BY BRENDA MUELLER
After a five-year break from heading up his flagship business, founder and president, Mason Phelps, Jr., is back at the helm of Phelps Media Group, Inc. International and is taking it full speed ahead.
In 2014, after running the company for 12 years and building it into a large multidiscipline marketing and public relations firm with several news branches including Phelps Sports, PS Dressage and PS Polo, Phelps thought the time was right to expand at the management level. In addition, Phelps had numerous philanthropic interests in Canada, including managing the Kensington Conservancy and the Sailing Club. Phelps decided to minimize his role in the business and handed the reins of his prestigious firm over to his dedicated staff and hired a CEO/CFO to step in. After a few years away, Phelps decided that the passion he had for his business needed an outlet so he began to refocus on the equestrian sport again and is now completely reinvigorated to get back to the work he loves.
“I am re-energized to get to the office every day in a way that I wasn’t a few years ago,” said Phelps. “I look forward to getting to see the clients I haven’t been able to see in a while. I’m genuinely touched with the warm reception I have received and the number of old acquaintances who have reconnected with me.”
The Face of Equestrian PR
Phelps has long been known as the face of equestrian public relations because of his lifetime of experience in the sport and his vast network of connections. Phelps has been an exhibitor, groom, braider, attended the Olympic Games as a competitor, competed in Europe, judged the medal finals with Artie Hawkins and established connections that go back to the ’60s and ’70s from coast to coast. His experience and knowledge of the sport is priceless.
At the age of 16, Phelps attended his first United States Equestrian Team (USET) clinic. He earned his Olympic status as an alternate with the USET on the 1968 summer Olympics eventing squad and was named the U.S. Combined Training Association’s Rider of the Year.
In the early 1970s, Phelps opened a stable and began training hunters and jumpers. His involvement in the industry grew even more as he became an event manager, organizing top shows such as the American Jumping Derby from 1976–1988.
“Mason, as he does with everything, did it to the nines. Everything was just right,” remarked the legendary George Morris of the outstanding jumper derby event.
In 2002, Phelps co-founded the public relations firm Phelps, Wilkes & Associates with the National Horse Show (NHS) as their first client. At the time, the NHS was transitioning from Madison Square Garden in New York City to Wellington, Florida, with the visionary Gene Mische. Although there was no budget for media, Phelps took it on in an effort to support the iconic event that meant so much to the American equestrian heritage. The result was 50,000 spectators and an unprecedented 77 stories in the Palm Beach Post (11 on the front page).
In 2004, Phelps founded the prestigious equestrian public relations firm, Phelps Media Group. Following the success of the NHS, Mische hired Phelps Media Group to cover what is now the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), a huge endorsement for the company. By 2011, Phelps was named to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce President’s Circle for building “America’s most progressive and successful equestrian public relations firm.” Adding more laurels to the list, Phelps became president of the National Horse Show in 2008 and was a key player in its strategic move to the Alltech Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. He also organized the 2012 World Dressage Masters among a list of other exceptional events. In 2018, Phelps became chairman of the NHS.
With his attention refocused on the company, Phelps is here to stay. He has built a beautiful home to entertain and host charity-planning meetings for the Palm Beach Human Rights Council or the NHS and feels fortunate to live in Wellington with a foot in the door of the community.
“I would like to see growth and expansion in Phelps Media Group, to mimic the personal goals that I have for myself,” added Phelps. “I have a re-energized commitment and would like to see the equestrian sport be more of a mainstream event for the public. The goal would be to promote our top international riders and attract more sponsors to the sport — to take this sport and put it in the marketplace so our riders have fans. Right now, riders in other countries are more famous than our own and that just won’t do on my watch.”
“I feel very proud of some of the people that are in the media business and am happy to say, that working within the sport, we all work together when need be and respect each other’s contributions,” said Phelps.
Many people in the media business have passed through Phelps Media Group before finding their own niche. Jennifer Wood, now the head of Jump Media LLC, covered the Hong Kong Olympics for Phelps as well as the World Cup Finals in Malaysia and most every major international competition for the FEI Olympic disciplines.
Ann Glaven, writer for The Chronicle of the Horse, started with Phelps Media Group as an intern. Kendall Bierer, now the development officer of donor relations at Brooke USA, was an account executive and respected photojournalist for Phelps.
