What were some of CEO & President Dennis Culloton’s work experiences prior to starting Culloton + Bauer Luce? What would he be doing if he didn’t start his own firm? And why is he talking about apple sticks, after shave and jet fuel?

Keep reading this installment of our “Intern Interviews with Maggie Gorman” series or watch the video above to find out.

Maggie Gorman: What degrees have you achieved and where have you earned them from? 

Dennis Culloton: I have a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University, the Medill  School of Journalism. Then I got a law degree from the DePaul College of Law in Chicago.  

Maggie Gorman: What were some of your work experiences prior to joining Culloton + Bauer Luce? 

Dennis Culloton: Well, I started off as a boy reporter covering crime, politics, fires and politicians, and sometimes everything all together in one story at an all-news radio station in Chicago. That was my first job out of college while I was going to law school at night. I had great fun running around the city covering news. Then when I decided to settle down a little  bit, I went into corporate public affairs, and I worked for a little company called Blue Cross and they were very involved in the health care reform debate at the time. So I worked there for several years, then I got drafted into service for Mayor Daley helping to run communications for Chicago ’96, which was the host committee for the  Democratic National Convention in Chicago back in 1996. It was a very bi-partisan committee with a lot of republican CEO’s helping to fund our hosting of the Democratic National Convention that year in an effort to take advantage of the national and international audience in Chicago and I think it was very successful. Chicago came  across great that week and it was an important milestone throughout the years that Richard M. Daley was mayor.

After that project, I was the chief communications officer, if you will, for the Chicago Airport system, the Department of Aviation. That included O’Hare,  Midway and the airport formerly known as Meigs. From there, after I did that for a few years I was recruited to jump in as press secretary to Governor George Ryan who was several months into his administration. His friends and advisors were particularly interested in the niche I was developing in crisis communications back then, which was helpful especially working with the Chicago media which was aggressively covering the Governor at the time. He did a lot of interesting, innovative and groundbreaking things but on the  government side he was under investigation most of the time that he was governor and that created a sort of dual track of crisis management and normal press secretary jobs all the way through it. So, I lived that divided crazy life for the next 3.5 years. After that I went into private practice at another public affairs, issue and crisis firm. Then started this firm 11 years ago and my partner Natalie Bauer Luce joined us as a full partner a few years back now and it’s been a great run ever since.  

Maggie Gorman: What makes Culloton + Bauer Luce stand out against other firms for clients? 

Dennis Culloton: I think it’s a couple of things. First of all, we are a boutique firm, most of us are pretty  experienced people and even those of us that are still attending great institutions like the University of Nebraska, we all are true students of communication strategy, issues and crisis, so I think we really are experts in our field. There are a lot of firms that try to do a little bit of everything, and we really try to stay in our lane of issue campaigns and crisis projects. An issue project is just a crisis project that you caught at the beginning and you were able to think through and develop a real strategic campaign-like approach. We bring a campaign-like approach to all of our engagements, and we don’t do a bait and switch where I come and try to win the business from a potential client and then hand it off to someone who’s inexperienced. We bring a high level of counsel and a very strategic campaign  approach, and we pride ourselves on thinking things through beyond just the day of the announcement or the day of the event. We like to build out a campaign that helps the client get to positive territory and to get across the finish line or home plate successfully. 

Maggie Gorman: Why did you decide to get into the line of work that you are doing now? 

Dennis Culloton: Lack of career planning has worked out pretty well for me. It turned out many years later when I was running this firm and I started to work with an executive coach, I took a personality test just to help figure out where my blind spots were and where I was struggling in running a business. I learned that it’s no surprise that I’ve always run to the high adrenaline, high energy, high crisis type of projects and jobs. From plane crashes to political scandals to advising clients in crisis, that’s just my makeup. And it turns out birds of a feather stick together as a lot of our colleagues and friends at the firm are of a similar makeup. So, part of it was kind of following my human design if you will. It explains a lot of decisions that I made up until that point. I think that at a certain point when you are young in your career, you want to figure out what is it that you think you could be really good at? And I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I think that we are really good at what we do. Once you figure out what you’re good at, then just put everything you have into making that work. Like I said I am a licensed lawyer, I worked too hard to get it to give it up or to put myself on inactive status. But I’d probably be an OK lawyer, but I’m really built for jumping into a crisis mid-stream and helping top executives and their teams work their way out of it, bringing our big-picture expertise and experience to help them understand what they need to do to help guide themselves through the turmoil. And I feel that we are really good at that. We’re very good at helping make our clients stronger once their crisis is successfully put down if you will. We are very good at understanding, from both a communication strategy and from an operational strategy, how those two things are very meshed. Anyone can put out a press release in response to a problem, but you have to create an organizational and operational approach that makes the whole enterprise stronger and able to confront challenges even better than before. We are very good at that, and so we stick with what we’re good at.  

Maggie Gorman: What do you think you would be doing if you were not working at Culloton + Bauer Luce? 

Dennis Culloton: Maybe running a Dairy Queen. You know the chocolate-vanilla swirl, really trying to get that down. I think I’d be messy with the dip cones. I don’t know. I did enjoy when I was in government as the crisis press secretary for Governor Ryan. We worked on criminal justice reform particularly as it related to some of the scandals that were taking place with the state’s death penalty system at the time. So maybe I would try to be helping out in some small way as a legal aid lawyer or maybe I’d be running that Dairy  Queen.  

Maggie Gorman: What can you be found doing in your free time?  

Dennis Culloton: You know I do a lot of things in my free time that people find to be not relaxing and crazy, but I enjoy. So, I’ve done a lot of triathlons, a few Iron Man races, so I’m very often running, biking or swimming. I find, especially on those long runs or long bike rides, that I really clear my head and I’m not in front of a screen like this, doing emails or on my phone taking nonstop phone calls. It’s just a time to really focus on one step at a time, or one pedal stroke at a time and staying forward and clearing my head. That gives me a lot of creativity. It’s not so great on the hips, back and knees, but I’m still plugging along out there. So, I do that a lot and I enjoy seeing my family and my friends. I enjoy reading. I enjoy music. So those are some of the things that I do.  

Maggie Gorman: If your childhood had a smell, what would it be? 

Dennis Culloton: I suppose it would depend on what points of my childhood. So my childhood buddy, who I’m still close friends with to this day, Greg and I used to get on our banana seat bicycles and ride our bikes over to this little grocer. And back then even though it wasn’t that long ago, it wasn’t 100 years ago, we still had little grocers where we grew up in the City of Chicago on the northwest side. Frank’s grocer had these apple hard candy sticks, they were called apple sticks. And we were always putting a few nickels down and getting a bunch of these apple sticks so I remember that kind of sweet, fake apple smell. When I was in high school, maybe it smelled like Brut after shave. It seems like the high school kids are always using bad after shave. AXE hadn’t been invented yet, otherwise it  would’ve always smelled like that. When I was working in my early government service doing crisis communications, some of my toughest lessons or most interesting experiences in crisis communications, were at O’Hare, Midway or Meigs airport. So I  was still pretty young then, and it would smell like jet fuel. Those are the smells that come to mind.