BtoB

HSR marks 25 years in b-to-b

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HSR Business to Business, Cincinnati, this month celebrates 25 years in business, during which time it has grown from a struggling local ad shop to a nationally recognized integrated marketing communications agency.

"It's become much more than we thought it would be," said Rick Segal, CEO and co-founder of HSR.

The "H" is for Mike Hensley, exec VP-director of integrated marketing communications, who co-founded the agency with Segal in 1981 under the name Business & Industrial Marketers (B&IM).

The third partner, Executive Creative Director Tom Rentschler, joined the agency in 1991, when the name was changed to Hensley Segal Rentschler.

During its early years, the agency struggled to survive.

Segal and Hensley, together with Business Development Director Ralph Pagano and creative writer Adrien Stacy (who later married Segal), had all been working together at Alpha Technical Services, a Hamilton, Ohio, technical documentation company.

"In the course of serving clients with technical communications services, we'd run into clients that said, `Could you do a brochure for our sales force?' or `Could you create an ad for a trade pub?' " Segal said. "We found we enjoyed that work more, so we convinced the owner to create a small industrial ad agency within the shop."

Buyout creates ad agency

In 1981, when Segal was 23 and Hensley was 24, the two had an opportunity to buy out the agency from Alpha Technical Services. They did so and brought Pagano and Stacy on board at B&IM.

"Like a lot of small businesses, we lost a lot of money right out of the gate," Segal said.

After its first year in business, the agency was near bankruptcy. So it trimmed its staff from 14 to three and cut back salaries and the operating budget. "It took us about seven years to dig out of that hole," Segal said.

The agency's first big break came in 1985, when it landed Intercomputer Communications Corp. as a client. (Intercomputer's founder, Kevin O'Connor, went on to co-found Internet advertising company DoubleClick.)

At the time, Intercomputer was providing distributed computing communications services, and working with the client gave the agency an opportunity to gain technical expertise.

Segal recalls going on a sales call with Hensley in the mid-1980s and seeing people sitting in front of computer screens. "I said to Mike, `The day we figure out how to get a message on those screens is the day b-to-b marketing will get a lot easier,' " Segal said.

It didn't take long for the agency to begin to figure it out. In 1989, it started delivering marketing materials to clients on CD-ROMs and in 1993 launched its first Web site on Gopher, a server-based system that predated the browser-based Web.

HSR promotes itself nationally

Also in 1993, HSR decided to promote itself nationally. It ran an ad in Forbes ASAP that read, "Are you open to some really narrow-minded thinking?"

"It was a very prescient view of the new approaches that people would have open to them to do marketing," Segal said.

The strategy paid off. In 1994, GE Aircraft Engines named HSR agency of record. The agency went on to pick up more regional accounts in the late 1990s, including AK Steel, Cincinnati Bell, Hobart Corp. and Makino, which all remain clients today. In 1996, the agency created an Internet services group and, in 1999, it added a consulting practice.

Then came the dark days-the dot-com crash, the technology downturn and, most tragic for HSR, the death of three employees in 2003 in an automobile accident on the way to a client meeting.

"That taught us a lot about what it means to be a family," Segal said.

HSR survived through difficult years by keeping its focus purely on b-to-b, Segal said. In 2004, it opened a Chicago office, which had a big win in June when building materials company USG Corp. named it agency of record. (See New Campaigns, this page.)

Greg Salah, VP-marketing at USG, said the company was looking for a strong agency partner that could help it achieve its ambitious growth plans over the next decade. "HSR is well positioned to grow with us as we develop," he said. "They have the capabilities to launch products successfully and help us build a track record that will demonstrate the value of investing in marketing."

HSR's Chicago office has also picked up business from CCH Inc., a tax and accounting software company; LaSalle Bank; SIRVA Inc., a corporate relocation firm; Gordon Flesch Co., an office equipment provider; and Zebra Technologies, a specialty printing company.

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