Employee Ownership Can Help Smooth Transition
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Employee Ownership Can Help Smooth Transition

At a time when the mid-sized independent agency is an endangered species, Edward Howard & Company's plan to hand over the reins of the firm to a team of senior executives rather than sell out to a larger suitor is pleasantly contrary.

Paul Holmes

At a time when the mid-sized independent agency is an endangered species, the announcement that the management team at Edward Howard & Company plans to hand over the reins of the firm to a team of senior executives rather than sell out to a larger suitor is pleasantly contrary. More than that, it shows that a well-managed firm with a well thought out succession plan, can satisfy the financial needs of the departing leadership without succumbing to the consolidation trend.
 
The succession plan announced this week involves not only the retirement of Ulchaker, but reduced roles for Davis Young and David Meeker, chief operating officer and executive vice president respectively. While Young and Meeker will continue to serve in counseling roles, their involvement in day-to-day management will be significantly reduced. Few firms could handle the departure of three senior executives. At Edward Howard, the transition should proceed without a hitch.
 
Under chairman and chief executive Stanley Ulchaker, Edward Howard & Company has always enjoyed a reputation for high quality management, with an emphasis on research, strategic planning, professional development and employee retention that is unusual in a mid-sized agency. It was one of the first firms to adopt an employee ownership plan, and that plan has become an integral part of the agency’s culture—a culture that would have been transformed had management opted to sell.
 
Says Ulchaker, “As I planned my own retirement, I wanted to ensure that Edward Howard would be able to maintain its independence, and we’ve accomplished that goal. The stability that we have achieved throughout our history has been remarkable, as has been our ability to attract and retain employees for unusually long tenures
 
“Clients benefit from this lack of turnover in their service, and employees are able to fashion lengthy careers with the firm that afford them numerous opportunities for challenging work.”
 
The employee ownership structure is also a primary reason why the agency has so many seasoned veteran employees to whom the management baton can be passed. New president and CEO  Kathleen Obert is the newcomer of the group, having joined the agency seven years ago. The others have been with Edward Howard & Company for an average of about 15 years.
 
According to Ulchaker, “Our principal focus was to preserve the company's structure as an independent, employee-owned firm, able to thrive and grow in an era of mergers, acquisitions and highly leveraged buyouts.”
 
Because of the employee stock ownership plan, the company is fully funded—without incurring a dollar of debt—to purchase Ulchaker’s stock on his retirement. All members of the new management team have been major shareholders in the firm for some time.
 
As Obert told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “It makes a difference when employees are part-owners. It means that this is more than just a paycheck to you. It means that you have a say in the decision-making process and in the direction that the firm takes. Many people find that entrepreneurial opportunity to be much more rewarding.”
 
As president and chief executive officer, Obert, 41, will be responsible for overall management of the firm, including long- and short-term strategic planning to carry out the firm's vision for the future in fulfilling its mission to “achieve superior results for clients through uncompromising quality, exceptional service and absolute integrity.” She joined the firm in 1992 after serving as director of advertising and PR for Invacare Corporation, a manufacturer of home medical equipment.
 
Joining her in the new leadership team are newly-promoted executive vice presidents Wayne Hill, Nora Jacobs, and Daniel Stanowick, and executive vice president and chief financial officer Donald Hohmeier.
 
Hill, 49, joined the firm in 1991 and will be principally responsible for representing the firm externally and for the company’s business development efforts, including new technology initiatives. Jacobs, 48, a 13-year Howard veteran, will concentrate on developing the firm’s practice areas and on recruitment and training. Stanowick, 47, who is in his 20th year with the firm, will oversee the operations aspects of each of the firm’s four current offices to ensure high quality client service, as well as guide the firm’s marketing program.
 
Says Obert, “This team brings an exceptional blend of counseling skills and management background to our roles and we have the added benefit of having worked together already for many years. I know our partnership effort, in conjunction with the talents and dedication of the other employees in the firm, will allow us to build on the incredible track record of success that Stan, Davis and Dave have established.”
 
Added Ulchaker, “Their training in many different areas of firm management and diverse client counseling work will serve them well. They also will be able to draw on the extensive experience Dave and Davis have gained throughout their stellar careers. I am proud of the legacy that we have built and confident in the new team's ability to achieve even more in the years ahead.”
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