Do you want your eventual exit to benefit many instead of a few? Want to motivate and empower the team by making them personally invested in the agency’s success? Have you thought about employee shares or stock options? Learn what you should do and what to avoid in this situation from the CEO of an employee-owned agency. It was an unconventional exit strategy by its owner. However, it the new ownership structure offers many benefits for all involved and is a very interesting way to positively ensure that everyone at the agency has skin in the game.
Leeann Leahy is the CEO of VIA, a full-service advertising and marketing agency based in Portland, Maine. They are an award-winning team and one of the largest independent agencies in the business. How did they do it? Many years after its creation, the last remaining original partner decided to build a very interesting ownership structure that would benefit all employees instead of a select executive team. Leeann discusses the process of putting such a structure together, the challenges, and the many benefits it creates for the business culture and overall employee commitment.
In this interview, we’ll discuss:
How to set up an employee-owned agency and mistakes to avoid. Finding the right agency employee ownership option. Why successful ESOPs start with a foundation of good culture. Subscribe Apple | Spotify | iHeart Radio | Stitcher | Radio FM
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Create Something Larger than Yourself with an Employee-Owned Structure In a sense, Leeann grew up in the agency world. She was a child actor in several commercials, so she grew up around the business of advertising. At one point in her life, she swore off that world. However, she fell right back into it with account planning. Since then she has had a successful career working at both large and small agencies. Ten years ago she moved to Portland, Maine and became the CEO of a very interesting employee-run project.
When the agency was created, its three owners had a vision of creating something larger than themselves. This is why they named it VIA (Vision, Instinct, and Action) instead of something tied to the founders. Over the years, two of the partners left and, as the last one prepared to step away from his active role, the agency got a lot of acquisition offers. With Fortune 500 clients and awards for best culture, the agency was a valuable asset for any buyer. Instead, the remaining partner had something very different planned for his exit strategy. He set up an agreement whereby he would give the agency to the employees.
This was not a typical employee-ownership program. It was completely bespoke, with lawyers and accountants advising against it. However, they started a program measuring the agency’s performance each year and if they reached certain metrics, the owner would gift a portion of his ownership in the form of options.
The program, which they called VEEP (VIA's Employee Equity Program) was meant to last for ten years. Fortunately, they were actually able to do it all by year seven.
Finding the Right Agency Employee Ownership Structure Seven years after starting VEEP, employees could convert their earned "options" into shares. This is when they realized the lawyers and accountants were right.
The original agreement had the best intentions; however, it didn’t take tax implications into consideration. The problem was that the conversion from options to shares was prohibitively expensive because of the agency's growth over the years. As a result, they were forced to reevaluate their situation.
They looked at many different types of structures that didn’t involve giving up their independence.