Having opened its doors in late 2018, Sheehy Strategy Group (SSG) still has that new-car smell. Founded by fiscal expert and public policy guru Tom Sheehy, this full-service government relations firm is truly a high-mileage machine.
Tom’s resume includes service in both the executive and legislative branches of California government, as well as state agencies. He spent 10 years as a principal consultant to both the California Senate and Assembly. As Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Finance, Tom helped shape and manage the state’s $150 billion budget for more than one Governor. He also served on some of the most influential Boards and Commissions within the Capitol’s eight-block radius and has an extensive network of relationships in both the public and private sectors.
When did you know you wanted a career in the public sector?
After I got out of graduate school, I was hired by the California Department of Finance as a staff analyst. When I walked in the door, they handed me a $5 billion budget assignment with the California Department of Transportation. I was responsible for all its capital outlay, local assistance, and support budget, which included all the operating expenses for 20,000 engineers, administrators, and maintenance workers. It was a huge responsibility to have and is one of the great things about being at DOF; they really give you a lot of responsibility right from the get-go.
However, I really knew that I wanted a career in public policy a few years later when I got my first job in the Legislature. I started in the Assembly in the Appropriations Committee and really got the bug for the legislative process, fiscal analysis and California politics as a whole.
What inspired you to launch Sheehy Strategy Group?
I was working as the Senior Government Affairs Director for Greenberg Traurig, which was a great place to work, even for a non-lawyer like me. It got to the point, however, where it no longer made sense to be a non-lawyer lobbyist in a big law firm. There were client acceptance restrictions due to conflicts and marketing limitations as the firm’s focus was on law practice and not lobbying. I knew I could be more effective on my own, out from under the weight of those constraints. I was confident that, if I had the ability to market SSG the way I saw fit, new doors would open for me, and they have!
You recently brought on some new staff. How has that expanded what SSG can do for its clients?
My wife and associate Brena Sheehy joined the practice with a strong background in property and casualty insurance, as well as the healthcare field. She is an incredibly good analyst and has great people skills, so it was a natural for her to join the practice as we started to grow. Brena had been an advisor to me since the very inception of the practice and joined it formally in 2020.
My strategic partner for procurement engagements, Eric Mandell, retired from state service in 2018 where he had made a career as an expert in the state’s procurement laws, regulations and practices. He was the Chief Procurement Officer at the California Department of General Services where he oversaw $10 billion in annual state contracts with a myriad of vendors.
Previously, Eric was the Chief of California’s Office of Small and Disabled Veterans Business Enterprise (DVBE) Services. He also served as the Acting Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Small Business and DVBE Advocate. Eric’s ability to help clients sell more products and contract with the state is unparalleled in Sacramento. This is one of the ways that Sheehy Strategy Group has an advantage over other firms.
Marketing a boutique firm in such a competitive space must be challenging, particularly during a pandemic. What tools has SSG utilized to get its message to prospective clients?
I have developed a very deep and broad contact network over my 20+ years of working at the State Capitol, both on the inside of government and on the outside as a lobbyist. With that contact network, I’ve been able develop direct email marketing campaigns that have proven to be effective. I also utilize major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where I provide original content and strategically use paid advertising. In the last year we’ve also contracted with Duran Kinst Strategies (whom I would highly recommend) to utilize their digital marketing and communications expertise to fine tune our message and the way it’s delivered.
I do not want to give away all my secrets, but I’m a strong proponent of having a good website. For example, if you check out the “News” section of the Sheehy Strategy Group website, you will find a long list of articles and videos posted, covering a variety of subjects. Those blog entries are topical and include important issues in California public policy that the Legislature is debating regularly at the State Capitol.
Despite operating during a global pandemic, your firm recorded some solid wins in 2020 for your clients. What were a few of your biggest accomplishments?
The Language Access Professionals Association (LAPA) asked us to help them get a few amendments into the labor code to address employee classification issues as a result of Assembly Bill 5, which passed in 2019. Although this is a very controversial issue and COVID-19 greatly limited the ability to communicate with members and their staff, Sheehy Strategy Group was able to get five or six key amendments into clean up legislation and solve our client’s problems, allowing LAPA to continue operating successfully in California.
We were also able to support the California Landscape Contractors Association by lobbying to stop some labor laws and related regulations that would have negatively impacted landscapers in California. We also worked through regulatory agencies (rather than legislation) to help a manufacturing client resolve issues with technical building standards, which affected their ability to sell their product in the state.
What sets SSG apart from larger public affairs firms in the Sacramento area?
What I try to impress upon a potential client is that big firms cannot compete with the level of engagement and individual attention that a boutique firm like Sheehy Strategy Group can provide. Potential clients sometimes think there is some “special sauce” they get when they hire a “big firm.” If you need to have a law firm that can also lobby, it makes sense to hire a large law firm; but if not, the size of the firm alone does not dictate the efficacy of its efforts. A client’s success all depends on who is handling the critical matters that they care about, and what the lead lobbyist brings to the table. Big firms have big overhead, and they charge big prices. At the end of the day, you may get much better service at a lower cost from a boutique firm like Sheehy Strategy Group as compared to hiring one of the “big” firms in Sacramento.
In addition, having worked in, with, and through all levels of government, Sheehy Strategy Group’s interdisciplinary experience gives us a leg up on the competition. Some lobbyists rely solely on getting legislators to introduce bills in order to solve their client’s problems. Our breadth of experience allows us to consider other channels that may be more effective, such as working with an administrative agency, avoiding further legislation or regulation altogether. We have a plethora of tools in our toolbox and know how to use them, enabling us to deliver winning results to our clients.
Thanks, Tom, for taking time to share about your experience and the important advocacy work the Sheehy Strategy Group can do on behalf of its clients.
Want to learn more? To connect with Tom Sheehy or SSG, visit sheehystrategygroup.com.