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A conversation with Five Corners Strategies Partner, Tom Ahern!

It’s time to catch up with another one of our Five Corners Strategies Partners. This time we’ll be talking to the Boston Partner and recently named CEO of Five Corners, Tom Ahern.

Q: You’ve been in this game for more than 20 years now. How did you get your start?

Tom: I’ve really had three career points that brought me to where I am now with Five Corners. I started working on political campaigns while in college, mostly pounding in signs and knocking on doors. I loved it, everything about campaigns seemed to fit with I loved to do. Even those times where it seemed like the only food I had was Munchkins and coffee for six straight days.

The campaigns were great and led to some amazing opportunities to work in both state and city government. Working in the Massachusetts State House gave me a front row seat to education reform, electric utility deregulation, and the creation of the state’s first renewable energy trust fund. I probably caught my first real break in my mid twenties, when I worked on legislation to create a new brownfields law in Massachusetts. Honestly, in 1995, I didn’t know the difference between a brownfield and brownout, so I basically dove in and learned everything I could about redeveloping contaminated land, PCBs and the old General Electric plant in Pittsfield. The bill passed and today there are sites all over the state that have gotten cleaned up and redeveloped into new housing and commercial businesses. I’m pretty proud of that.

The legislative work in brownfields led me to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, where I had to put that policy work into action. It was a fascinating place, very unlike anything I thought a city agency would be. The people were highly accomplished — most had advanced degrees in architecture, planning, finance. For me, it was almost a perfect job, merging the policy side with the campaign side. Every project I worked on required public involvement, community education, and bringing together often-warring factions. I learned one really critical thing at the BRA that still influences my thinking today at Five Corners: the best planning and ideas of the public and private sector will result in nothing if you don’t have the support of the citizens.

Q: Work/Life balance is a popular phrase to throw around. With a wonderful wife, 5 kids, 2 cats and a Bernese Mountain dog at home, how do you manage? Seriously, how do you manage?

Tom:  You forgot the six new chickens. You know, I have a friend with whom I coach little league baseball. He’s a pretty busy guy, works in finance, always shuttling between work, kids sports, and trying to find time for a round of golf. He said to me once when we were both being asked to help with a local issue, “You want to get something done, ask someone who’s really busy all the time.” I guess I just like to keep busy. Work /Life balance is actually pretty easy — my family comes first. My wife and I really enjoy our kids, and we have found a good balance so that each of us can pursue our careers. I love coaching youth sports. I love being involved in my community and try to find places where I can volunteer to help out. But I had a pretty good role model as well; my dad was always coaching a team, playing hoops in the driveway or taking us to hit golf balls. We never saw the pressures of his work — he just found a way to do it. But I also realize now that there’s only so much time in the day, and it comes down to choices and the fine art of saying no. And caffeine. I guess I’m lucky that I don’t require a ton of sleep.

Q: How do you impart that advice and apply those same principles to your team members?

Tom: Hopefully we lead by example, and our team sees that the partners take time to enjoy our lives, while also making sure the our clients’ needs are being met. We have a very diverse staff who like to do wildly different things in their down time, so making sure that personal enjoyment and fulfillment is a part of their weekly planning is critical. You ask what everyone did over the weekend, you make sure everyone is getting time to go do the things they love. For one team member it’s a trip to Australia every couple of years, for another it was 12 days in Japan with her dance company. One guy just took time off to go to Wrestlemania in Texas, and another plays in a week-long baseball tournament every year in Arizona. All of this can work seamlessly provided the whole team is working as one, picking each other up and recognizing that we all need that time and space away from the pressure of creating and managing the most effective campaigns. That means we have to be highly efficient with our time, always plan ahead, think three steps forward from where we are today. My partners and I also are pretty open about our lives, and how our families are intertwined in the entire company. We don’t see our families as separate entities, operating independent of one another. At Five Corners, we feel a strong sense of responsibility for everyone’s families — their kids, their spouses and partners, their time away from work and yes, even their pets.

Q: As we see the political landscape in America change dramatically this election cycle, how do you think that’ll affect your clients and their continued ability to successfully develop projects around the country?

Tom: First, this election cycle is a mess. And not just at the presidential level. I really think this negative energy that is coming from the top is going to bleed down into down ballot races and will influence not only Congressional elections, but state and local races as well. There’s an incredible amount of factionalism going on, and we have seen it first-hand on local permitting and state legislative campaigns for our clients. So many of today’s public debates are devoid of compromise. So the most accomplished project developers or legislative advocates are recognizing that success comes mostly from mobilizing your strongest supporters as quickly as possible, and not waiting for 200 people to show up protesting your plans or legislation. The biggest change in the last eight years is how quickly like-minded citizens can come together to create a powerful political force, thanks mostly to new digital engagement and organizing tools. Perfect example — the Boston Olympics. For months, Olympic organizers followed their set path of limited public engagement, organizing or community information. ‘The less said the better’ seemed to be the operating philosophy. Meanwhile, opponents were raising doubts and finding one another and organizing on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. Skeptics became opponents and then they took over the message, forcing the campaign onto their side of the field. Before it even got started in Boston, the Olympics were gone to Los Angeles. The lessons of that fight should be studied by anyone trying to win public approval for their project or legislation: Don’t wait for opponents to organize before you start asking citizens to support you.

Q: How do these changes influence you when making new hire decisions for Five Corners?

Tom: It’s funny, when we started Five Corners back in 2010, we had one model of what we thought would be a typical Five Corners campaign director: lots of experience in field campaigns, knows their way around a voter list, and able to develop excellent organizing strategies. That lasted about six months. When you look at our team now — and I’m incredibly impressed with the experts we have here — they represent the innovation and creativity that our clients expect from a nimble grassroots campaign. I think our strategists and campaign directors are the best in the business and we are doing things in grassroots public affairs that’s not really being done anywhere else. The effective merging of digital campaigns and boots-on-the-ground organizing provides our clients with a 360-degree grassroots approach. So now all our project directors need to be skilled not only in quickly identifying who the best advocates are in the community, but also in utilizing those relationships to broaden our clients’ appeal via social media and digital communications.

Q: One final question: If we give you an unlimited budget to take your wife on a date night, where do you take her and what will you be doing? Keep it PG, please.

Tom: Well, if you are giving me unlimited budget, let’s start with a quick NetJet flight to New York. Dinner at Gramercy Tavern or Per Se, followed by nightcaps at the Empire Hotel rooftop lounge. I think around 2am we can call it a night and head back to the Mandarin to rest up for the NetJet home in the morning. Yea, that’s a pretty good date night. Notice I did not insist on a Mets game?

To learn more about Tom and Five Corners Strategies, click here.