When Virginia public relations firm Carter Ryley Thomas was still operating as part of Earle Palmer Brown, senior executives at the parent company would refer to its management team as “the socialists in Richmond.” The description was a reference to the egalitarian philosophy and democratic management style favored by Mark Raper, Mike Mulvehill, Brian Ellis, and J.R. Hipple, whose approach the folks at EPB never really embraced.
It’s easy to see why. The Carter Ryley Thomas management style (Carter is the name of Raper’s daughter; Ryley and Thomas are the sons of Mulvehill and Ellis) is probably not for everyone. Important meetings, like an off-site retreat a couple of weeks ago, begin with a prayer and a reading from Dr. Seuss (“Oh, the places you’ll go”) and get even more weird as the day progresses. After several account team members testify to the agency’s family culture and importance in their lives, it’s off to the playing fields where people toss eggs at one another and hold hula-hoop contests.
But if the culture at CRT is unique, it is clearly also powerful. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sincerity with which the principals discuss their principle-centered approach to management, or the obvious affection the account staff have for one another. And if that’s not enough to overcome an outsider’s cynicism, there’s the fact that the approach is paying off, in terms of growth, recognition, and the ability to attract and retain people.
When CRT spun off from Earle Palmer Brown in 1996, it had 32 employees. All but three of them are still there. The three who left all did so in order to start families. Says Raper, “We’ve never lost anyone to another PR firm, to another PR job.” In today’s employment universe, which is definitely a seller’s market, that’s a remarkable achievement.
Of course, it helps that everyone at CRT is an owner. “All of our people are owners,” says Raper. “Professional and support staff are owners. We have about 40 owners, and it’s very democratic. The top six shareholders have just 47 percent of the company. And not only do we give people ownership, we also promise that we will buy them out if they leave.”
It also helps that the agency offers what its principals believe to be “the best benefits package in the PR industry,” a 401K matching program, an impressive ongoing commitment to professional development that uses in-house and outside tutors, and a host of family-friendly initiatives that include child and elder care.
“The other thing is that we really emphasize fun, and we really emphasize faith,” says Hipple. “People don’t talk very much about fun in the workplace. They don’t talk very much about faith, or spirituality. We believe those issues are central to our success. We talk about them all the time, and we try to incorporate them into everything we do.”
Lest all the talk of faith creates the wrong impression, Raper—whose father was a minister—is quick to point out that faith comes in all forms. “We like to talk about a higher power, but what that higher power is will vary from person to person. It might be the team is the higher power.”
Not surprisingly, then, the agency leadership has dedicated a lot of energy to articulating and institutionalizing its values. Those values include:
·         What’s best for the group comes first
·         Always be open and honest
·         Have a passion for unsurpassed quality, continuous learning and personal excellence
·         Work for and trust each other
·         Deliver more than promised
·         Seek responsibility, and share recognition and rewards
·         Respect and value individuals—clients, associates and suppliers—and their differences
·         Keep a balance between family and work
·         Give without expecting anything in return
Clients have reacted positively, for the most part, to the CRT approach, but some of the agency’s advisers have questioned the wisdom of such a “warm and fuzzy” approach. Says Hipple, “The people who think we’re crazy are people like our accountants and our lawyers.”
Raper and his colleagues believe their internal investments are paying off in the external environment. The agency gets called in to handle the kind of assignments that typically fall only to much larger firms. In the past 12 months, CRT has worked on a culture change initiative for a Fortune 500 company and change management communications during the merger of Fort Howard and James River to create Fort James Corporation.
The agency has also won national awards for its work for Fort James and ITT Industries, and expects more. Its “big hairy audacious goals”—a term borrowed from management consultants Jerry Porras and William Collins—include ten CIPRAs or Silver Anvils in ten years, as well as ten “icon” accounts, 10 percent average growth, ten years or more of service to the majority of its clients, and ten percent of after tax profit donated to the community.
New business development has not been a high priority since the acquisition, with management focusing instead on employee issues and servicing existing clients, and successfully retiring all debt from the acquisition of the agency after just two years. That’s about to change, Raper says. “We want to grow by $2 million over the next two years,” he says, while maintaining pretax, pre-bonus margins significantly higher than the industry norm.
One thing is certain: Carter Ryley Thomas will succeed on its own terms, without compromising the things its principals believes in. To Raper and Mulvehill and Ellis and Hipple, that’s the most important thing.