Ad Shop, The VIA Agency, Redefines Employee Ownership

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Over the next 10 years, VIA Founder will transfer equity to employees through an incentive program, designed to impact the industry and set new standard for entrepreneurs

I didn’t want to follow everyone else and approached it like we would for any of our clients, which is to rethink the problem and develop a new idea.

The VIA Agency, a full-service creative agency, today rolled out the details of its new employee ownership business model during its first shareholder meeting held in Portland, Maine. VIA Founder and Chairman John Coleman, thoughtfully designed the model as the “perfect deal” -- meaning employee owners, clients, the community and the industry will all benefit from it.

Unlike the traditional options of an ESOP or holding company, Coleman and his wife, Linda, will transfer their equity to employees through an incentive program over the course of the next 10 years.

“It took me 20 years to build the VIA Agency, so deciding on a succession plan took a lot of thought,” said Coleman. “I didn’t want to follow everyone else and approached it like we would for any of our clients, which is to rethink the problem and develop a new idea. In all businesses, there are good deals and there are perfect deals, and this is a perfect deal, where all parties gain something and it has a certain elegance to it.”

How it Works
Starting in 2016, at the end of each fiscal year, if certain benchmarks are met (financial growth, profitability and overall company health), the Colemans will transfer up to 10 percent of their equity and grant all employees stock options.

Benefits for All

  •     Employee Owners - For many creatives, the idea of starting your own business is appealing but can be very risky. This is a chance for employees to work for themselves without the risk and know that they have a stake in the company. It’s also an opportunity for personal wealth and to be debt free.
  •     Clients - Potential and existing clients are able to work with world class talent that’s motivated and will continue to help grow their business through creativity, without having to worry about a revolving door of employees.
  •     Community - Offering a sustainable company for the city of Portland, this sets an example for the entire state of Maine on how to bring in more creatives and build a nationally recognized brand outside of major cities. The Colemans could have taken their profits and made a straight donation to a museum or institution, instead they’re investing in the employees who will go and join the museum and give back in other ways. This model is designed to have ripple effects that will give and give.
  •     Industry - Other agencies will start to follow this model to compete against Silicon Valley and recruit and retain the best talent. It offers the world’s best recruitment tool while still creating a safety net.

“We work in a creative industry so why not think about our business model just as creatively,” said Leeann Leahy, CEO of VIA. “It gives us a competitive edge, invested employees, generates profit, gives back to the community, ensures a longer lifespan of the agency and all that adds up and results in us producing the highest level of work for our clients. I’m thrilled to be embarking on the next chapter of VIA with a smart and strategic model in place.”  

In addition to transitioning VIA to a new employee ownership model, Coleman also recently self-published a book titled, VIA Principles to share his experience and insight on the 10 principles he founded VIA and used to successfully cultivate a culture of creativity. In the book he mentions his journey to turn the company into an employee-owned entity and writes, “If everyone contributes, everyone fairly benefits. Not equally but fairly, providing personal and collective motivation that we believe will ensure the longevity and sustainability of VIA for generations to come, and nothing would make us prouder.”

VIA Principles will be available on Amazon in the summer of 2016.

About The VIA Agency
The VIA Agency is an employee-owned, full-service creative agency that’s dedicated to helping their clients grow their business through creativity. Located in Portland, Maine, VIA has helped some of the world’s most recognizable brands and innovative enterprises, such as Unilever, Perdue Foods and Facebook, to create ground-breaking campaigns that reflect their own unique corporate styles. VIA also fundamentally believes in using creativity to drive cultural change and has dedicated its services to numerous humanitarian organizations, including Greenpeace and the United Nations. VIA was named Ad Age’s 2011 Small Agency of the Year.

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Laurel Getz
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