It’s been 30 years since Jeff Ketner founded Ketner Group Communications, and it’s been an absolutely incredible – and sometimes wild – journey. To help us celebrate, Jeff and I kicked back for a stroll down memory lane. Check out the full video below or read our summary to learn more about some of the highlights of the last 30 years!
How Ketner Group began: striking out on his own
Catherine: Tell me about the day you decided to strike out on your own. Did you have any memorable conversations with your family? Or friends or peers?
Jeff: It wasn’t planned that far in advance; it was pretty spontaneous. I was vice president at a technology PR firm here in Austin when one day the owner walked and said that she was retiring and shutting the whole place down.
At that time, I was very fortunate to have Texas Instruments as a client and a strong 5-plus-year relationship with them. So, after the owner of the firm said she was shutting it down, I told her I was going to talk with TI. “That’s fine,” she said. Literally the same day, I talked to TI and they told me not to worry. In just a few days, I was set up as a vendor.
I would like to say that it was planned out. I had wanted to set out for a while, but I was sort of thrust into it.
Indelible memories (alt: Ketner Goofs Communications)
Catherine: There have been a lot of crazy, silly things that have happened to us over the years. What are some of your favorite moments from the past 30 years?
Jeff: I remember the time at NRF when we had a snowball fight with the team from Digby, now known as Phunware, at one or two in the morning. We were in New York City, it was cold, and we were all stranded because the airports were shut down. So, we had a snowball fight on the streets of New York!
Or another time at NRF’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Retail. Just being able to play guitar onstage with some fun people like Brian Kilcourse, Steve Rowen and Cathy Hotka. Just to be able to be onstage — and I used to be pretty good, but I hadn’t played in a long time — it gave me a chance to get the rust out and to have some fun and play with people that became my friends. Plus, I get to tell my grandkids that I was onstage at B.B. King Blues Club in New York.
The fun and silly things that happen around the office are amazing, too. People spontaneously breaking into song or just laughing and being together as a team. The things that make anyone feel special. Like the times when I come back from a day off for my birthday and my office is decorated to the max. Of course, there is Bosses Day – which I didn’t even know was a thing – during which people dressed up like me: flannels and blue jeans.
It just things like that that are fun and make you feel special. We do a lot of that as a team, just to really maintain a sense of caring for one another and trying to each other’s back and have fun together.
The lessons learned in 30 years
Catherine: What lessons have you learned as a founder and CEO of your own business?
Jeff: Well, there are a lot of them. The most important is to build a great team, give them a lot of freedom and just trust them. I think the people really make it work. We have a very collaborative team, and we work together well. That’s what I’m most comfortable with. It’s not really a top-down organization that’s driven by one, singular personality. We’ve worked to establish a culture of openness and trust and collaboration.
As much as anything, it’s about getting the right people in place and doing everything you can to hang on to them and make it an exciting place to work, but also give space for a work-life balance. At the end of the day, it’s the things everyone does outside of work that are going to stick with you for the rest of your life. What you do at work counts, but there is life beyond work, and we give our team the space to realize that.
Finding a niche in retail technology
Catherine: We’re known around town for specializing in retail technology, but what is it about retail tech that is so exciting to you?
Jeff: It’s fun! We’ve worked in semiconductors, we’ve worked in servers, we’ve worked in both the fun and the boring parts of technology. But everyone shops. Everyone eats. Retail touches every part of life and it changes so fast. Ten years ago, all the shopping was done in store, and that’s just totally flipped. Over the last three years, no one used to order groceries online and have them delivered or arrange curbside pickup.
It’s changed, and it’s changed really fast. I can’t think of any technology sector that is changing and that touches every facet of our lives like retail. To me, it’s the most fascinating, fast-paced industry to be in.
Overcoming current and future challenges
Catherine: I’d like you to share some advice on how you’ve overcome challenges.
Jeff: When you have a challenge that comes up you have to do a couple of things. First, face it honestly and straightforwardly. You can’t sweep it under the rug. If there is a tough conversation to be had with a client, it’s much, much better to pick up the phone than send an email. You also have to double down and work through it. Rely on your team. Be honest. Be transparent.
I know you didn’t want to bring up the “pandemic” word but working through this has been something I’m most proud of. The team came together even when clients were having issues and cutting budgets. There was a mass freak out throughout every sector of business. We’ve worked through it, we’ve focused on bringing on new clients, and we did everything we can to take care of our existing clients.
We worked our way through it and I’m grateful for that. The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating for so many people and businesses. It’s really because of the team that we’ve overcome it.
Bad times will happen, there will always be unexpected things that come your way. Look to your team and rely on your instincts. Over time, you will develop a resilience that will allow you to get through things that are difficult.