A shift in leadership is taking place at Freeman’s headquarters in Dallas. On April 1, Don Freeman Jr. began handing over the responsibilities of chair of the organization to his daughter, Carrie Freeman Parsons, and Joe Popolo, the Freeman Company’s former CEO, started stepping back from the day-to-day business operations to focus on a strategic board role. These major moves could be challenging for most organizations, but if Freeman’s 90-year history is any indication, the three-month transition will be smooth, and the company is well positioned for continued growth.
“Our culture has always been steeped in a belief in doing the right thing,” Freeman Parsons, who is transitioning from the role of vice chair and has worked in various positions at the company since 1985, told Convene. “We are blessed to have so many people who have been with us for a very long time who can be what we call ‘the culture-keepers.’”
Freeman was “a local and regional decorating company” founded by his father, Buck, when Don Freeman Jr. became president in 1972. Five years later, he was named chairman and CEO, and set the company, which had offices in Des Moines, Iowa, and Dallas, on a growth trajectory. Today, Freeman takes an outsize role in the meetings and events industry — from bringing driverless car technology to life at CES, to working with the National Football League at the Super Bowl LII festivities, to producing the main stage environment at PCMA’s Convening Leaders each year. Since 2001, when was promoted to president of the exposition services division, Freeman has tripled in size to offer a wide range of services, while continuing to embrace the family philosophy of prioritizing plans for the next generation over projections for the next three months.
“As we make investments and decisions, the fact that we are still private means that we are not compelled to live in a quarter-by-quarter environment,” Popolo told Convene. “Our customers, our employees, and our clients trust that we are in this for the long haul.”
The Power of Culture
Today, Freeman employs more than 7,000 people in 90-plus offices around the world. Like any organization that has experienced significant growth over nearly a century, Freeman has had to surmount challenges. As Don Freeman, Jr. moves into the role of chairman emeritus, he cites the acquisition of six offices of what was then Greyhound Exposition Services in 1981 as the most challenging time of his tenure. The acquisition doubled Freeman’s size, but bigger did not automatically translate to better. “The cultures of the company were pretty dissimilar,” he told Convene. “We spent two or three years trying to merge the personnel. It was very challenging.”
That situation has replayed itself during other growth opportunities. “We’ve had a couple of acquisitions where we weren’t culturally as aligned as we believed,” Freeman Parsons said. “Now, as we look at acquiring companies or hiring people, they have to be a cultural match. If you don’t stay disciplined to that principle, the body will reject the organ.”
That focus on creating a culture — not just a company — trickles down to everyone at Freeman, according to Freeman Parsons. “Some of us who have been here for a really long time may take a little bit of our culture for granted,” she said. “But what we hear from employees [who have come from other organizations] is how much they value the fact that they are in an environment where we hold our leaders accountable. They have seen us make tough decisions to take action with leaders who were not living up to our expectations.”
Advancing the Industry
As Freeman Parsons assumes the full role of chair on July 1, she’s planning to set even higher expectations for Freeman and to push the company forward on a global scale. Since 2016, Freeman has expanded into China, Australia, and the Middle East, and global growth will continue to be a critical part of the company’s future. While Freeman Parsons is hesitant to forecast the number of offices opened or events produced by a specific future date, her goal is clear. “We are the leader in live brand experiences that truly make a difference in North America,” Freeman Parsons said. “And our intention is to become the leader of live brand experiences around the world.”
She is quick to point out that the company cannot do it alone. To accomplish that goal, she said that marketers and event organizers must be willing to deliver the same kind of innovation and technological adoption that attendees see in other parts of their lives. “Attendees do not differentiate between a personal experience and a business experience. We are working with our clients to help them quickly embrace the opportunities,” Freeman Parsons said, of the new landscape of events. “There can be risks, and there can be investment required. A five- or 10-degree change with an annual event can feel huge, but we are focused on helping our clients get the support they need from their boards or their executives to make those transformations.”
As the industry evolves, Freeman will change, too. In 2018, Bob Priest-Heck became the first CEO from outside the family. The company also acquired Info Salons, a registration and attendee database management company with a significant footprint in the Asia Pacific region; Comotion Consulting, a U.K.-based consulting firm; and mdg, a San Diego–based event marketing and public relations firm. It’s a safe bet to say that the events industry will see Freeman continue to grow in 2019 and beyond. “We want to be the No. 1 place for team members to work,” Freeman Parsons said. ““I can’t imagine working at a place where I could love the people more. The work is so exciting. There is always the opportunity to learn more.”
David McMillin is a Convene associate editor.