A slow pulse and a head for crises

Dan Hill thrives in a crisis and struggles to sit still when the fire is out.

He was once a firefighter and then a crisis consultant, but although he is not doing either at the moment Hill doesn’t lack daily challenges.

As the vice president for external affairs at AgustaWestland North America Inc., he is fighting to gain a strong footing for the European company in the U.S. defense and homeland-security market.

Agusta Westland, an Italian-British venture, is one of the largest helicopter companies in the world and part of the Italian consortium Finmeccanica.

“They are doing some pretty entrepreneurial things in the North American market,” Hill said. “It is almost a ground-floor opportunity, but for a reputable, global brand.”

Before joining Agusta’s staff, Hill worked with the company as a consultant to help it, with partner Lockheed Martin, to win the Navy’s contract for the US101, the new presidential helicopter.

But, having won the competition of a lifetime, the team can’t rest on its laurels. The new helicopter is an ambitious program with an aggressive schedule, inviting constant congressional scrutiny.

Agusta is vying for several high-profile defense contracts, such as the Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue helicopter and the Army’s light-utility helicopter. It also wants more work from the Department of Homeland Security in border protection, drug interdiction and customs. The department already employs armed Agusta helicopters to stop fast boats running drugs from Colombia.

Fighting for a slice of the U.S. national-security market is not easy. “We are up against companies that bring very powerful constituent arguments to Capitol Hill,” said Hill. “They are able to go to almost any member and talk about all the jobs they have in a [certain] district.”

Even though Agusta has had a facility near Philadelphia for 20 years, its presence has not matured, Hill added. Without the sure constituent argument, Hill approaches lawmakers with a different case.

“You have to operate differently in this environment, and we try to appeal to members of Congress and their policy sensibilities,” Hill said. “We go in and talk public policy, and most of what we talk about is the value of competition and the importance of a level playing field.”

He explained that the aerospace market is global and, just as U.S. companies operate internationally, European companies can have a strong presence in the U.S. market.

“Dan is very much in touch with his environment and relates to people very well,” said former Rep. Beau Boulter (R-Texas), who is now a consultant. “He is very strategic in his thinking, but at the same time his plans are very people-focused.”

Hill may be just the right person to help Agusta get its message across. He blends public affairs and government relations.

“I am surprised how many companies do not co-locate the two [fields],” Hill said. “So many people I deal with in this town are either lobbyists or communicators … and they are usually disconnected.”

He also added that his job is made easy by working for a CEO, Steve Moss, who is “a business guy who understands politics.”

Hill would know; he has degrees in political science and business from the University of New Mexico and James Madison University.

He did not intend to go into politics, but in 1992 he did opposition research for the reelection of President George H.W. Bush, and he never looked back. “I just absolutely loved it,” he said.

In 1993, as he lived in New Mexico, “Sen. Pete Domenici [R-N.M.] started mentoring me and gave me a lot of opportunities on some political races.”

One was a gubernatorial race in 1994, and another a Senate race supporting Colin McMillan in his challenge against Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D).

It was in the office of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) that Hill perfected the knack for combining communications with legislative affairs.

“[Johnson] was a great guy to work for. He is very ideological, and he did not let politics interfere with what he thought was right, so all we had to do is tell the truth and stand by our convictions.”

In his six years with the governor, Hill ended up in the niche of crisis communications. It was no coincidence that after leaving the governor’s office Hill went to work as the head of state government affairs and communications for the Sun Healthcare Group, facing numerous crises including bankruptcy.

After the company emerged from bankruptcy, Hill opened his own firm, Hill Public Affairs, in New Mexico. He was thrown into the Enron corruption case, working with Arthur Andersen, the now-defunct accounting firm.

“In most of these situations, it is mostly working with the in-house consultants and attorneys to make sure that whatever you say or do from a communications standpoint works in the context of the litigation environment,” Hill explained. “[The attorneys’] view is: ‘We have to win the case and protect the company.’ From a communications standpoint, you have to protect the company’s reputation and its ability to compete.”

Winning the case does not always mean the company stays intact, he added.

Based on his work for Andersen, Hill was hired by Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates as a managing director. He continued to work on the Andersen account but also on  Alvaro Uribe’s first, long-shot but successful bid to become president of Colombia.

Hill admits that it takes a “different kind of person” to do real crisis work. “When there is an emergency, it is almost as if things slow down and your pulse slows down and you see the things that are happening around you more clearly,” he said.

Just as he was ready to start over as an independent consultant, he was offered the position with AgustaWestland, an offer he could not refuse. “AgustaWestland was a company that I had grown to appreciate, and I like the international dimension,” he said.

“He does his homework, and because of his background he is able to think two or three questions ahead,” said Russ Caso, chief of staff to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.). “He is very modest.”

Hill chalks up his expertise to accidental events, just like his experience as a firefighter in college. He recalled that he went to the firehouse looking to volunteer answering phones and washing the fire engines. But when he was asked whether he wanted to become a firefighter, “I felt like I would be chickening out, and so I said ‘sure,’ and the next weekend I was in burning hell.” He ended up living in the firehouse for more than a year.