Phelps Media Group has also served as a platform for interns and young professionals to combine their sense of business with their passion for horses. The opportunity to talk to celebrities like Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden, Victoria Colvin and Debbie McDonald always makes their time at the firm memorable.
“I’m proud of the fact that people have come into our business and turned it into their careers,” added Phelps. “Our employees are like family and they are the most dedicated people I know.”
Marty Bauman, president and owner of Classic Communications, also got his start in equestrian public relations due to his business relationship with Phelps. Bauman now has established an impressive and lengthy resume, which includes serving as equestrian press officer at three Olympic Games.
Bauman and Phelps first connected at the American Jumping Derby in 1976. The derby was way ahead of its time as far as horse shows were concerned and the event hosted top riders such as Michael Matz with Jet Run, three-time winner Bernie Traurig, Katie Monahan-Prudent and Rodney Jenkins with Idle Dice. Phelps was looking for a company to handle the press and promotion, but was turning up empty handed. Bauman was suggested through a mutual friend and was just completing his master’s degree in public relations at the time.
“It’s no understatement to say that Mason brought me into this business and gave me a career,” stated Bauman. “It was nothing I ever thought or expected. I grew up with buses not horses.”
Bauman had never been to a horse show or been on a horse, but he got the job done. He drew huge crowds of people and even secured television promotion of the event. They went into town and found a little patch of grass to do a jumping demonstration to draw interest from the city. Phelps and Bauman went beyond the traditional promotion of the time and it worked.
“I have always believed that if it rained that weekend I would have a different career!” laughed Bauman. “But the sun was shining and
people came to the horse show!”
Years later, Bauman suggested Phelps to Mische for the promotion of WEF, which then got Phelps off of a horse and into the media business.
“Then we became competitors in business but we are friends first,” added Bauman. “We have a mutual respect for each other. Our friendship means more than the business.
To his clients, Mason is the kind of man that, once an agreement is made, he will deliver and go above and beyond. You can agree with just a handshake and trust that he will keep his word.”
The Business of Promotion
Both Bauman and Phelps have energy and vision and have done great things together with promoting the sport at the top of the list. In 2015, before the World Cup Finals in Las Vegas, the promotional duo figured out how to provide an over-the-top VIP experience with sponsor Taylor Harris Insurance Services (THIS), which went on to have branded success at many top horse shows around the country. The NHS was included in the mix for a win-win for everyone.
The NHS is a classic example of Phelps Media Group at its best. Phelps has been involved in the iconic event in one form or another throughout much of its history and wanted to keep it alive. He worked with Pierce Lyons of Alltech to sign up for a $500,000 sponsorship and a three-year contract to keep the legendary horse show going.
Phelps Media Group’s varied group of clients include equestrian products and services as well as the Devon Horse Show, the Upperville Colt & Horse Show, the American Gold Cup, the National Horse Show, George H. Morris, Taylor Harris Insurance Services and the USET Foundation, to name a few.
Connecting people and promoting the sport is what Phelps Media Group is all about.
The New Journey
Phelps Media Group, a full-service public relations firm, offers sports branding, public relations, event coverage, media strategy, web design and social media and continues to be a leader in the industry, especially with Phelps back in the driver’s seat.
Certainly, Phelps has steered the ship for years through stormy seas and smooth waters, but his infinite experience and limitless connections in the sport have kept the media ship not just afloat, but sailing into new territories and opportunities. With dedicated staff, Julie Tannehill, Rebecca Walton, Lenore Phillips, Annan Hepner, Taylor Rains, Catherine Zachariadis, Elaine Wessel, Emma Miller, Barre Dukes and Allyson Lagiovane, Phelps couldn’t ask for a better crew and they are all ready for the new journey to help grow the sport.
Personally, for Phelps, good business boils down to his relationships with staff, clients and organizations within the community. Having complete trust in the people you do business with is the most important factor.
“It’s not about money, it’s about what I believe in the sport and giving back in any way that makes sense,” said Phelps. “I’ve been here since the early days of the sport and God willing, will be around for what’s to come.”
Brenda Mueller, West Palm Beach, Florida, is the president and owner of Marketing4Equestrians/ChicagoEquestrian. She is currently conducting the media training for all of the USHJA Gold Star Clinics. Mueller was a professional trainer and rider for over 35 years before turning her interests to equestrian media.