The Gerst House.
Nov. 8, 1988.
Election Day. Mike Pigott’s 34th birthday.
George Bush was elected president that day.
It was the day and place Mike and I sealed the deal to go into business together, therefore one of the scariest days of my life, but also one of the best days of my life.
They buried my friend and partner Mike last week, and the grief and emotions have been nonstop, igniting hundreds of memories, good and bad, but mostly the wonderment about how successful Mike was, what a huge impact he had on the community, and the outpouring of support, love and condolences that have come our way since he died of heart failure on June 29.
Back to the Gerst House …
I had started a one-person PR consultancy almost two years earlier, but only after trying – unsuccessfully – to figure out a way for Mike, our buddy David Fox, and me to hang a shingle together.
We had all been newspaper reporters in the glory days of Tennessee journalism when there seemed to be a scandal a day from a governor bound for disgrace. When the dust settled, and a Clean Gene politician named Lamar Alexander was installed early, we all became bored by the lack of excitement and did what many reporters did – dreamed of finding something else to do.
So the three of us spent quite some time brainstorming about how we could go into business, but never could get the economics right. In other words, we couldn’t figure out how to pay ourselves.
So I decided to test the waters by myself; if it didn’t work out, the damage would at least be limited to my family and me.
I took the plunge, relying on my wife’s support (and salary) and a home equity line of credit.
The first year, 1987, was torturous. The little venture grossed about $12,000. But by the middle of 1988, I seemed to have gotten in stride, and was on the way to exceeding every financial expectation I had set.
Mike called on Nov. 8 and asked if I could meet him at the Gerst House, and I said of course. It was a raucous afternoon, and the dining room was filled with lawyers, courthouse workers, and reporters. And smoke.
We ordered two of those huge, iced fishbowls of beer the Gerst was famous for. It was loud.
I asked Mike what was going on. He said he had just resigned from the Nashville Banner, the afternoon daily where he had won virtually every major journalism award that existed in the state.
I was astonished. How? Why? He really never got into any detail, but it obviously was some kind of disagreement with very upper management.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him. “I’m going into business with you,” he said as he ordered two more of those big beers.
“We’re going to have to figure this out,” I said. “OK,” Mike said. We were interrupted several times by applause as election results were starting to be released. “We’ll figure it out.”
And, somehow, amazingly, we did. It was very hard work. David eventually joined in early 1990. And it took a lot more time for me to find a comfort zone.
But after about five years of somehow surviving, making very little money, and hustling for every single piece of new business we could identify, the company finally started to grow. Mike was integral to that.
From there, we were able to add great talent like Katy Varney and Keith Miles, Dave Cooley and David Jarrard, and really start to establish ourselves as serious players locally. Later, current partners Alice Chapman and Andrew Maraniss joined and have added to the firepower.
Mike, working in Phil Bredesen’s mayoral and gubernatorial races, as well as Karl Dean’s initial mayoral race, made a huge difference on behalf of his clients in his work with the news media and opinion leaders. His uncanny ability to instill trust and credibility was unparalleled.
Yes, I worried a lot about how Mike was able to get things done without seeming to break a sweat, while I felt like I was always wound tight, stressed, and driven. It was as though I was a wired, manic point guard on a basketball team, always moving and cutting, while he was like that long and lanky power forward who trotted down, got the ball at the 35-foot mark, and casually looped in a 3-pointer.
It never failed to amaze me how unflappable he was.
Every day since his passing, something has come up where my first response has been, “I need to ask Mike about that.” I suspect that will keep happening.
I said that Nov. 8, 1988, was one of the most important days of my life.
Another equally important date – and I don’t have it committed to memory – was when a competitor wanted to “buy” our little firm not long after Mike had joined.
The caveat, though, was they were not interested in the two of us. Just me. I said no thanks.
It was the smartest business move I have ever made.