25th Anniversary Interview with HDK - Part 2: Growth and Challenges
In celebration of our 25th year in business, President and CEO Hillary Kelbick reflects on some of the challenges and satisfactions of leading MKP through the years.
You mentioned that MKP started out with some major successes against much larger firms. How did you manage that?
It’s funny, but I’ve always positioned our size as a strength. I think a smaller, tight-knit team offers tremendous advantages. Like a commando squad! A band of specialists who work like a well-oiled machine. I think it’s the perfect way to handle complex assignments like bank mergers or large promotions. Bigger companies tend to move slower. They’re less flexible. Less agile. And clients always wonder if their needs are really a top priority at larger firms.
Here’s something I’m really proud of: more than half of the MKP team has been here for over 15years. You can’t develop our level of teamwork without that kind of continuity.
Wow! How have you kept turnover so low?
I honestly feel it’s like a family here. It’s a place where people can grow professionally, where they can speak their minds and air their differences. We work hard, but we never sacrifice work-life balance. Above all, we always find ways to get through tough challenges together. The team knows I’ve got their back. And so they’ve got mine in return.
Can you give an example?
Probably the best example was during the Great Recession in 2008, when our banking clients lost over 600,000 jobs and our work just dried up overnight. For us, the drought lasted for over a year.
So one day I pulled everybody into a room, and I told them I could either bite the bullet and make the kinds of staffing cuts many other businesses were making, or we could all stay in this together with everyone taking a little less in salary. We all agreed that keeping the team united mattered most, and it was pretty remarkable that everyone stayed. We used the time for professional development and enhancing our skill sets. Turns out, we were rewarded in a big way: in early 2009, we landed a huge project that allowed us to make everybody whole and continue to grow the business without losing a single person. Going through those lean times together really cemented the team.
Speaking of challenges, what was the toughest challenge you ever faced at MKP?
Every business has its challenging moments, but for me the toughest was probably 9/11 because it was so emotionally devastating, and so unexpected.
Just a few weeks before it happened, we took our biggest client to dinner at Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center. Then, the towers fell, and about a month later our client called us up and ended a five-year relationship. To this day, I’m convinced that we were tainted by the association the client has made between us and the towers. I also think they felt concerned about continuing a work relationship with a company that was right there, just a few miles from Ground Zero.
Back then, everyone was especially aware that New York remained a prime target, and so the day-to-day atmosphere in the office was difficult for a long time. A lot of our staff were afraid to come to work, and I couldn’t blame them – I was too, but I just kept pushing through it. Then my business partner and dear friend decided she’d had enough, and in the midst of all this I made the decision to take full ownership of the company and continue on alone. Not exactly the best timing to attempt something like that.
But not scary enough to stop you?
No. All I could do was push the worries to the background. Fear is not productive, unless you can channel it and use it as a challenge to yourself. I kept telling myself I would go through fire for MKP because it is “my baby.” I took pride in what I had created and in having built an all-star staff and an impressive body of work. I wasn't going to let 9/11 or the fear of losing business get in my way.
What would you say you’re most proud of personally?
I could point to a lot of successes our team has had together, and to a lot of key decisions I made over the years, but I think I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve managed to build, both within our company and with our clients. You know, many of our clients have been with us for a long time, and I can honestly say a lot of them have become friends, too.
We do top-notch work at MKP, but let’s face it, there's more than one company that can execute smart work. Taking the time to really reach out to our clients, to understand their goals and concerns both personally and professionally… that not only makes the work more satisfying when you come through for them, but it also helps build stronger bonds. Hey, I’m a people person, what can I say? It may not work for everyone, but it works for me, and for MKP!