At Our Own Business, A Passing of the Torch - Southern Business Review

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

At Our Own Business, A Passing of the Torch

Olivia Farrell is taking her dogs and going home.


She’ll walk out of Arkansas Business Publishing Group in Little Rock this week for the last time as CEO and principal owner, selling the media and marketing company she built over 35 years to the man who led them to their greatest success, Mitch Bettis.


That’s the news, but the story is deeper when you’re part of it.


Losing an inspiring and popular boss like Farrell is poignant, but in an age of media contraction, ABPG workers were relieved that the company is staying in trusted, local hands.


Farrell blazed a four-decade trail for Arkansas women, helping build the Arkansas Times and then ABPG into two of the state’s biggest independent multimedia firms. She took a few niche publications — Arkansas Business, Arkansas Bride and Little Rock Family — in her 1995 corporate “divorce” from Arkansas Times Publisher Alan Leveritt, and over the past 25 years added successful titles like Little Rock Soirée, Arkansas Next and Arkansas 250 to the stable. Flex 360, a full-service web design and digital marketing agency launched under Farrell, has grown to include staff and clients across the U.S.

Farrell also championed women in all fields, founding the Arkansas Women’s Foundation with Pat Lile and creating a pet- and parent-friendly space at her own shop. She hired Bettis in 2013 as general manager and publisher, and they meshed. She made him president in 2014.


On Feb. 28, Farrell will retire and Bettis will realize his lifelong dream of owning a publishing company. Bettis, 51 and an Arkadelphia native, will also be CEO of ABPG, which Farrell started in 1995 as a separate home for Arkansas Business and its sister publications.


The company is now a 21st-century media outlier — a mature, locally owned venture built on print but with more paying subscribers and revenue than ever, as well as a significant digital marketing operation. Bettis named ABPG’s new parent company Five Legged Stool LLC for a business philosophy he got from Farrell, based on serving five groups of company stakeholders. The legs of the stool are service to readers, advertisers, employees, vendors and investors.


“I’m really lucky that Mitch was able to make this purchase,” Farrell said, breaking the news to employees last Monday. “It couldn’t have been nicer, because it’s a seamless transition … He’s been running the company for five years.”


American newspapers operate with about a third of the staffing they had in 1990, so ABPG’s 65 workers were reassured to learn their jobs are safe. ABPG’s 26 investors also got a solid payday.


“Were any financial details of the deal released?” this employee asked.


“Who would have thought that a business reporter would ask that?” Bettis joked. “But no … I will say that the stockholders, and Olivia especially, were very accommodating in how we’ve pulled this deal together. It’s no small transaction.”


One investor who put in $10,000 in 1984 got a six-figure return, Bettis said.


Five Legged Stool now owns everything, Bettis said, from the ABPG name and all its publications to “this desk, that chair, that coffee pot, that web address, that social media account. That’s the beauty of this, that it avoids the kind of disruption that you can go through.”


The sole-ownership deal would have been out of reach had ABPG not run up five straight years of record revenue and/or profit, Bettis said. He said he’d considered recruiting investors during seven months of dealmaking, but saw a complication. “Potential investors were also the people we cover, so I was cautious,” he told employees. “But we’ve worked ourselves into a financial position to be able to do this, to cash-flow this extra expense. We could not have done this three years, five years, seven years ago.”

He gave a pep talk in a conference room filled with laughter and warmth. “We’re in a great place because every one of you is doing great work, giving readers great content that they can only get from us, taking great care of customers, providing the real service our advertisers need, taking care of subscribers.”


For Farrell and a core of longtime employees, reality was setting in. “I’m feeling sort of vulnerable,” she confided.


“My son, when I talked to him about this back in July, said now was the time to start thinking about what you’re going to be doing with yourself, which I have not done,” Farrell said. “The only plan I have is to be a volunteer in public schools and teach elementary kids reading.” She’ll also be giving Bettis regular advice.


One thing Farrell will be pouring time, energy and money into is building a house: a new home for her big Labrador, Moose, and a Lab mix, Trojan, who so often trailed her into the pet-filled office.