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Dream Big

From an office in a closet, Bernie and Paula Swain and friend Harry Rhoads founded the world’s largest speakers bureau

Bernie and Paula Swain - Photo by Greg Hills

Bernie and Paula Swain - Photo by Greg Hills

A handshake sealed the deal when Bernie Swain committed his first client to the brand new Washington Speakers Bureau in 1980. And it was about time. The bureau’s co-owners — Bernie and his wife, Paula, and friend Harry Rhoads — were about two months from running out of money and permanently closing the door on their business, which was literally a closet door.

“What about a contract?” Paula asked. In his excitement, Bernie forgot that seemingly crucial step in the negotiation. But he had given his word and believed it was too late to go back and ask for a signature on a contract’s bottom line.

“That mistake was the defining moment,” he says. Word soon spread in the gossipy town of Washington, D.C., that this new speakers bureau did not demand a one- or two- year contract and a client could leave at any time. “Many of these people were tired of being under a written agreement,” Bernie explains. “They liked the flexibility of taking a chance with us, knowing that there was no obligation and they could walk away if we didn’t do well. That put the burden on us to work hard to keep them. To this day we have never had a written contract and this makes us unique in the industry.” 

Between that first handshake and 1991, Washington Speakers Bureau grew to become the world’s largest and still is today with annual revenues over $150 million and some 3,000 speaker events each year. It has represented three U.S. presidents, the past five British prime ministers and myriad statesmen, authors, journalists, sports figures, military heroes, business visionaries and inspirational speakers.