Bernie—founder of the pre-eminent lecture agency in the world, Washington Speakers Bureau—comes from simple, humble, and resilient stock.
His mother, Patricia, grew up in central Virginia with her family who were farmers and lived off the land. She worked on her parents’ farm, hunted, fished and yet loved to fly; she befriended Charles Lindbergh and other aviators of her time.
Bernie’s father lived with his single mother, five sisters, one brother and numerous relatives in a tiny two-room house – a bedroom and a room with a wood burning stove – in one of the poorest mining towns in West Virginia. When his mother, Swain’s grandmother, couldn’t take care of them he spent part of his childhood in the local orphanage. His parents eventually met and married.
Bernie was born May 4th, 1945 in Riverdale, Maryland. After, his parents settled down in Arlington, VA, where Bernie and his brother grew up listening to New York Yankees games on the radio and idolizing Bernie’s hero, Mickey Mantle.
He attended Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. Inspired by his high school football coach, Bernie planned on a career in college athletics. He earned his undergraduate (Bachelor of Science) and master’s degrees from George Washington University. In the last few months of graduate work, he met his lifelong partner, Paula, a special education teacher. They married in 1975 and started a family. After graduation, Bernie’s worked as the intramural director and then served a tenure as GW’s Assistant Athletic Director.
At GW, Bernie created one of the first college athletic marketing programs in the country. He also managed the baseball team; its performance was so strong that the team made it to the N.C.A.A tournament for the first time in 20 years. By the time Bernie reached his early thirties, he was well-prepared to become GW’s Athletic Director upon his boss’s imminent retirement.
The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was President. Headlines of the times consisted of the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island’s nuclear accident, and Britain’s election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. The Bee Gees were popular as was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Tom Wolfe’s bestseller The Right Stuff, and Sony’s Walkman.
“A friend’s half-serious note spurred us to abandon our careers and risk our family’s fortune on a preposterous idea.” –Bernie
This was also the time when Bernie and Paula’s friend, Harry Rhoads, sent them the note that inspired all three of them to turn their lives upside down. About the same time, Bernie also came across an article in Fortune magazine about the Harry Walker Agency, which was at the time the largest speakers bureau in the world. Swain’s interest was piqued by founder Harry Walker’s claim that he had no competitors.
At the encouragement of his wife Paula, Bernie, Paul and Harry Rhoads quit their jobs to start a lecture agency—without experience, without a plan, and without a single client.
“Bernie, you will never be truly happy until you control your own destiny.” –Paula, 1979
The trio started Washington Speakers Bureau from a small supply closet belonging to Chuck Hagel, who would later become Secretary of Defense for President Obama.
The Washington Speakers Bureau did not book its first speaker for 14 months, in part because Walker’s claim about a lack of competition in the speakers bureau business was false, nothing more than a strategic boost.
During those rocky months, they sat in that closet with their savings running out, unable to compete against the dozens of established agencies up and down the east coast.
“What have I done?” –Bernie, 1980
Bernie’s first exclusive speaker was Good Morning America anchor Steve Bell, who had been under contract with Harry Walker. The two sealed the deal with a handshake. That handshake became a “defining moment” for their company as word spread in the small town of Washington. Their roster of speakers started to grow and their market share increased, as journalists were drawn to the ability to shake hands and walk away at any time.
“You gain a certain confidence—and optimism—when you build a business yourself.” –Bernie, 1990
In just eight short years, WSB became the top agency in the world. Then their growth and their reputation expanded.
In 1989, former President Ronald Reagan selected Washington Speakers Bureau to represent him. More prestigious clients soon followed, including Margaret Thatcher, General Norman Schwarzkopf, General Colin Powell, President George H.W. Bush, James Baker, Tim Russert Condoleezza Rice, Tom Brokaw, Alan Greenspan, Tony Blair, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ted Koppel, Madeleine Albright, Bob Woodward, Bob Gates, President George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Ben Bernanke, David Cameron, Lou Holtz, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and Terry Bradshaw and countless others.
Over the last thirty-five years, WSB has represented three US Presidents, four prime ministers of Great Britain, countless American and world leaders, business and economic visionaries, authors, media personalities, and sports legends.
Today, Bernie remains Chairman of Washington Speakers Bureau. He travels with Paula, his wife for 41 years, and spends time with their three children – Timothy (born 1979), Michael (born 1982), Kelley (born 1983). Bernie also speaks and writes extensively.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @Swain_Bernie.