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Baltimore Sun's 2019 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: Sandy Hillman

Public relations executive Sandy Hillman is a 2019 inductee in The Baltimore Sun's Business and Civic Hall of Fame.
Public relations executive Sandy Hillman is a 2019 inductee in The Baltimore Sun's Business and Civic Hall of Fame. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

When Sandy Hillman’s husband told her they would be moving to Baltimore, she thought her life was over.

After graduating from Penn State, she had moved to New York and got a job in publishing, working with legendary magazine editor Barbara Tober. A couple of years later, she and her husband, attorney Robert Hillman, moved to Washington, where she got a job in education policy for the Johnson administration. But about all she knew about Baltimore came from doing some door knocking the year before for a law school friend of her husband’s who was running for City Council, another Bob, last name Embry.

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By the time she and her Bob got to Baltimore, the other Bob was running the city’s housing and community development department, and he got her a job that introduced her to every part of the city. It was a lucky break for her — and for Baltimore. Over the next decade and a half, she would do as much as anyone to change how the world saw Baltimore and how Baltimore saw itself.

Her boss during most of that time, William Donald Schaefer, deservedly gets the credit for laying out the vision that took Baltimore from its low point after the 1968 riots, a time when suburbanization and deindustrialization had taken a terrible toll physically and psychologically, to a new period of optimism and rebirth. But it was Sandy Hillman’s genius for selling that vision, here and around the world, that made Baltimore’s resurgence possible.

“She was instrumental in Harborplace, promoting it across the country,” says Lainey Lebow-Sachs, whom Ms. Hillman recruited into the Schaefer administration while the two were watching their kids at the Mt. Washington pool. “At that time, it was unbelievable. Press from every city in the country wanted to see what he created in Harborplace” because of Ms. Hillman’s efforts.

Schaefer saw tourism as the quickest way to generate jobs to offset those lost when so many of Baltimore’s factories closed, and that put Ms. Hillman, who headed Baltimore’s tourism and promotion office for 13 years, right at the center of so much of what we consider his legacy. It wasn’t just Harborplace but also the National Aquarium, Pier 6, the City Fair, the Baltimore Farmers’ Market and on and on.

“Sandy was our go-to person for everything,” says Marion Pines, who worked with Ms. Hillman in a variety of roles in the Schaefer administration. “When she finally said she was leaving, Schaefer stood in the corner and cried.”

“We were doing important, serious work for the city, and yet we always had such a wonderful time doing it,” Ms. Pines says. “That was the secret.”

To this day, Ms. Hillman says she sees those years as the most meaningful personally and professionally of her life, and indeed, if her career had stopped there, she would have left an indelible legacy on her adopted hometown. But she has had another entire professional life since then that’s just as notable.

After leaving City Hall in 1984, Ms. Hillman moved into the private sector at the public relations and advertising firm Trahan, Burden & Charles, where she spent 23 years in a variety of roles including vice chairman and CEO, representing clients around the world, mainly in the tourism, hospitality and entertainment industries. Then, a dozen years ago, she decided to open her own boutique PR firm, Towson-based Sandy Hillman Communications. What she has accomplished is impressive — she has represented big-name clients from Walmart to Caesars Entertainment to the World Series of Poker — but those who have worked with her say the way she has done it is even more so.

The hallmarks of Ms. Hillman’s style as a manager and leader all stem from lessons learned during the Schaefer years, she says. He found the best people he could and gave them autonomy. Despite having no family himself, he understood and valued family-work balance. He instilled a do-it-until-it’s-right, exceed-expectations work ethic. He took risks. Ms. Hillman has not only emulated that kind of leadership but has instilled it in others as the consummate mentor.

“She’s somebody who makes things happen,” says Liz Feldman, a senior vice president at Hillman Communications who has worked with Ms. Hillman for more than 20 years, starting at TBC. “She gets things done, she’s resourceful, and it’s all done in a thoughtful, appropriate, compassionate way.”

Jayme Wood, who got her first job out of college with Ms. Hillman and stayed with her through the transition from TBC to Hillman Communications, says what was incredible about working for her was the knowledge, context, understanding and creativity she brought to the business combined with an utter inclusiveness and openness to others’ ideas.

“I remember on day one, I sat at my desk for two seconds before I was called into a client meeting,” Ms. Wood says. “She brought you into the fold. You got to see how things began.”

Ms. Hillman hasn’t been wrong about a lot of things in her career, but she certainly was about her life being over when she moved to Baltimore, and we can all be thankful for that.

She’s somebody who makes things happen.


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