This article originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.
If the patient has an ailment, Steve Gardner stands ready to write a prescription.
But it won’t be in the form of an indecipherable note to a pharmacist.
Instead, Gardner’s company, FIVE STAR Speakers & Trainers, diagnoses the needs of businesses and organizations and recommends speakers who can address their challenges.
“We are business growth doctors,” said Gardner, the company’s CEO and co-owner. “They tell us what the problem is and we help fix it.”
FIVE STAR, of Overland Park, has booked more than 14,000 speaking, training and entertainment events attended by more than 3.5 million people since its founding in the late 1980s. With 18,000-plus speakers and entertainers in its repertoire, it books more than 825 events annually for clients ranging from Fortune 50 companies to non-profits and government agencies.
A common denominator in nearly every event is that customers are seeking change.
“We help people and organizations grow and get better,” Gardner said. “We impact lives. That’s a pretty cool thing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Gardner grew up in the speaking industry, watching his father, Dick Gardner, work as a pioneer in the field in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Dick died in 1981, one of his employees, Nancy Lauterbach, formed FIVE STAR in her basement in 1988. Steve Gardner joined the company’s sales team in 1991. In 2005, he and business partner Paul Schmidt bought the firm.
The rapidly growing company has 21 employees and books events worldwide. Revenues have grown by 42 percent, to $7.1 million, since Gardner and Schmidt took over. According to Gardner, FIVE STAR is one of the nation’s 10 largest speakers bureaus, although he said there is no official ranking. The company’s revenues come from charging speakers a percentage of their fees.
One factor that sets FIVE STAR apart from the competition is its live talent showcases, Gardner said. Each year, the company assembles speakers for all-day demonstrations of its talent roster in various cities. Although other bureaus have showcases, he said none bring the talent directly to clients across the nation.
Gardner said watching potential speakers live is superior to viewing DVDs, which can be edited.
“You really get a sense of how they are going to interact with the audience,” he said.
The showcases are part of the company’s strategy of helping clients find communicators who bring a return on investment. FIVE STAR assesses a customer’s objective, budget and audience and seeks to match them with the best speaker.
“We know who really is going to be the right fit,” he said. “They are coming to us because we are experts and this is what we do every day.”
Philip Arbuckle, president of MeetingTrack, an event planning company in Olathe, said FIVE STAR’s recommendations have helped his firm evaluate the field of potential communicators.
“There are thousands of speakers out there speaking on any one subject,” he said. “It can take a long time to narrow that down.”
Arbuckle also said FIVE STAR’s connections have saved him when emergencies caused last-minute speaker cancellations. Twice, the bureau found substitute local speakers who could fill in the same day.
“The turnaround was just incredible,” he said. “I know I can depend on them.”
From a speaker’s perspective, FIVE STAR’s worldwide network helps communicators connect with people who want to hear them, said Jim Welch, a former Hallmark executive and author of “Grow Now.”
“That enables me to focus on the message and on delivering for the client,” he said.
Gardner said many companies have refined their objectives for speaking events since the 9-11/dotcom business downturn, with fewer booking “fluffy” or “feel good” motivational talks.
“Companies, I would argue for the first time, started … examining and asking ‘What’s the purpose? What are we trying to accomplish?’” he said. In the booming 1990s, “Companies were stupid with their money. They just spent it because they could.”
Businesses that get the most out of a speaker are those that follow an event with practical application exercises, he said.
But not all events are about training. Some are produced to thank employees or customers. Events can also create settings where funds are raised or deals are signed. FIVE STAR speaker rates start at $2,500 and go up to one million dollars for elite entertainers. Sting, for example, charges $1 million for a private concert, while Jerry Seinfeld will entertain for $500,000. Welch charges $10,000-$15,000 per event.
While some speakers’ fees can appear staggering, they don’t seem as exorbitant if an event can lead to a major business deal.
“Would you spend $250,000 to generate $4 million?,” Gardner asked. “Most people would say yes.”