A continued success
Teri Cavanagh believes the best ideas are those scrawled on napkins and bank envelopes — whether they gradually develop in the midst of a business lunch or strike suddenly with an employee’s A-ha! moment in the drive-thru.
And at Cobb & Associates, they can come from anyone — the 20-something account executive who’s been on board for just six months, the client who knows what he wants but needs some help attaining it, or Cavanagh, whose laid-back, just-one-of-the-gang management style belies her title as chief executive officer of the Western Slope’s largest advertising and marketing firm.
“The good stuff comes when you get out of the way, not when you’re trying to control things,” she said. “I love that feeling. That’s where the adrenaline comes from.”
That everyman, ego-shunning philosophy has served well not only Cobb & Associates, earning it statewide and national accolades year after year, but a lengthy list of clients. Among others, it includes a restaurant that has relied solely on Cobb since its inception more than 30 years ago to get its message out (Dos Hombres), a business that has received national acclaim and millions of dollars in new contracts from a major rebranding effort (ProSpace Interiors) and a local municipality that has drawn an international mountain biking following on a shoestring budget (the city of Fruita).
Cavanagh is the common denominator in that widespread success, an energetic and enthusiastic woman who got her start at the company her father founded setting headlines and emptying ashtrays as a teenager.
The 52-year-old grew up in the media industry. Long before her father founded Larry Cobb & Associates, he started KWSN, a country music radio station in tiny Wheatland, Wyo. Cavanagh was spinning “Disney Hour” records at the age of 10.
“If you weren’t at school, you were at the station,” she said.
The family moved to Denver in the late 1960s after Cobb got a job at an advertising firm. But life in the big city was overwhelming. There was too much travel, too much stress. So in 1970 the family relocated to Grand Junction and Cobb acquired two radio broadcast licenses and started his own advertising firm.
Cavanagh sat in the background and soaked up everything. She discovered that, like him, she was intrigued by human psychology, fascinated by what motivates people and “why can we write things and get people to do what we write.”
“His mind was so far ahead of everyone’s,” she said of her father. “He had a way of hitting the center of a subject in five minutes.”
Cavanagh gradually moved up through the firm and has held nearly every job there, ranging from graphic designer, copy writer and campaign writer to account executive and business manager. The 1978 Grand Junction High School graduate bought the business from her father in 2001.
She carries on many of the business practices he initiated, such as four-day work weeks and engaging clients without signing contracts. She abides by philosophies known as “Cobb-isms”: “Make it break in the shop.” “A contract is a good way to enforce a bad deal.” “There are no one-man jobs.”
Make no mistake, though: Her fingerprints are all over the now 42-year-old business.
Her dad was a “monarch,” she said. It was clear who was in charge. Cavanagh is a collaborator, believing that good ideas always trump egos. In fact, her stated goal is to see her employees become better at their jobs than she is.
“He was one man, one company,” she said. “I was, ‘Give it away, bring them in, train them and hope they get more talented than you.’ “
Karen Jefferson, who is Cobb’s business manager and has been with the firm for 16 years, said Cavanagh has recreated her position at the firm at least four times in an effort to maximize her talents and help her succeed.
“She has this uncanny ability to see in people where they’re going to thrive, and she works as hard as she can to put them in an environment and surround them with the people they need to make them thrive,” Jefferson said.
Others have taken notice of that success. Cobb & Associates has been one of ColoradoBiz magazine’s Top 100 Women Owned Companies for seven years running and was on its Top 250 Privately Owned Business list from 2005 to 2009. Cobb was the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year recipient in 2009.
Cavanagh and her company have come a long way from the oil shale bust of the early 1980s, when she and her father sold their office furniture to make payroll, traded advertising with a local grocery store for food, and frequently went without paychecks. That forced the firm to become “scrappy,” in Cavanagh’s words, and reach outside the Grand Valley for clients. That experience has shepherded them through the latest recession.
“We keep dollars circulating. We’re contributing a lot to the wellbeing of the community. It’s when government stops things. It’s when big corporations stop things. It’s when people say, ‘It’s my idea, not your idea’ that things go wrong.”