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Articles > Katie Smarilli: A hidden force driving midstate businesses

Katie Smarilli: A hidden force driving midstate businesses

By Jennifer Wentz

Even if you don’t know Katie Smarilli by name, there’s a good chance you’ve seen work produced by one of the companies she runs with her husband, Jim.

The jutting PinnacleHealth logo. Marketing for Harrisburg’s Strawberry Square. Not to mention the crucial behind-the-scenes work helping countless emerging businesses arrange their finances.

Katie Smarilli worked for 33 years in banking, including a role leading Wachovia’s seven-county southcentral Pennsylvania market, and eight years in mergers and acquisitions with investment banking firm Murphy McCormack. But even as she helped those companies build their brands, she kept a foot in the business she and her husband started in 1984: Smarilli Marketing Communications.

She made the leap into entrepreneurship again earlier this year with the launch of Smarilli Strategic Partners, a business consulting firm specializing in succession planning, process improvements and branding.

In her new endeavor, Smarilli is leveraging the relationships she has built over decades of work in the midstate to get back to what she always enjoyed most about banking: Helping other companies get better.

“It was really time for me to form a company that truly focuses on the owner of the closely held business,” she said.

The move was less of a leap than it was a logical hop back into full self-employment. Smarilli said she had a long and rewarding career in banking, and still has a keen sense for the finances of any work she does with a business, whether it’s preparing to sell or restructuring debt.

Bankers, however, are limited in the kinds of advice they can offer clients. Even the merger-and-acquisitions field tends, Smarilli feels, to be centered more on the end transaction than on the health of the business.

“It’s really important to look at that business owner holistically … which is really different from focusing on a sale,” she said. “We explore all the options with the business owner along the way, and we also strengthen their business so they can be the best they can be.”

Smarilli seems to have picked a good time to go full-force into the business consulting world. Although merger activity in Central Pennsylvania was down 25 percent last year compared to 2015, there are no shortage of companies looking to buy in the rising economy, according to Philadelphia-based Baker Tilly Capital LLC.

More business owners will feel comfortable selling their companies, or passing them on to the next generation, under the loosened regulations and tax cuts for businesses promised by the new presidential administration, Smarilli suspects. Demographics are further boosting the outlook for the M&A market, with a growing number of baby boomers eyeing retirement.

Smarilli also has who she sees as the perfect business partner at her side: her husband, Jim. The two share ownership in both the communications and the consulting firms, with Jim Smarilli taking point on the former and Katie Smarilli leading the latter.

Although they don’t necessarily cross-sell the two businesses’ services, natural overlaps emerge. When Katie Smarilli draws up the paperwork for a sale, for example, she might lean on the expertise of the communications firm to ensure the buyer and seller understand what they’re reading.

Several months into this latest step in her career, Katie Smarilli feels good about her decision to go fully into business for herself.

“I think if you follow your passion, it’s the right thing,” she said.