At a time when cultural and political forces were aligned to keep people apart in Alabama, Shelley Stewart wanted to start a company designed to bring them together. And he was determined not to let the fact that he was a black man living in the segregated Deep South stop him.
Stewart envisioned forming an advertising, marketing and public relations firm that had an emphasis on establishing positive relationships between businesses and the surrounding community. After spending nearly 20 years in the radio industry in Birmingham as both an on-air personality and an office executive, Stewart was confident he had developed enough connections to make the idea work.
The only problem was, Stewart simply could not be the face of the company—not in Alabama in 1968. So he did the same thing he wanted the new company to do. He used his relationships to solve the problem. In this case, he convinced a longtime white friend and business associate, Cy Steiner, to be the company’s public persona, while Stewart would be the behind-the-scenes “silent” partner.
And thus Steiner Advertising was born, with Stewart playing a prominent (though unpublicized) role. Today, that company is known as o2ideas, with 78-year-old Shelley Stewart as the very public president and CEO.
“When others were fighting and talking about separation, Cy Steiner and I were bringing people closer together, ” says Stewart, at his Homewood office, located near Samford University. “The things that people are still struggling to do these days (in terms of race relations), it was easy for us to do back then. Cy and I just came together and did them.
“It takes both the black and the white keys on the piano to play the ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ People say they have to set up a diversity committee at their office. Well, Shelley Stewart and Cy Steiner, we were the diversity committee.”
This relationship began in 1958, when Stewart decided to buy a new necktie. By then he had become a popular radio voice on WEDR-AM in Birmingham, appealing to both black and white listeners with his “Shelley the Playboy” character. But he also was a businessman with a decade of experience in the industry. So, when officials with the McLendon radio chain that owned WEDR decided to open a new station in Shreveport, La., they sent Stewart to help with the advance work.
Not long after Stewart arrived in Shreveport he went into a store to buy a tie. At first, nobody waited on him, presumably because he was black. But then a man emerged from the back and apologized that Stewart had been ignored. That man was Cy Steiner.
“He was very nice, and I liked the way he presented himself, ” Stewart says. “I told him that we were starting a new radio station and were looking for a sales staff and that if he’d apply, I’d recommend him highly. Lo and behold, the next day he and his wife showed up at the radio station, and the owners hired him.”
It didn’t take long for Stewart to convince Steiner to move to Birmingham and go to work as a salesman for WEDR.
“We became very, very close friends, almost like brothers, ” Stewart says. “I knew both sides of the (radio) business, but there were some things I was not permitted to do because I was black. So we started this partnership. I would introduce him to the local market. He could do this over here, I knew how to do that over there, and together we could do great things.”
An influential voice in Birmingham during the Civil rights era, Stewart used his public platform to foster understanding among disparate sides, even in the face of Ku Klux Klan protests, sabotage of the station’s equipment and occasional death threats.
Anxious for his actions to speak as loud as his words, Stewart was determined to create an agency devoted to fostering positive business relationships.
“That’s where business comes from, through relationships, ” Stewart says. “I talked with Cy about doing this with me, and we became partners. We couldn’t put it on paper and record it, so we did a gentleman’s handshake. That was the beginning of what eventually became o2ideas.”
The company founded by Stewart and Steiner is now one of the largest communication companies in Alabama. It has had different names, partners and executives in its 44 years, but its goal has remained the same.
“If you just put common sense on the table, then business will grow. But if you put politics on that same table, then common sense is going to get thrown out the window, ” Stewart says. “We need business and common sense to be on the same table. That’s who I am, and that’s what o2ideas is all about.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
By Cary Estes