Business, M&A, News Oct 17, 2016

The Role of Branding in Mergers, Acquisitions & ESOPs

Last Monday, Air Treatment Corporation announced to its employees that they were now the new owners of the company.  And we were lucky enough to be in the room.

We were there because the executives at Air Treatment understand that change, even very positive change, can be scary. And announcing a change in the right way can have a big effect on how successful, or not, that change is.

We’ve talked in the past about how worthwhile it can be to invest in branding ahead of a merger or acquisition. It can be just as important, or maybe even more important, to brand the acquisition itself.

It’s no coincidence that when Air Treatment made their announcement to employees, then later to customers and vendors, they were met with unreserved enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was due, at least in part, to the weeks of planning we’d gone through with Air Treatment’s executive team. We worked with them to make sure we understood the company’s culture, its values, and what the transition to employee ownership would mean. Then, we worked closely with the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, (ESOP), experts at Ambrose Advisors to make sure we understood the ins-and-outs of Air Treatment’s specific employee-ownership plan.

Finally, we put ourselves in the shoes of everyone affected by the transition. What would being part of an ESOP mean for Air Treatment employees? For their vendors? For their customers? What would their concerns be? What would they need to know, right away, to allay those concerns?

Then, we turned those answers into a message. The core of that message was that the transition was good for everyone involved. Transitions in ownership are often part of the growth of a healthy company, and this particular type of transition, from private ownership into an ESOP, has a host of benefits. It preserves the direction and purpose of the company while incentivizing employees to give their all. From a broader perspective,  there have been a number of studies showing that ESOP’s tend to outperform both the market as a whole and their own pre-ESOP metrics as well.

We translated that message first into an announcement to the company’s employees. Air Treatment has ten offices that span the length of California, in addition to offices in Hawaii and Guam. That meant that getting all the company’s employees into one room for the announcement wasn’t a practical option. So, instead, we developed a hybrid in-person and online event. Employees who could make it to Air Treatment’s headquarters in Brea participated in-person, while the rest of the company joined a live webcast that we produced and streamed.

For the company’s customers and vendors, we developed a range of materials, from talking points for phone calls to personalized letters and emails.

Finally, we followed up the meeting with a series of video testimonials, from other employee-owned companies in Air Treatment’s industry, congratulating the company on their well-executed transition.

In the end, Air Treatment’s employees are thrilled to have a secure future and a direct stake in the future of the company, and customers and vendors are excited to be working with a stable partner, with even more highly motivated employees.

It’s not the type of project that most people think of as branding, but it absolutely is. Every change of ownership, whether it’s an employee ownership transition, a merger or an acquisition, has a message it needs to convey. And that message will need to be conveyed intentionally, and in specific ways to different groups both within, and outside of the company.

How well that message is communicated will have a lot to do with how successful the transition is.

Want to learn more about the connection between branding and acquisitions? Check out Mike’s article in CSQ, Thinking About Acquisition? Think About Branding

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