February 22, 2016
Executive Profile

Roberston reshapes self, Fathom for better future

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Brent Robertson with his golden retriever, Gus, in Fathom's office, where a staffer's Yorkshire terrier and occasionally a beagle also roam. The animals contribute to an environment that helps put people at ease and be creative, Robertson said.

Brent Robertson

Partner in Fathom,

West Hartford

Highest level of education: Bachelor's degree in fine arts, University of Hartford, 1994.

Executive insights:

"What's been powerful for me is the belief that people come wired from the factory complete with everything they need to succeed. My work at Fathom is to create conditions where those I work with can get full access to their capacity to contribute to what matters to them and those around them."

Brent Robertson and his West Hartford company, Fathom, embody transformation.

About three years ago, Robertson and partner David Louden began transforming Fathom from a web design/branding/marketing firm to something deeper: helping organizations establish or reshape their identity and developing a strategy to carry that forward, transforming them and their bottom line along the way.

Then, about two years ago, Robertson began transforming himself, launching a running routine that, combined with diet, would remove 70 pounds from his frame. He ran his first marathon last April and started coaching other aspiring marathoners.

A couple months into running, a heart condition sidelined him. Posting results online from a fitness tracker, a friend noticed his elevated peak heart rate, about 235 beats per minute, and suggested an exam. Robertson had atrial fibrillation and a seven-hour surgery to fix it. He ran his first 10-mile race three weeks later.

Raw form of transformation

Robertson, now 44 and a trim 180 pounds, has three children, ages 7, 11 and 13, and is engaged to Suzi Craig, senior director of advocacy and development at Mental Health Connecticut.

"I needed to experience transformation in the rawest possible form so I could become an authentic guide for my clients," Robertson said. "What I realized through this journey is that you have way more say in how your life could be or how your business could be."

Robertson and Louden merged companies 10 years ago to form Fathom, which started as a marketing firm. But they both thought they could do more.

"We wanted to see the things that people spend their time on make a difference — and I mean a meaningful difference, not just a surface treatment," Robertson said.

He uses a light bulb metaphor to help describe Fathom's work to help clients reshape their brand identities. A new organization is like a "pure light, this great idea" people are connected to, but over time, they start to lose touch with that original concept and the light gets dimmer. Sometimes companies try a different way to talk about themselves and apply a piece of paper mache over the bulb as the new marketing campaign; it works for a while, then a company's not performing and it tries something else, he said.

"After a while, you've got all these layers of paper mache on that light and we've completely lost touch with" the light, or original idea, he said.

Transformative services

"[Companies] see the things they make and the things they do and that seems to be it, and so all they have to talk about is [product or service] features and benefits and defending commoditization, and then it becomes a price conversation and they lose confidence," Robertson said. "They start to even say, 'This is all we do? This is it? So who are we to be anything more than makers of that thing?' I'm like, 'But you were so much more than makers of that thing, so lets go back and remember that [original concept]. Let's go back because when you get to that core idea, what you then see is possibility where you didn't see possibility before.' "

Barry Svigals, founding partner at Svigals + Partners architects in New Haven, said working with Fathom and Robertson was re-energizing. The firm was 31 years old when it approached Fathom a year ago to update its website, then "kind of backed into services that turned out to be the most crucial and transformative," Svigals said.

Robertson began asking provocative questions about what the firm stood for and cared about, Svigals said, adding, "We had a number of things to say, but clearly we didn't have a process of getting those out in some meaningful way."

Fathom helped "articulate what it is we really stood for and got us excited about it — that is probably the most important thing because it … almost immediately helped us out in terms of differentiating ourselves in the marketplace as well as giving us the language to speak about the work that we were doing in a compelling way," Svigals said.

It worked; the firm is busier right now than ever, he said.

"If you have a very clear idea about who you are and what you stand for, it can enliven every aspect of what you do," externally and internally, Svigals said.

Robertson also is writing a book on designing commitments one can sustain, much of it based on his experience as a new runner.

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