Applied Turns to Academia for New COO
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Applied Turns to Academia for New COO

After a lengthy search, Applied has hired Edward Callahan, former chief administrative officer for the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, as chief operating officer.

Paul Holmes

SAN FRANCISCO, October 15—More and more top tier public relations firms have been looking outside the industry and its traditional recruiting pools—journalism, for example—to find top counseling and management talent. But most have turned to related fields such as advertising and marketing, or other professional service industries such as management consulting or lobbying. But when Applied Communications CEO Alan Kelly started looking for a chief operating officer, he cast the net a little broader.
After a lengthy search, Kelly hired Edward Callahan, former chief administrative officer for the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, whose experience has been at the highest levels of academia rather than in the corporate world. He will be responsible for Applied’s operational strategies and will direct accounting and finance, business administration, human resources, information technology, site operations for the firm’s offices in San Francisco and Amsterdam and the Applied Academy, Applied’s dedicated learning organization.
“I have always believed that the public relations business is positioned to get into the kind of power position that attorneys and accountants and venture capitalists are in as far as providing counsel to businesses is concerned,” says Kelly. “But in order to do that we are going to have to be sufficiently professional and sufficiently prepared for that level of involvement. We have to be better professional service firms than we are.”
So Kelly began looking for a chief operating officer who had experience in the professional services sector. He was surprised to find the individual he was looking for in the academic realm.
“We looked at management consultants and banking, but we kept coming back to Ed because of his experience,” says Kelly. “You’re not talking about an ordinary educational institution; you’re talking about Stanford, which has been a central force in the development of the technology industry. We felt his educational skills could apply to this environment.”
Callahan, for his part, says he wasn’t particularly attracted to the communications sector, but he was attracted to Applied, and he felt his skills were relevant.
“Universities are professional services institutions,” he says. “They are staffed with the original knowledge workers. They need to provide a high degree of service to both the student body and the faculty. That’s a pretty powerful set of experiences.”
At Stanford, Callahan was responsible for all business and organizational functions of the School of Humanities and Sciences. The school encompasses 60 departments and programs across an array of disciplines and is responsible for 85 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate education and 50 percent of graduate education. As chief administrator officer, Callahan was responsible for more than 1,000 faculty and staff and an annual budget of $200 million. His notable accomplishments include overhauling the school’s budget and financial processes, rebuilding its human resources staff and implementing a performance-based salary structure.
Kelly clearly was not going to be put off by the fact that Callahan was an unconventional choice.
Fundamental to Applied’s success has been our willingness to experiment, to develop and test new ideas, and to recruit talented people outside the confines of the public relations industry,” he says. “We wanted someone capable of building Applied’s operations into the industry’s best. With his operations expertise, commitment to innovation and outstanding leadership at one of world’s great universities, Ed was by far the most qualified candidate.”
Callahan will also become a member of the firm’s executive committee, joining president and CEO Kelly, and senior vice presidents and partners Tim Marklein and Burghardt Tenderich.
Kelly says the appointment is an important one because it provides a level of management expertise most independent firms lack.
“I have always invested as heavily as I can in infrastructure and organization,” he says. “I am competent manager, but it’s not what I am best at, and this will allow me to focus on the challenges and opportunities or our clients, which is where my gifts are.”
As for Callahan, he is looking forward to the challenge of managing an organization that has grown to become one of the largest independent players in the technology space—and appears determined to keep its independence.
“This company has experienced pell-mell growth in recent years,” says Callahan. “But now we are in a very different world. We have an opportunity to reflect on who we are, to design a new kind of organizational structure to take ourselves to the next level.”
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