'Nowhere is safe': Saint reaches $30MM in NIMBY wars
Franklin-based Mike Saint has created a $30 million international consultancy driven by controversy, thanks largely to "doing less," in order to do it very, very well.
Saint is founder, chairman, CEO and treasurer of The Saint Consulting Group Inc., which helps real-estate developers and industrial plant builders win government permits or thwart competitors' projects, through political action.
In a series of VNC interviews, Saint explained that 25 years of political skirmishing has taught him and his colleagues a lot about the strength of passion, over intellect.
Saint's work has traditionally centered on major retailers' development projects – often headline-making "big-boxes." Now, his portfolio also includes wind-to-energy farms, healthcare facilities, landfills, mining operations and other projects facing land-use conflicts.
Saint, 59, spent his first ten years in business operating from a small office in Hingham, Mass., close-by Boston. After a decade's work, he and a partner were generating about $750,000 per year in revenue from land-use campaigns and a smattering of public-relations projects in other sectors.
Thus far in fiscal year 2008, Saint Consulting's projected $30 million in annual revenue is about 40 times greater than it was 15 years ago. He said this year's sales pace is 7 percent ahead of 2007, and pretax net income is running 65 percent higher.
Yet, Saint is hardly content with past success. "My strategy is to be the biggest, best, most successful land-use political consultancy in the world and to gather global and large national clients in various industries that need local permitting for their new real estate projects," he said.
In Tennessee, the firm has been involved in only a few projects. In 2007, the company hired-on with Tractor Supply, for that company's successful fight for zoning changes needed for a new Brentwood headquarters.
Saint employs time-tested "get-out-the-vote" tactics and media relations to shape local landscapes. This is not surprising, given Saint's earlier incarnations as statehouse reporter and newspaper editor-owner, and his subsequent stint as press secretary to the Bay State's Lt. Gov. Tom O'Neill, a son of the late "Tip" O'Neill, then Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In contrast, Saint said, people who support development on a factual, rational or intellectual basis are typically less likely to standup for the project, without a good deal of reinforcement.
Illustrating the challenge, Saint described a situation in which a hypothetical development project is championed by "two lawyers from out of town" and a few local supporters who are only willing to say something like, "Yes, it would be convenient to have a new supermarket up the street" – while "500 of their angry neighbors" are opposing the project tooth-and-nail.
Always, he said, the greatest challenge is identifying "people from the community who are in favor [of the project] and get them to show up" for public hearings. Meanwhile, he added, "you've got to convince the politicians that it's not political suicide to vote for it."
Effectively generating and directing, or counteracting those passions – depending on which side is paying Saint Consulting – are at the heart of Saint's corporate mission.
If the results of Saint's annual survey on public opinion are accurate, Saint's business will continue growing: Despite concern about the economy, nearly 80 percent of Americans believe "there should be no new development in their hometown," and about a fourth of all respondents have been personally involved in fighting a development project. (The next edition of the Saint Index is due out in January.)
Saint added that while the South has long been less resistant to development, that is changing rapidly as population density increases.
Saint said the most important lesson he extracted at Owen was that "if you provide service, specialize. Otherwise, you compete on price."
"There are a million PR firms that say they do real-estate projects," he said, "and they [also] do food PR, a little marketing, some sports promotion," et cetera. He argues that most PR firms know little or nothing about land use and permitting, and are more likely to hire marketers and publicists, rather than the handpicked political-campaign veterans he recruits, exclusively.
Few journalists become successful business owners, but Saint explained, "I was always an entrepreneur." He backed-up that claim with several stories, including one about starting a business while a student at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.