By: Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy for LoHud.com
Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson remembers the day when as a 19-year-old “shy” girl, she was confronted with a challenge.
An envelope arrived at her home in Eastchester, with an invitation to attend a “familiarization” meeting for the Miss Westchester pageant.
It was 1971, and the woman who owned thewallpaper store where Bracken-Thompson worked part-time had submitted her name to be invited.
“My mom received the envelope at home and decided it would be a good thing for me to get over my shyness,” recalled Bracken-Thompson, a founding partner of Thompson & Bender, the Briarcliff Manor-based public relations, advertising and marketing firm. “It was my first experience at taking a risk. As I look back on my career, anytime that I really succeeded was when I took a risk, when I jumped into something where I had no comfort level.”
Not only was Bracken-Thompson crowned Miss Westchester and then Miss Rockland (after moving to Suffern), she went on to compete in the Miss America pageant in 1974 as Miss New Jersey, a title she won as a visiting student at Ramapo State College in Mahwah.
The experience taught her a lesson that has served her well: with risks come rewards.
“It gave me confidence and taught me discipline,” she said. “I had to stay in shape, stay focused and learn to deal with fear.”
She also learned that your first job doesn’t define you.
Despite a college degree, she began her career as a receptionist. She worked her way up to senior marketing roles at Gannett and now at Thompson & Bender, where she is a partner.
For almost 30 years, she’s had her fingerprints in the promotion of all manner of entities looking to make inroads in the county, from real estate conglomerates to hospitals to colleges to nonprofits.
Pulled into the then-fledgling two-year-old public relations firm of Thompson & Bender in 1990, Bracken-Thompson brought her expertise in advertising and marketing, doubling the number of clients in one year.
The company today does over $5 million in business and boasts a client list that includes the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the county’s Office of Economic Development, City of Yonkers and Ritz-Carlton in White Plains.
Teaching was not in the cards
Growing up in Eastchester, Bracken-Thompson said she always thought she would work as a teacher, following in her mother’s footsteps.
Entering the world of pageants while enrolled as a student at the College of New Rochelle revealed a side of herself she said she didn’t know existed.
“It was a really a great training ground for me because it was a scholarship pageant and there was a talent portion,” said Bracken-Thompson, whose talents were singing and dramatic reading. “In those days, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for women to compete in sports. We were always on the sidelines. I was a cheerleader and twirler but never competing.”
From 1974-75, as the reigning Miss New Jersey, Bracken-Thompson made appearances throughout the state at ribbon-cuttings and conferences. The title also came with money to pay off her student loans.
With her college degree in hand, Bracken-Thompson, married and started her search for a teaching job in 1975, but an oversupply of teachers meant few open positions. Instead, she went to secretarial school to learn to type.
Her first job was as a receptionist at the headquarters of the Gannett Suburban Newspapers in White Plains, then a chain of 10 newspapers in the county along with the Rockland Journal-News.
She wasn’t long for the job. Within three months Bracken-Thompson was promoted to the marketing department as a copywriter for promotions.
From that initial receptionist position, Bracken-Thompson worked her way up over the next 15 years to the vice president of marketing and community relations, reporting directly to the publisher.
Bracken-Thompson said she was totally committed to the job. Along the way she got divorced.
“I was a single woman and for me, my career became my baby and I put all of my passion, my focus into what I did,” she said. “I got a lot of personal reward and satisfaction from that.”
On her own
By the late ’80s, two of her Journal News colleagues, Geoff Thompson (whom she married in1998 after a divorce) and Dean Bender, decided to establish their own public relations firm, Thompson & Bender, working with local businesses.
As business picked up, more clients started inquiring about other services such as marketing and advertising.
When they needed advice, Bender and Thompson would inevitably end up calling the expert they knew.
“I started getting more and more calls with them asking ‘how do I do this’ or ‘how I do that’,” said Bracken-Thompson.
Soon she decided to take another risk and join them.
Within a year, the Thompson & Bender client roster doubled, from six to 12.
Joe Simone, the CEO of Simone Development, a developer who has built more than a million square feet in commercial real estate in New York, said his firm’s 15-year partnership with Thompson & Bender was in large part due to the vision and energy Bracken-Thompson brought to every meeting.
“She takes the time to understand your business and where you want your business to go,” said Simone. “We worked together on the Hutchinson Metro Center project in the Bronx and everything from branding of the name itself to marketing and advertising, she did everything with creativity. She does everything with passion.”
Many of her clients have stayed on for the long haul, including New York-Presbyterian, a partnership that has lasted 25 years.
Other than the three partners, the firm has 18 employees. All happen to be women.
“Because of our sensitivity and emotional make-up, we (women) have a higher perception of what’s going on with a client,” said Bracken-Thompson.
Numerous studies have shown that women outperform men when it comes to emotional intelligence, which includes empathy, self-awareness and social skill. Indeed, companies are starting to recognize its advantages when it comes to positions like sales, teams, and leadership.
Over the years, she worked with Lou Cappelli, one of the biggest developers in the area, on multiple downtown revitalization projects including New Roc City in New Rochelle and City Center and Renaissance Square in White Plains.
Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester, said Bracken-Thompson’s strength lies in her understanding of the Westchester business community.
“She’s able to take a strategic view of where they fit in the fabric of the economy of Westchester,” said Gordon.
Along the way, Bracken-Thompson has also made it a mission to give back by mentoring and serving on local not-for-profit boards.
Among the many awards she’s won over the years is the “Woman of Leadership and Excellence Award” in 2012 from Girl Scouts Heart of the Hudson.
Her advice for female entrepreneurs:
“Trust your instincts, take risks, be optimistic, embrace change and be financially disciplined,” she said. “And live by the numbers.”