Entrepreneurs are frequently at the origins of PR agencies. These founders grow their teams and businesses for years or decades in hopes that the time will come where they can step back and move on – but what happens to the agency when they do? A popular option is selling to a private equity firm or merging with a larger agency. However, some owners are choosing to keep their businesses independent and must consider preparing the next generation of leaders.

In this episode of the PRovoke Media Podcast, leaders from three PROI Worldwide member firms join Paul Holmes to discuss their roles in steering their agencies and what it has been like to take over from the founding leaders and keep the agency running independently.

Debby Penton, managing director of Wildfire, says this approach to succession planning is a win-win for the new leader and staff. Next generation leaders aren’t as cut-throat as founders often are because there’s already a strong base, and employees feel that comfort and want to grow with the business as a result.

“As second-generation leaders, we’re in a fortunate position,” she said. “We’ve grown through the ranks, or someone has shared their business with us. We obviously will have sweated a lot to get there — nothing happens without a lot of hard work — but with that mentality, I feel that I don’t want to maximize value out of the business and kill everyone in the process. It feels like you want to reward the people around you a whole lot more because you feel fortunate to be in a position that you’re in.”

Luke Lambert, president and CEO of G&S Business Communications, agrees with Penton and talks about the years of personal growth that led him to his current position. His best advice to those looking to lead is to have an entrepreneurial spirit even though the business is well-established.

“I think it’s so important to be a risk-taker, a confident risk-taker,” he said. “Because if you’re not taking risks, then you’re not being entrepreneurial. Then, you run the risk of becoming stale, and you’re afraid as an agency to take on new ideas or bring new ideas to the table. I think about what happened in the past 10 years in our company. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have a creative team that’s 25 people strong and a digital team just as large.”

The firms represented in this episode are Wildfire, Klenk & Hoursch, and G&S Business Communications. All three are partner agencies of PROI Worldwide, a global networking group established to harness the collective power of the world’s most ambitious entrepreneurial communications firms.

Key moments

0:00 Introductions
7:51 Why choose independence over a cash payout
12:52 The mechanics of selling to existing employees
19:01 Entrepreneurial DNA and the next generation
25:00 Preparing new leaders for taking over
30:26 Things owners wish they knew before
35:00 What it’s like managing money and people
37:00 Passing the torch
42:47 Succession Planning 101