Sharon Napier is CEO of Rochester, New York, shop Partners + Napier, which has clients like Bausch & Lomb and BMW Financial Services. The 30-year advertising veteran started off as a social worker. Here, she tells us in her own words how she got into the business and shares some of the biggest lessons she has learned along the way.
I grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo, New York, called Lockport, with 20,000 people. I had a big family of five brothers and sisters. Both my mother and father were immigrants from Italy, and worked on the family business, a beauty supply business.
I grew up in a very entrepreneurial environment. All of us were also expected to help out with the business. I started making money very young, when I was 8 years old. I used to put on weekly puppet shows, charge everyone 25 cents and make $3 every Sunday.
My parents had that immigrant drive. They came here for a better life. It was all about surviving against all odds: how to make money, how to succeed with very little education and how to make it despite English not being their first language. My father used to say that it’s not about being the smartest person in the room — it’s about being the hardest worker. That has stayed with me.
I went to a small school called St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, and did a double major in sociology and business management. After graduating, I got a job as a social worker, working in child protection services. It just wasn’t the right career for me, so I took a job working on a political campaign. The campaign manager owned an advertising agency in Rochester, and so that’s how I found myself in the advertising industry at the age of 22.
From the day I first sat in a client meeting, I knew that this is exactly what I wanted to do. For me, it’s not always been just about great creative — it’s about helping our clients drive their business. I’m a grower. I can really get in and really help grow pieces of the business. At Eric Mower + Associates, I made the business reach $10 million.
Despite being growth-focused, I have also always made it a point to focus on family values, even in business. In fact, it’s one of Partners + Napier’s founding values, along with courage and ingenuity. And that’s what has helped us not just grow, but also band together. I truly believe it’s what kept us glued together when three top executives left to start their own shop a few years ago, and the morale was down.
One of the lowest moments in my career was when we lost our biggest client in 2010. Kodak made up more than half of our revenue, and it went bankrupt. I had to make some big changes and lay off a lot of good people. But it’s only when life throws a speed bump at you that you grow the most. It was a tough period as I had to rebuild everything from scratch, but that’s what made me even more strong and resilient.
Passion is the key ingredient to success. All the young people entering the industry right now can rise and grow so quickly if they are passionate about what they do. It’s a great industry because no other industry has the diversity of thought that advertising does. If you work in advertising, you’re probably the most interesting person at a cocktail party.
The theme of my life has been that I haven’t followed the traditional path. I did things a little bit later in life. I never worked at a big agency. I got my master’s degree at 43. I took a risk by establishing an agency in Rochester. I have jumped on opportunities as they have come and made decisions based on my instincts and experience, not what others have said. I think that comes from my background and how I was raised.