For Brenda Garrand, work that matters propels life’s plotline.
Brenda Garrand sweeps into Portland’s Cumberland Club already in storytelling mode. Greeting me with a hug, and staff members like old friends, she regales us with a tale of getting her little electric car stuck on top of a snow bank—“impaled” is the word she uses—and in characteristic style turns a frustrating mishap into a madcap adventure that has everyone laughing. The CEO of Garrand Partners, a Portland-based advertising and marketing communications firm, Garrand has spent her career telling the stories of an impressive roster of clients that includes Dunkin’ Donuts, Hood, and Maine Medical Center. She built the nearly 30-year-old agency with a blend of brains, wit, and New England pluck, and along the way not only had to promote herself and her team, but also the idea that big-league campaigns could come out of a small firm in Maine.
A Vermont native who grew up in New Hampshire, Garrand came to Maine to attend Bates College and never left. “One of my colleagues asked me, ‘You’re the most New York person I know—why have you lived and made your career in Maine?’” Garrand says, as we talk over tea by the fire in the club’s cozy Red Room. “Urban legend has it—and I’m not sure this is absolutely true—that I was one of the few people in my graduating class, especially one with an art history degree, that had a job.”
After working as an intern “for two cents and a fish hook” at WCBB Channel 10 in Lewiston, part of the PBS network, she landed a job as the station’s director of public information right out of college in 1979. “I had a chance to start a career doing the work I wanted to do without having to pack a suitcase,” she says.
In 1982, Garrand’s ties to Maine grew even stronger when she met the man she would marry. David Pierson was also a Bates graduate, but “so much older,” she jokes. After getting his master’s degree at the New School for Social Research in New York City, Pierson returned to Maine and became a contractor, eventually building the Thomas Moser Cabinetmakers factory in Auburn, among other large projects. He then decided to go to law school, and is now a well-respected construction attorney with Eaton Peabody in Portland. “At the end of the day, it was clear that if I wanted to stay married to this man I adore, that he wasn’t going anywhere,” says Garrand. In 1987, after their only child, Charles, was born, a variety of circumstances prompted Garrand to start her own business. “My mother had done that, my grandfather had done that, it was part of the family tradition,” she says.
Marian Garrand was a powerful influence on her only child’s business acumen and creativity. “When I was six or seven, my mother said, ‘Enough of this domesticity business,’” Brenda recalls. “She got her driver’s license and a real estate license and within about 18 months was running her own real estate company.” Marian became involved in selling homes that had been part of the Cornish Artists’ Colony. The enclave of mostly summer homes was established by the sculptor Augustus Saint- Gaudens in the late 1800s and attracted many of the creative luminaries of the day, including painter and etcher Stephen Parrish, father of the illustrator Maxfield Parrish. “My mother, being the ambitious chick that she was, thought it would be great for us to leave the beautiful, ranch-style home she and my dad had built after the war and purchase one of these old, fabulous cottages,” Garrand says. The house, called Northcote, had been the Parrish home. “I grew up surrounded by the crumbling remains of an extraordinary community,” says Garrand, admitting that while the property was a “fabulous, magical place,” it was also remote, and lonely for an only child. “I learned how to do stuff and how to be busy and how to take solace and comfort in my own company,” she says. The experience of growing up in that environment was formative for her. “It made me appreciate the way a cultural surrounding impacts the quality of one’s life,” she says. “Here in Portland, it’s not dissimilar. There’s a certain muse that exists in communities, something that happens when people who are like-minded, similarly influenced, and inspired are in proximity to each other.”
What Garrand calls “the critical buzz that comes from connectivity,” coupled with her independent spirit, have driven her business and personal success. In addition to leading a team of 25 at Garrand Partners, she is in her third year as Maine’s honorary consul of Canada—a post that involves strengthening business ties between the state and its northern neighbor— and she owns a vacation home-rental business, Villa Europe. Throughout her career, she has been involved in nonprofit organizations. Currently she serves on the boards of Maine and Co., Maine Public, and the Mitchell Institute; is a member of the Leadership Council of the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges; and is vice-president of the Cumberland Club.
Somehow, she also finds time for leisure: sailing with her husband and son, playing the piano, and knitting—including sweaters for her beloved King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Isobel. Garrand usually spends part of the winter in Florence, Italy—headquarters for Villa Europe— but says matter-of-factly that she was too busy to make the trip this year. “The older I get, it’s not so much about writing a great headline or figuring out the best strategic plan—I like all that, but I really like the business of business,” she says. Going to a Sea Dogs home game and seeing her clients’ names on the billboards surrounding Hadlock Field is especially gratifying, she says. “And the real reason it’s so much fun is that you think about the people whose lives have been entwined with yours, the kids who’ve gone to college, and the moms and dads who’ve raised babies, and now grandchildren, and the long tradition of doing what you do.” That’s a lot of stories, and, for Garrand, there are many more to be told.