Sustainable PR’s Tony DeFazio on growing a PR firm in Glens Falls- Albany Business Review
By Todd Kehoe – Albany Business Review
Growing up, Tony DeFazio lived in a neighborhood that had ponds and streams and it sparked a lifelong interest in nature and ecology — as well as hiking and fishing.
Though he grew up and lived in and around Philadelphia, DeFazio loved the Adirondacks. His parents had taken him to Lake Placid and other parts of the North Country on vacation, and he aspired to someday be a 46er. In high school, he’d even considered going to Paul Smith’s College, located deep in the Adirondack Park.
When Covid hit in 2020, he started to rethink his career, in which he’d already started and grown multiple PR firms. His idea: Merge his love of nature with a new firm.
That led to the founding of Sustainable PR, which focuses on green companies
Where did the idea for Sustainable PR come from? I’d always been interested in the environment. When I was in college, I worked for Clean Water Action, and we worked for legislation to protect the Adirondacks. Acid rain was the big issue then, so that’s where I got my interest in public policy.
Did you do any of that work before now? Not really. My partner and I scaled up from two people to 35, and we started with a portfolio of clients in franchises, then got into technology in mid-to-late ‘90s. But through the years, I always had the idea that at some point, I’m going to combine what I’m doing here, all the success we’re achieving, with my interest and passion for the environment. Fast-forward to the pandemic, I’m on a hike with a high school friend, and he says, “What are you going to do in the next 10 years of your life?” And you’re supposed to answer, scale Mount Everest or go to Machu Picchu or something, but I said, “I’m going to create a pure-play PR firm for the green economy. And I’m moving to the Adirondacks.”
Did you plan to start this in Glens Falls? My natural inclination was to go to Lake Placid because I had so much knowledge up there and I have an affinity for it. But as I tell people, I just didn’t get the warm fuzzies. And if you’re not in the tourism and hospitality industry, it’s kind of hard to break in. So one guy I spoke to on the phone runs an internet business called Pure ADK, he told me to check out Glens Falls. … So I came up here, summer of 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. And I’m staying at The Queensbury, going to restaurants, and I’m like, this place is great.
What keeps you here? It’s not easy relocating to an area where you essentially know nobody. But for me personally, this is a real work, live and play community. It’s not artificially contrived, like a lot of real estate developers put in their marketing. This is the real deal. … Another reason I chose Glens Falls is it’s the only place in the region where everything is self-contained. If I went to Lake Placid or Saranac Lake or North Creek, you’re going to be traveling, and services aren’t always at the ready. Every contractor we’ve hired locally to work on campaigns has been within an arm’s reach. And I love that.
Are there other firms out there that do what Sustainable PR does? When I started conceiving the business, there were two primary bits of research that we needed to do. One, how big is the sustainability market? Two, what does the competitive landscape look like? What we found was the market in general was about to explode. And we couldn’t find any other PR firms that specialized in media relations for green companies. We found some large agencies that might have a division or practice working with environmental matters. But a lot of time it was crisis communications or reputation management — “Oops, we had a spill,” right?
How do you find clients? Like any fledgling startup, we had to hustle at the beginning. We did a lot of work with our SEO and now we’re getting inquiries from all over the world. We just got one from a nonprofit based in Hamburg, Germany, the Global Organic Textile Standard or GOTS, which is trying to form a unifying body that certifies whether textiles you buy are truly organically produced from the mill all the way to the retail rack. We always ask when talking to prospective clients what appealed to you and the one thing I hear constantly is you’re the only ones doing what you do. That’s how we’ve been growing, first through our website, and then through word-of-mouth and referrals from our clients.
What’s your mix of local and non-local clients? It’s about 50/50. We get asked if we focus specifically on the Adirondacks, and I say we’re based here, but our capabilities are national, even international.
Who would be a dream client for your firm? I’m happy to say we just got one, a big company with a mega project in the works, where a community and media relations campaign can help build public support and win approval. We’ll be spending a lot of time on the road in the coming days and months to build support for that.
What’s your growth goal? The vision is in five years to be five to 10 people here in Glens Falls and over a million in revenue. And then at some point, I’m going to retire, and I’ll either sell to another agency that can take over and continue or transition it to a key employee, and have them take over the reins. I’ve done this before. My last business, I scaled from 2008 to 2012, 100% growth year over year through the Great Recession and then I sold the portfolio. I know the pathway to do that. And then one day, I find that cabin in the woods.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Title: Founder and principal, Sustainable PR
Grew up: Philadelphia
Lives in: Glens Falls
Headquarters: Downtown Glens Falls
Employees: Two full time, two part-time contributors