The right move

I feared leaving Madison Avenue, but relocating my agency improved its profits - and my life.

Lois Geller

(FSB Magazine) -- I always believed that my direct-marketing agency needed to have a lavish office in the heart of New York City's advertising district to attract big corporate clients. When I founded Mason & Geller with a partner, I had served as president of agencies such as AC&R Direct, a branch of Saatchi & Saatchi. I knew how much effort our competitors put into creating a high-end image. To match their efforts, we did business from the 18th floor of a wedding-cake building on the east side of Madison Avenue, in quarters that sprawled a city block. The Empire State Building dominated the view. Young & Rubicam was just a block north.

In the 12 years that we spent at those headquarters we attracted big accounts such as J.P. Morgan Chase and Times Mirror. But it cost us almost $20,000 a month to cover our rent. We were turning a profit, but it was tough to keep ahead of expenses.

Then, about three years ago, I began getting calls from my mother's home health aide. Mom was 93, and she had started falling down. I found myself flying to her home in Miami Beach four or five times a month to make sure she was safe.

Mom wasn't just old school; she was old mule school. She refused to tell me about the falls. I heard plenty from everyone around her, though. The doormen from her building told me she needed to be in a nursing home.

One evening Mom fell on her terrace. Unwilling to trouble anyone, she did not push the button to alert the service I had hired to help her in an emergency. Her caregiver discovered her, prone on the deck, the next morning.

That was it. I decided to relocate to Florida to look after her, and to run the office virtually. I was making plans when our general manager, who knew about my mother, suggested moving the firm down there.

That wouldn't work, I told him. We were a Madison Avenue agency. What about our image, our magnificent boardroom for presentations, our roof deck for informal meetings? Clients would defect. Our staff wouldn't want to leave New York.

Finally the manager persuaded me to let our nearly 20 employees vote on the move. Most loved the idea of living somewhere warmer, with a lower cost of living. My key executives all signed on. I called our clients to float the idea past them. None defected.

So in July 2004 we gave our heavy-maple, banker-style office furniture to charity and packed up our files. Within a few weeks we had settled into our sunny new office in a marina near the Intracoastal Waterway in Hollywood, Fla. The monthly rent is around $3,500, and we can see yachts, palm trees, and little long-beaked ibises from our windows.

Far from the stress of New York City, my employees began working more efficiently and spending more time with clients. As our overhead came down, we also saw revenue rise 23%.

The only problem I faced was selling my apartment in New York. The ad on my real estate agent's website wasn't sparking much interest. After I helped him rewrite it, we found a buyer, who paid the asking price.

My experience gave me an unexpected idea for my fourth book: Sold! Direct Marketing for the Real Estate Pro. It landed on bookstore shelves in January and has almost sold out of its first printing.

My mother died in October. Because of the move, I got to spend two wonderful years caring for her. Every time I take a walk on the beach to see the pelicans, I think of how she changed my life and my business for the better.

Owner's Manual is written by entrepreneurs about lessons they have learned. Geller's e-mail is Please send column ideas to Top of page

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