide projector, which we have to ask the client. Do you have one or sudden work? It's a little embarrassing in taken care sell out our projector and there's it drops all the slides fall out of the room. So they've now got to be all over the table. So they've got to be put back in in the right order and then while everybody that we're presenting to is kind of gathering in the hall and we're having to go out and save you lose weight. Just one more minute. Everything's going to be ready and finally gets already David is ready to give the presentation. It's about 10 minutes late the executives come in sit around the table and David says hi. My name is David Fox I'm with and he hits the thing in the first light comes on and it says McNeely pigott and sticks.

16:14 The equipment that we first had one or starting out kind of interesting Mark had an electric typewriter that had one page of memory you could you could ride the page and then it would go back and make Corrections for that page. And if you went beyond that page, then you had to go back and retype it if it's hard to explain this technology now, but anyway, it was a very it was kind of an archaic ghetto electric typewriter. I had one that was battery operated that was totally worthless. And so really anything that needed to get written around our place locally did not very many clients. But but something needed to get rid of Mark and I had to take turns using the typewriter we were living out of borrowed offices at the time out of a law firm and and we were with the former mayor Fulton who is kind of a perfectionist as far as the appearance.

17:14 The office in the way, he kept things and when we finally moved to our own offices along with the Fulton governmental Group market purchase some used Bank Furniture Surplus bank for sure if he move that in and Mary Fulton threw it out after one day. So our equipment at first was somewhat substandard and it's hard to believe now had that had for that stuff for that desk and a half times so I know why you got it on sale.

17:49 All right. So in 93 Katie and Dave join the companies that write 93 and Katie joining the company that her one condition on joining the company was that we have company Retreats. So so it beginning in the fall of 93. We started meeting once a year going off site leaving on Thursday morning coming back on a Friday afternoon and having a retreat for a whole company, which we've done every year since then it's probably one of the things and not the thing that made the biggest difference in in creating that Esprit Decor in comradery and everything amongst the group but there have been some memorable stories number of trips to the emergency room and other things number dives into end up freezing ponds at after midnight. But but one of the great stories was when we were

18:49 In Cookeville or Crossville wouldn't go to Fairfield Glade and we're up there and we got a karaoke thing going on and and I'm standing about as far away from that stage is I can get watching this back at the back at the entrance to the room and Mark and Katie have gone on stage with their wigs and so forth and her performing I got you babe. And as I'm staying in there this couple who are at the lodge on vacation and looking for some entertainment come walking up to them and the woman says to me who is that I said, that's why they really go downhill.

19:40 Mercedes-Benz

19:52 Will let you know the one thing I've noticed as we've gotten older the the Rockets miss those Retreats it is gone down quite a bit and some of the some of the biggest revellers now or married and have children in and that's kind of been an interesting thing, you know over the course of the years here is to actually grow up with some of these people who started with us is basically kids and now their parents met at work more than a few happy. I don't know. I think the raucousness is the same. We just go to bed early.

20:34 Mmm, Katie and sisters on Retreats and and then in 1993 the first real Retreat there's a whole bunch of stories around that one including that's that's the retreat where we came up with a mission statement, then that kind of thing and let's see I think about 2 hours was spent on equipment trying to decide what the needs were whether we should, you know, actually get more than three computers and if we really needed a copy of machine a duplex copy machine instead of just a single

21:11 Copy machine and did we really need a phone system or a fax machine those were some of the issues that but that David just come to the company in 93 and September right after Katie and

21:26 And he came to the company from being mere bredesen's chief of staff and

21:35 General Colin Powell, we were in every trade in November of 93 the day we went on the tree was the day Phil bredesen. I think got it in his head that he wanted to run for governor the next year. So Mike and Dave spent almost the whole Retreat on that back screened in porch talking to Phil bredesen made me mad because they weren't having to sit through those meetings about the clips and stuff like that. But but we actually had retreated before Katie. We had we had Partners Mike and David and I would go up above, you know to the lake or something and have exorcisms and maybe smoke a cigar to and drink a beer or two and figure it all out come back and

22:22 Yeah, I remember that trip you all made cuz I think I heard from all three of you at one point or another I complain about the other two guys those two and then the phone rang and be somebody else. I don't know if I can make this work out those two.

22:51 Stuff in your work or in your company

22:55 All right, I'll jump in and Keith was trying to lead to this a few minutes ago. Our mission statement is do great work. Have fun make money in that order.

