By Kyle Stock
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Don Epstein works a room like Derek Jeter fields a hot grounder — a professional handling a routine but tricky task with uncommon grace.
Take a weekday breakfast at The Regency, a tony hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There’s a mix-up with the reservation, but Epstein refers to the hostess by her first name and nonchalantly says, “No problem. We’ll wait,” which ensures that he won’t.
In a moment, he breezes into the ornate, bustling room — gripping and grinning. Two tables get a casual wave, and he stops at two others, those of Tennessee congressman-turned-public policy professor Harold Ford and Jonathan Tisch, chief executive of Loews Hotels and co-owner of the New York Giants. The reporter in his wake is introduced quickly before some banter on current events and a personal question or two. It’s small talk with substance. And, like a throw to first base, it seems effortless until you see it done by a lesser player.
Epstein, 56, is founder and chief executive of Greater Talent Network, a so-called speakers bureau that is celebrating 30 years in business. He brings celebrities into the fold, pitches them to companies, charities and meeting planners, and coaches them on the finer points of paid public speaking for a business that can garner close to $200,000 an hour.
“I think I’ve logged more chicken dinners than anyone in the world,” he said as we finally sat down at a corner table.
The Regency is one of a few places where Epstein goes to check up on people like Ford, celebrities who are both his clients and his product. And this breezy breakfast banter, this flitting mix of friendship and formal deference is why his firm has garnered a long list of first-class speakers.
The roster now comprises about 110 people from a wide span of backgrounds: politicians (Gen. Wesley Clark and Gov. George Pataki), athletes (Mia Hamm and Apolo Ohno), authors (Tom Wolfe and Sebastian Junger) and a mixed bag of others (Spike Lee, Meghan McCain and ice cream moguls Ben and Jerry).
Author P.J. O’Rourke was one of the first celebrities to sign on with Greater Talent in 1982.
“We hit it off right away,” O’Rourke said. “I thought he was a really sharp guy. And for a guy in his mid-20s, he actually had a lot of experience.”
Epstein got his start in his Florida high school when he lost a bid to be president of the student council. As a consolation, he was named secretary of assemblies, which required him to organize pep rallies and concerts. “I was immediately jazzed by it,” he said.
Shortly into his stay at the University of Florida, he was managing a $1 million budget as head of Gator Growl, the country’s largest student pep rally organization. His plans for law school and a career in politics vanished when he took a job in New York booking speakers to fill theaters for New Line Cinemas.
Two-and-a-half years later, Epstein and a partner launched a speakers bureau and secured their first celebrity by camping out on the doorstep of G. Gordon Liddy, organizer of the Watergate break-in. “He had just come out of jail, so he was besieged by media,” Epstein said. “We said, ‘Listen, we’re two young kids with tremendous aggression. If you fail, we fail, so we can’t fail.’ ”
Liddy stayed with Epstein when he broke away and started Greater Talent in 1982.
Epstein’s most talented speaker? The late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke. “He was one of the few people who could really take foreign policy and explain it — whether you agreed with him or not,” Epstein said.
His most entertaining? Filmmaker and satirical activist Michael Moore. “He’s really a stand-up comedian,” he said. “And he’s extremely smart.”
Greater Talent is a private company and does not share financial metrics, but Epstein said the firm has been in the black since day one and has never laid off an employee because of business conditions.
With 40 full-time workers, Greater Talent sells about 1,550 engagements a year for which its speakers command anywhere from $7,500 to $200,000. Between 20 and 30 percent of those fees go to Greater Talent, depending on the celebrity and the amount of marketing involved. The firm also earns about one-fifth of its revenue by organizing publicity campaigns and endorsement deals.
Its primary competitors are Washington Speakers Bureau, which is stacked with politicians, and The Harry Walker Agency, a New York-based firm.
These days, Greater Talent is benefiting from a bit of a “Moneyball” effect, which is to say some of his most popular speakers include author Michael Lewis and the people featured in Lewis’ books. For the Tuohy family, which was central in Lewis’ “The Blind Side,” Greater Talent is as much a gatekeeper as a promoter.
“We get asked to do so much and he weeds them out,” Leigh Anne Tuohy said. “He knows if I walk into a nonprofit and they’re not moving the needle, I will go literally ballistic.”
Tuohy, her husband, Sean, and her adopted son, NFL lineman Michael Oher, all speak via Greater Talent — a blizzard of bookings to charities, schools, civic groups and corporations all over the country.
“Don’s people plug all of our crazy-ass lives into a calendar and they just work it out,” she said.
The one thing Epstein doesn’t worry about is competition. The more promoters, the better, he said. It helps his firm stand out and spurs more groups to hire celebrity speakers for the first time.
“What we do is so specialized … it’s much more intellectual property,” he said. “But right now, it’s a $1 billion industry and none of us has captured more than a small part of that.”