A Visit with Tony Waller
Senior Director, Constituent Relations
You’re from Danville, Virginia, by way of Puerto Rico?
That’s right. My parents are both from Danville, but my father was a plumber with Levitt & Sons, the New York City construction company that built Levittown and other early planned communities. They were building another one, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, a city outside of San Juan, and asked my father if he would be willing to move there and work on the project. He made the move and came to love Puerto Rico, so I lived there until I was 15. Then we moved back to Danville.
And you went to the University of Virginia?
I did, but it wasn’t my first choice. I originally wanted to attend the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and was accepted. But then UVA offered me a lot more in scholarship money, and my father said, “This is something we have to discuss.” He insisted I go to UVA for a year, and if I didn’t like it, they would do what they needed to do to get me to Georgetown. But I fell in love with the place. I loved UVA’s history, but I also got very involved in campus life. I found the experience very nurturing, and it was also the right distance from home. I also loved the fact that I was able to create my own major. I did an interdisciplinary study in Latin American Affairs. I got to study without barriers. I was about two hours away from Danville — far enough to feel on my own, but also close enough to get home if I wanted to. I got accepted to live in one of those historic rooms on the Lawn, which is a real honor, but turned it down because I got to be an RA for an entire dorm, which I loved.
Then you worked for State Farm?
I did. A UVA friend who worked there told me it would be a good fit and actually came to the grounds from the corporate headquarters in Illinois and handed me the application. She had me fill it out then and there. I hadn’t thought about working for State Farm, but my whole philosophy is that if an opportunity comes my way, even if it isn’t something I had wished for, then it must be for me. I didn’t always think that way. I used to try to create opportunities, to make things happen to achieve specific goals for my life. But when that was my approach, I was always unhappy. I think that attitude is ultimately limiting. Now I just try to prepare myself to be ready if and when an opportunity comes my way. That means I accept challenges that might seem crazy to others or even to me. I don’t like to limit myself to my own ideas of what direction my life will take.
Can you offer an example of that attitude from your current work for Walmart?
Sure. We had a situation come up where a matter had to go to our legal department for mediation. I was asked to mediate the dispute. I’m not a lawyer; I knew nothing about mediation. But the attorneys felt I had the right outlook and demeanor to do this. They said I was free to turn down the opportunity and that I wouldn’t be handling this alone. Other lawyers would be involved. So I did it, and the results were good. So I’m glad I did it. Another aspect of the way I approach things now is to remind myself that the outcome of any situation isn’t necessarily what you think it will or should be. The outcome is that you learned something from it.
You attended the Council’s Public Affairs Institute. How was that experience?
It was great, and not necessarily because the faculty is outstanding, which they are. What I found most rewarding was the interaction with other individuals from different companies and entities who do the same kind of work I do. I wouldn’t say this profession is lonely, but our work is very specialized, so people don’t always understand what it is that we do. They don’t experience the ups and downs that those of us in public affairs do. So when you get a chance to be with people who really do understand, it’s very refreshing and invigorating. The topics of conversation are really helpful. And the experience is structured so that it forces you to step away from your ordinary daily routines and give yourself time to do some deep introspective thinking. You can step back and do some serious strategic thinking.
Thinking strategically, what is the biggest challenge facing the public affairs profession?
I think it involves how we represent what we do to the rest of the organization we work for. The corporate world thinks in terms of the bottom line, and too often those of us in this line of work are seen as an expense factor rather than a profit center. People who work with dollars and cents don’t always understand the value of our profession. This needs to change, and I think it will change. With new technology, with analytics and social media, the day will come when we will be better able to represent the work we do in monetary terms. Ten or 15 years ago, if you talked about this, people would look at you like you’re out of your mind, but today they are much less likely to react that way. Remember that mediation I participated in? I’d like to believe that because the dispute was handled through mediation, and I was part of it, the public affairs department might have saved the company a lot of money by avoiding a costly lawsuit.
What would you do if you weren’t working in public affairs?
I’d be an opera singer or in the fashion industry, as a designer or stylist. I studied music for years, and when it came time to think about attending a conservatory, I had to face the realities of the situation. My parents grew up very, very poor, though my dad did quite well in his career. My parents wanted their children not to have to struggle as they did when they were young. So we had to talk about whether I could really make a living as an opera singer. I had to look at the practicality of the situation and make some tough choices.
And for fashion?
As for fashion, I’m still involved on the side. I’m a personal shopper for clients. It’s my side hustle. I have clients for whom money is no object, but also ones who have a very limited budget. People need to understand that you don’t have to have an unlimited budget to dress with style. I can shop for them at consignment shops and thrift stores, and they look great. I have a tie that whenever I wear it, people just go crazy. I bought it at a thrift store for $7.
Reach Waller at 479.277.7451 or email@example.com.
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