When asked about the secret behind his success in business during EFI Connect 2019, Joseph Popolo, CEO of The Freeman Co., laid out four very fundamental tenets: hard work, dedication, loyalty…and marrying the chairman’s daughter.
Give Popolo bonus points for honesty, but he’s not the first executive to luck into a golden opportunity. Still, Popolo hardly rode the coattails of The Freeman Co.’s success; he’s played a considerable role in the firm’s ascension from a $600 million trade show contractor to a $3 billion orchestrator of B2B events, ranging from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to World Congress and the Republican National Convention. As a client of, and provider to, EFI and its Connect conference, Popolo was an ideal candidate to serve as the keynote interview for the Fireside Chat with EFI CEO Bill Muir last month.
A 92-year-old firm, The Freeman Co. has modest roots of providing decorations for fraternity and sorority parties at the University of Iowa in the 1920s. Today its role entails not only providing printed graphics and carpeting for trade shows but furnishing strategy, creative and digital resources around the world of live events—adding emphasis on brand experience.
Physically, The Freeman Co. has blossomed throughout the United States, along with holdings in seven countries on four continents. M&A has fueled its growth as well, with acquisitions in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, China, Singapore and Australia.
Growth doesn’t come without challenges, according to Popolo. “We had purchased a bunch of different companies, and although we were broadly in the field of brand experiences, we really didn’t do a good job of integrating them,” he said. “We took a step back a few years ago and decided we needed to organize those businesses effectively around our customers. We had organized them around things like product sets and geography, but not what was going to be easy for the customer.”
Popolo and The Freeman Co. decided to break the organization into two entities—Freeman, the brand experience component that provides carpet, exhibits and banners, and a venue-based AV company called Encore Event Technologies. Encore grew into one of the world’s leading in-house hospitality, event technology and production service businesses.
Incidentally, only last month, The Freeman Co. announced that it had signed an agreement to sell Encore to PSAV and its parent, Blackstone.
Riding Out Economic Storms
Muir then broached the subject of the economy and the talk of a downturn in the not-too-distant future. Like many businesses, The Freeman Co. suffered a major hit from the Great Recession in 2009, and the firm lost 30 percent of its revenue in an 18-month span. Popolo and his fellow executives took a hard look at its business and the industry, then decided it was an opportune time to leverage the market through acquisitions. In fact, the company pulled off three significant deals (including the genesis of what would become Encore) at a time when many of its competitors were taking a wait-and-see approach.
“For those of you thinking about the future of the business and opportunities to expand, if you have the balance sheet and the willpower in the face of the storm to buy, it’s actually a good time,” he said.
Trade Show Challenges
Muir also touched upon the movement away from generalized trade shows to more targeted events such as Connect. Popolo is of the opinion that shows generally reflect the state of a given industry, as opposed to a doom-and-gloom forecast for all trade shows. As an example, he pointed to COMDEX (Computer Dealers’ Exhibition) which flourished from 1979 through 2005 with a reported 185 shows globally. Technology shifts, the dot-com bubble, OEMs launching their own shows and other influences led to its demise.
“The model per se is not under pressure as much as the industries they’re in,” he remarked. “That said, we can see that the ‘build it and they will come’ theory doesn’t hold true anymore, and events like Connect have to be immersive, responsive to the dynamics of that industry and have to deliver a lot of value.”
Culture and Relationships
The Freeman Co.’s “Make it Personal” tagline carries meaning from both an internal and external perspective. Its employee team boasts an average tenure of 12-15 years, and as a result, many of the different industries and shows the company serves have developed close relationships with their respective Freeman point people. From a client standpoint, Freeman helps events connect on a personal level to its attendees.
“What we want to do is make sure clients understand why people are coming to events, what they going to get out of it, what the different personas that are here need and make those events more immersive and experiential,” Popolo said. “If we do that, people will continue to come and find value in live events.”
The Spirit of Print
Of course, we’ve all been witness to the many “print is dead” proclamations, and have been given the sense that millennials simply have no use for ink on paper. There is also the belief that wired-in millennials, with their faces forever hovering mere inches away from their devices, have little interest in interacting with live events. Popolo believes both of those assertions to be untrue.
For example, The Freeman Co. has been engaged by a newer company called Twitch—a live-streaming service centered on technology and gaming, and a darling of the millennial set—to put on live events worldwide. “Community building is something millennials buy into,” Popolo noted. “They might not be into trade shows, but if we can help them build a sense of community, we see them engaging.”
The Freeman Co. is doing its part to advance printing. Popolo pointed out that the company printed out more than 19 million square feet of graphics per year for trade shows on its fleet of 17 EFI VUTEk printers.
Virtual reality is a major component in the fabric of trade shows, and once again EFI used it to help tout the capabilities of the more heavy machinery that is cost prohibitive to showcase on location at Connect. Similarly, The Freeman Co. has invested in a virtual reality specialist, Helios, and Popolo is a huge proponent of bringing more depth of experience to a live event. Freeman worked with State Farm on a VR project that helped deliver a unique experience for college football game attendees.
“While (VR) is not 100 percent real, it’s getting closer all the time,” he said. “In the future, most live events will have some sort of augmented reality or virtual reality component.”