23:12 No, yeah, I am. I mean, you know, we I think we've established along for a long time that nobody will work harder. Nobody will work smarter and to get the job done and get the job done the way that the client wants it. So yeah, we we measure our success is based on on the success metrics of our clients. So it's not it's not about putting out press releases. It's about achieving some bigger goal than that. And and so we finna we taking the time to learn to learn all these things and subsequently we know about Transportation then and infrastructure and and Telecommunications and Healthcare and I are you know, when you think about it, I ain't for me that's it's it's one of the great byproducts of this job is everyday you come in and you learn something almost brand-new.

24:12 Panda and then we have a very talented staff that comes in at every year seems to get smarter and smarter and you know, I have every confidence that this thing is going to last for a long time. I think something that I'm proud of and many of us are proud of his the the impact weave or the role that we played in shaping Nashville in recent years or recent decades really are we were just hired two to do the public relations for the new convention center. And we we ran the campaign the public information campaign to led to the point where that's possible and and that's been under a lot of great people involved in that. It's not only our project but that in the the Titans stadium and the Downtown Arena in this Library where we're sitting right now projects like that that that we were a part of our great Country Music Hall of Fame could good example to the the great things that we've been privileged to be involved with has been

25:12 Really great thing for McNeely pigott at box. I think the legacies people and the old Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Well, if you think about the six degrees of McNeely pigott and fire, she don't have to look very far at all to find alone just spread very yet impactful positions all of this community, but actually all over the country.

25:44 I think what I'm proudest of is agree with everything. He said we do fabulous work for our client, but I tell you we do it in a way where we value every single person who's there, and I actually think the people

26:00 The employees as partners what happens with people is a lot more important to us than in the end what happens with our clients and help our clients don't ever hear this but I think we do good work for our clients because everybody in fact is happy when they come to work and and they are allowed to do what they do best and enjoy the atmosphere in which they do it.

26:26 Out out chip in here and let Mark go last.

26:31 You know today when I came in and got off the elevator and walked in walked into the MP enough room and saw about 6 in turn Hoveround newspapers flipping newspapers and saw the associates mingling about all these people who are either still in college right out of college. I mean every time I see that scene it takes me back to the to the days when I was their age and we were their age and we were doing that in newspaper rooms and it's to your point Keith to see, you know, just kind of the the the energy that comes from get a bunch of people together who were kind of have talent and who's got, you know drive and who are motivated in the same direction have a good place to go to go to work to do that is a really it's very it's the most satisfying thing that work I could think of

27:29 I agree with everything has been said that pick the people are the are the principal asset and the reason for the success as I said earlier because having a business with your friends is is is not easy. It's like having a business with relatives I think and and and and it it it it it we've grown to know each other. So well on a on a personal and business level that if it's it's it's it's a huge source of Pride that that we've said we could have very easily like when Keith said one of those early Partners we could have said this is crazy. You know, we're not making any money. This is hard work what's wrong with us, but we stuck with it and then sticking with it. Is it is it is and then looking back looking back at the tough times and then looking at how far this company is?

28:29 Turn it down. And then and I when I when I did start it, I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. I never could figure out how to make it work. So I decided just do it then if it figured out if we couldn't and not and I was working for Al gauron and I told him and him a letter resignation told him I was going to do this and we talked about me doing this and then he didn't want me to and then he said why do you want to do this message? Because I think I could be good at it cuz think we can be successful. He said what what it what what do you want to do? And I said, I want to have the best PR firm in Tennessee.

29:05 And I want to have the biggest PR firm in Tennessee within three years. I don't think I met those goals, but I think we met him within several more years.

29:19 And about one or two minutes we have left you want to share your vision for the future of the company what your hopes are for its growth in the next 10 20 30

29:31 Beyond I think we've we've said this about this interview is is is we committed ourselves to higher in the very very best people to people who share kind of our intellectual curiosity with the world our commitment to to Quality Inn and I don't have any reservation about the idea that they all be able to carry on in the same way that the question might be whether as they have developed as employees and subsequently as friends if they'll be able to kind of get through that Labyrinth that that that we've gotten too but you know, I don't know that there is any way we could create a roadmap for that because we're kind of figuring it out ourselves even 20 years later, but but there will be a McNeely pigott and fox long after I'm well past 51.

30:35 Thank you.