Investing In The Ties That Bind

By Scott Anderson
Published: Fall 2010

Daniel Markstein IV, MBA, ’03, came to The George Washington University School of Business for its Global MBA program, not football. But after arriving on campus in the fall of 2001, it didn’t take long for the Alabama native and Crimson Tide fan to discover that an MBA cohort is a lot like a team, and the best professors share something in common with a sideline-stalking football coach.

Markstein said success was determined as much by teamwork as course work, and he credited the relationships he built at the University for providing the tools needed to learn the business of doing business.

“Relationships drive more business decisions than anything else,” said Markstein, who called his two years at GWSB “as rich an experience as any I have ever had, educationally and socially.”

In 2003, Markstein and his wife Eileen, MBA, ’03, got their start as business partners at Markstein’s first consulting firm, The Strategyst Group in D.C. The two met as students at GWSB. “Work has always been a part of what we’ve done together, and it’s worked out very well,” Markstein explained.

Three years later, they relaunched the company in Birmingham, Ala., as Markstein Consulting LLC. The firm began with three small-business clients. Since then, its client roster has expanded to more than 25 companies with average annual revenues of about $400 million. The firm provides planning and strategic communications services to a wide mix of corporate, government and nonprofit clients, including the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the D.C.- based Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Coca-Cola Bottling United in Birmingham, Alabama-based Royal Coffee Cup, and Jones Valley Urban Farm, also in Birmingham. “We are industry agnostic,” Markstein said.

“We really work across industries and apply best practices and strategic messaging and communications.”

Markstein advises clients on issues ranging from long-term strategy to day-to-day business processes and client communications. “The reality is, most of our clients don’t come to us with a neatly packaged problem. Often they have identified a symptom and not the underlying problem,” said Markstein, adding that success is about the coaching you get along the way.

Markstein learned that lesson from Erik Winlsow, professor of management and director of GWSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. During Markstein’s first year in the program, Winslow instilled in him a sense of shared purpose with students in his MBA cohort. “Winslow constantly preached the fact that people support what they help to create,” Markstein said.

Winslow recalled that he and Markstein shared a passion for college football, albeit with opposing loyalties.

“He was a big Alabama fan,” said the professor, who takes Penn State football seriously enough to enshrine Coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions on the walls and most other flat surfaces of his Funger Hall office. “We got into this Paterno-Bear Bryant thing. That’s probably where the connection started.”

From that first, good-natured taunting, Winslow said he recognized Markstein’s drive, leadership ability and inquisitive entrepreneurial attitude. “He came to my attention because of his questions,” Winslow said. “That piqued my curiosity.”

In the Global MBA program, Markstein had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. “You get an urn and you start pouring water in it, and it keeps taking it and taking it and taking it. You think, ‘wait a minute, isn’t that full yet?’ and it never fills.”

Before he moved to Birmingham, and launched the business he would re-brand as Markstein Consulting, Winslow’s advice was simple: get involved and stay connected.

“The idea of network, of developing positive relationships, not simply business relationships but positive relationships within the community, is important,” Winslow said.

Markstein embraced the lesson. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and is an advisory board member for the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He remains active in the Rotary Club of Downtown Birmingham and on the Board of Directors of Magic Moments, an organization that fulfills the wishes of chronically ill children in Alabama.

Earlier this year, The Birmingham Business Journal named Markstein one of its “Top 40 Under 40” for his community.

His company has grown steadily despite the economic downturn. Since the firm’s founding, its revenues have increased at a compounded annual rate of more than 20 percent, according to Markstein, who declined to name figures but said profits at the firm doubled between 2003 and 2008 and are on track to double again through 2010.

Markstein took the long view about the challenges in a sluggish economy. “If we maintain great relationships and do great work, we’ll always be profitable,” he said.

While he acknowledged consulting can be fickle, he drew on his GWSB experience for perspective, recalling another Winslowism. “He constantly preached that companies, organizations and individuals all exist in permanent white water,” Markstein said. “So even if you’re change averse, or trying hard to limit change, it will happen to you.” GW