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Strategy first, great ideas second Featured

6:55am EDT December 27, 2005
Imagine a marketing communications company founded in 2000 by six partners that has one client in its portfolio. Then fast-forward five years to that same company with an estimated $30 million in revenue, 60 employees, 20 clients and a second office in Chicago.

This isn’t a business fantasy; it’s reality for Todd Smith, CEO of Clear!Blue in Birmingham.

The company’s five core values — inspiration, intelligence, integrity, innovation and fun — help fuel passion at Clear!Blue. The company hosts Camp Clear!Blue for staff, and employees designate a monthly fun captain to plan a team outing.

And after Clear!Blue was named to the Inc. 500 list of the nation’s fastest growing private companies, Smith gave each employee a $500 bonus.

Smart Business spoke with Smith about how he manages Clear!Blue’s growth while maintaining the company’s core values.

How did you achieve such impressive growth in just five years?
Our model is very relevant. It’s a five-lane model which puts marketing communication and PR strategy first, then great ideas second. A lot of creative agencies are all about coming up with really creative, great ideas, but if they’re not rooted in marketing strategy that’s good for a client’s brand and product marketing objectives, then it’s kind of silly.

The product that we offer — experiential marketing — was relatively new and refreshing in 2000. It was just getting legitimacy and credibility as a realistic discipline within the marketing mix.

Another reason is the team. I don’t try to skimp when it comes to bringing people onto the team. We try to get the best people we can. They have to be a cultural fit first, then a mechanical, skills-set fit second.

It sounds kind of hokey, but that’s been a huge reason to be able to grow.

Despite the relatively challenging few years that the automobile industry’s had, Daimler Chrysler — our biggest client — has done very well, and that’s helped us double our revenue every year.

How did you create your company’s strategic growth plan?
I call it a trajectory plan because it’s very hard to work in any given moment in time and say, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’ Things change for the good and bad.

New opportunities that you can’t foresee come up, and you need to be able to quickly throw it against a plan that is more flexible. A trajectory plan sets the trajectory of where you want to take the company, and then you can bounce opportunities off of it, saying, ‘Is this what we wanted to do?’

We created a business plan at the very beginning, and looking back, it was like, ‘Aw, that was nice that we thought so simply back then.’ It was certainly solid, but it was so nave because you learn so much along the way.

It did set the foundational elements of Clear!Blue as a company. We haven’t deviated from those — what we wanted in terms of a product, what space we wanted to operate in. We have updated it pretty constantly over the five-year history.

What has been your biggest growth challenge?
2003 was our challenging year. We decided we were going to grow. At any company — and if they say this isn’t true, they’re lying — you run into some point where you’re like, ‘Holy moly, I’m out of growth capital.’ So we raised private equity capital — a couple million dollars, and we gave away very little of the company, but it was a huge boost for us.

No matter how successful you are, you will likely need to find ways to keep infusing capital into your business, whether it’s bank debt or private equity money. We’re in a really good place now.

On the human side, there’s that point where you start to become big, and I don’t know when it happened exactly, but it happened some time within the last year or 15 months. I know everybody’s name, everybody’s family, and most of what’s going on, but it’s just wild because I’ll find out things like a new business we’ve pitched and won, and I didn’t even know about it because that’s just the way it is.

That’s been my biggest challenge, like, ‘Holy moly, we’re actually now a big company.’ Not big like Microsoft, but $30 million puts us in a different (category.) I struggle with that because I don’t ever want to lose what’s made Clear!Blue great and its culture strong.

How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
No. 1 is having a director of people and culture. No. 2 is you continue to be the same leader you were when you were a six-person company, have that same passion and vision, and I work to do that.

I send a thought of the day every morning to the whole team, plus our advisers, and I’ll just comment on what’s going on in the different offices, birthdays, anniversaries, new babies, all kinds of stuff. That’s one thing we do to keep the company feeling small even when it’s not.

HOW TO REACH: Clear!Blue, (248) 644-0800 or www.clearblue.biz