On the Rights Side of History

Heffernan has long championed women’s rights

by Phyl Newbeck

marketing_partners0219Pat Heffernan, co-founder of Marketing Partners Inc., in Burlington, continues her commitment to encouraging a better understanding of the economic, social, and political forces governing gender inequality.

It was 20 years ago that readers of Business People–Vermont met Pat Heffernan, in Mark Pendergrast’s story “Good Promotions.” Suffice it to say that she hasn’t slowed down. Heffernan continues to serve as president of Marketing Partners Inc., the Burlington firm she founded with Peg Devlyn in 1992.

Although the intervening years have seen changes in the way the company functions, its underlying mission remains constant. “What we do hasn’t changed, why we do it hasn’t changed, who we do it for hasn’t changed, but the way we do it has changed,” is how Heffernan describes it.

The changes mostly involve technology and new platforms. She notes that most creative materials are now software driven. “There is less traditional media,” she says, “and social media is now part of the mix, although not everyone uses it. Methods for doing research have changed, with surveys usually done online or by email rather than telephone because of the dwindling number of landlines — and people who don’t answer their phones.”

Marketing Partners works with a variety of local businesses. For printing needs, Heffernan relies on Villanti Printers. She touts the work of Vermont Community Access Media for television ad production and Egan Media Productions for its radio work.

While the needs of the company’s clients may have changed, the clients themselves have not. “We still deal with mission-driven organizations,” Heffernan says. The company serves nonprofits, public agencies, and so-called triple-bottom-line companies. The latter firms serve people (including employees and those in the communities in which the companies operate or serve), the planet, and for-profits. Some triple-bottom-line companies are organized as B Corporations, but others operate in a similar manner without the certification.

“Nonprofits and some of the smaller businesses are often really challenged to keep up with technology,” Heffernan says. “We try to empower their staffs so they can be self-sustaining. We may work with clients for many years and help them build a foundation.”

For example, she notes that governmental clients often have talented staff members who may be intimidated by technology. “We help make them feel comfortable so they can be visible and accomplish their mission,” she says. All of Marketing Partners’ clients have a Vermont connection, including some national groups that want to reach a Vermont audience.

Heffernan has no problem turning away prospective clients who aren’t a match to the mission of her business. “We’re small and we want to stay that way,” she says. Although the company appreciates Vermont microbreweries and wineries, it won’t work with businesses that sell tobacco, alcohol, or guns, or promote gambling. “It doesn’t mean we’re all teetotalers,” she says, “but we don’t feel society has found a way to deal with those issues.”

The Rock Point School in Burlington is an organization that does meet Marketing Partners’ mission, and for that, C.J. Spirito, the head of the school, is thankful. “After the 2008 recession we had a few years with very low enrollment,” he says. “Pat came in with a positive attitude and a broad vision. She was very curious about what we did and had a lot of points of inquiry.”

Spirito recalls that Heffernan started with some low-hanging fruit, such as changing the school’s Web address, but soon moved well beyond that. “She mapped out a three-year plan to help us become more visible,” he says. “She helped us rebrand and learn to better represent ourselves. She has a heart for nonprofits and underdogs and people who need a voice. She is trying not just to do things effectively, but also ethically, and to help people who will then pay it forward.”

Heffernan is a Certified Management Consultant, an accreditation she’s had since the 1980s, which requires testing, continuing education, and pro bono work. But her entry into the field of marketing wasn’t a direct line. “Most of us in Vermont have mongrel career paths,” she says.

A triple major in English, fine arts, and philosophy at the University of Virginia, with an MBA from Suffolk University, Heffernan met her future husband after moving to her family’s camp near Lake Bomoseen, then to the Killington ski area. She handled business and administration at the Woodstock Country School until one of the trustees asked her to become associate dean for administration at Vermont Law School.

“I took care of all the non-academic things, including financials, event planning, admissions, recruiting, advertising, communications, research, and grant writing,” she says.

In 1982 she started Heffernan and Associates, a consulting firm based in Woodstock and Killington. It was her introduction to working with for-profit firms. “Moving from the law school to starting my own firm wasn’t a major switch,” she says. “I actually reduced the scale of my work when I started my own business.”

Two constants in Heffernan’s life have been her involvement with the Women’s Business Owners Network (WBON) and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR). She helped found both organizations and served as the first president of each nonprofit.

After leaving Vermont Law School and starting her business, Heffernan found that other women business owners began calling her for assistance. She met others when attending meetings of traditional business groups who were perturbed by the traditional approach to business — the emphasis on profit, which led them to oppose most regulatory measures and, she felt, to treat their employees poorly. “They felt that anything that cost them money should be opposed,” she says.

At one meeting, Heffernan says, she was asked to leave after speaking in favor of an increase in the minimum wage and what was then called maternity leave. “There was nowhere to go if you believed in the triple-bottom-line approach,” she says.

Coming from the nonprofit world where organizations help one another, she wanted to lend a hand but was unable to help everyone who asked. With the aid of two other female business owners with whom she golfed, skied, and played bridge, Heffernan formed WBON in 1984.

Jill Davies, the owner of JMD Solutions in Woodstock, has been on the WBON board for five years and currently serves as president. “Pat has been amazing,” she says. “She is very experienced and can help you make your way through things.

“There are some very special things about Pat,” Davies says. “She is so engaged and enthusiastic. She is always there for the organization and anyone involved in it. It’s really refreshing. I can pick up the phone and ask her a question at any time without hesitation.”

In 1987, Heffernan moved to Burlington and became partner and vice president of Sandage Advertising & Marketing. There she met Peg Devlyn, with whom she would found Marketing Partners five years later.

After joining Sandage and already on the board of New England Businesses for Social Responsibility, she and some others decided to form a Vermont group. WBON was not involved in policy work, so VBSR would take on that role. “Clearly you have a greater capacity to effect change if you have others with you,” she says.

During her days in Killington, Heffernan was an avid downhill skier with a lifetime pass to the mountain. These days she lives in Shelburne and spends more time cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Her husband, Joe, died in 1995, but she has an extended family and recognizes that, as a business owner, she was able to put her family first and care for her husband when he was in hospice care. A lifelong learner, she is working on her dissertation for a Ph.D. in communication and social change at Union Institute & University.

“When we founded the business in ’92, we made a commitment that people would come first, so we have taken care of our employees,” she says. “That philosophy, of partnering and making sure your whole team is taken care of, is key for us.”

Even with the rise of the gig economy and independent contractors, Heffernan sees a cohesive workplace as an important goal. “I think it is essential that business owners take care of the people who help them do what they are doing.” That’s why her new goal is to make Marketing Partners an employee-owned company. She believes B Corporations, worker co-ops, and other forms of partnership are integral to the future of Vermont.

“Worker-owned businesses don’t sell out to mega-corporations and leave town,” she says. “Those kinds of companies hold a lot of promise for our communities and our state.”

Under Marketing Partners’ trade name Research Partners, she and Laura Lind-Blum recently collected and analyzed the data for Vermont Women and Leadership, the fourth in a series of reports published by Change the Story on topics related to women’s economic status, in league with the Vermont Women’s Fund, the Governor’s Commission on Women, and Vermont Works for Women.

“Although there are many more women participating now, I think little of significance has changed in the climate for women in business,” Heffernan says. “There have been a few small steps forward and a few steps backward. What I continue to see as needed is a better understanding of the economic, social, and political forces that keep gender-inequitable conditions in place, and a commitment to changing them.” •