Profile: Raper’s prescription for a healthier agency - Mark Raper started his career dispensing pills. Now, as CEO of Carter Ryley Thomas, he thinks his agency structure offers some good medicine for the PR industry. Carolyn Myles samples his PR f

Mark Raper didn’t set out to be a PR man - his parents wanted him to be a doctor. While in the military, he read about a program that allowed people to go to medical school at government expense. Unfortunately he didn’t qualify, but he did pass muster for pharmaceutical training and ended up a military pharmacist, stationed in Germany.

Mark Raper didn’t set out to be a PR man - his parents wanted him to be a doctor. While in the military, he read about a program that allowed people to go to medical school at government expense. Unfortunately he didn’t qualify, but he did pass muster for pharmaceutical training and ended up a military pharmacist, stationed in Germany.

Mark Raper didn’t set out to be a PR man - his parents wanted him

to be a doctor. While in the military, he read about a program that

allowed people to go to medical school at government expense.

Unfortunately he didn’t qualify, but he did pass muster for

pharmaceutical training and ended up a military pharmacist, stationed in

Germany.



When he returned home, Raper ignored his parents’ entreaties and

enrolled in graduate school for mass communications. When the PR

director of a local hospital went on maternity leave, Raper was

recruited to fill in.



The new mother decided she didn’t want her job back, and thus the course

of Raper’s career changed from Rx to PR.



This led to Raper’s role coordinating communications for the first in

vitro baby born in the US, back in 1981. ’My personal responsibility was

to handle the 200 national media that descended on the hospital,’ Raper

recalls. His job was not only to inform the media of the historic event

but also to protect the family from the hordes of tabloid reporters who

were trying to infiltrate the hospital.





In the name of the children



Today Raper, CEO of Richmond, VA-based Carter Ryley Thomas (CRT) is a

man with a different challenge. In a market dominated by some of the

most creative advertising agencies in the business, Raper is setting out

to invent a new model for public relations firms, with an emphasis on

work environment.



With one of the lowest unemployment rates in recent memory, agencies

nationwide are struggling to find ways to recruit and retain talented

staff. It’s even more vexing in Richmond, a smaller market where PR is

still considered somewhat of a stepchild to advertising.



CRT, which is named after the children of the three principals, was born

in 1996 when 28 employees bought the PR arm of Earle Palmer Brown

Advertising.



Raper had headed up the firm’s PR office in the Old Dominion capital for

eight years. Joining him in the launch were EVP Brian Ellis and VP Peggy

Cummings.



At the time, all employees were given the opportunity to invest in the

new firm by trading in their bonuses and unused vacation from 1995 for

stock ownership. All associates participated in the plan and 11 made

additional financial investments - some even pledged their homes as

collateral.



Currently, every employee who works for the firm at least nine months is

given shares in CRT and the right to purchase additional discounted

shares. Management does not control the company: the five leaders of the

firm collectively own only 48% of the stock. ’It isn’t unusual to find

an office manager owning 2 to 3% of the company,’ Raper says.



With PR income of dollars 6.1 million last year - up 37.2% from the

previous year - CRT is the second largest employee-owned PR firm in the

nation, behind only Padilla Speer Beardsley. Raper’s goal this year is

to reach dollars 7 million or, ’at a stretch,’ dollars 7.7 million. Last

year CRT handed out dollars 1.5 million in stock dividends and

bonuses.



While admitting that ’greed is not all that bad,’ Raper insists that

it’s not all about the money - national recognition is what he

craves.



The agency has opened offices in Norfolk, Baton Rouge, Indianapolis and

Portland, OR, and will hang a shingle this year in Charleston, SC.

Moreover, the agency is attracting national clients such as Eastman

Chemical Company, American Home Products, and tech firms like Computer

Sciences, 1-800-wedding.com and Icode. But while other firms are

capitalizing on the hi-tech scene, CRT’s largest practice - with income

exceeding dollars 1 million - is consumer products.



’We don’t define ourselves as a Richmond agency,’ Raper says. ’We do

work all over the country. We set up a goal to create a national firm

based on what we thought was right, not what the industry thought was

right. We know we’re in a market in which advertising is the dominant

creative profession. But we are not an advertising agency. We don’t

think it’s easy to do great PR within an advertising mentality.’ He adds

that many advertising professionals still don’t understand PR, and that

it is as much of an educational process to teach them as it is to teach

clients.



To help shape the culture, CRT developed a set of shared values based on

the mantra, ’Keep a balance between family and work.’ Raper believes the

key to success is communication. ’We share everything with the exception

of salary information. If you withhold information, (employees) become

suspicious and that decreases productivity,’ he says. That may be so,

but there are other incentives for the firm’s employees - or in this

case, the owners. At the firm’s new headquarters, employees are offered

the option of both subsidized child and eldercare. CRT provided dollars

250,000 seed money for the child/elder care facility, which will be

available to employees of other companies.





No excuses



There are downsides to being an employee-owned firm, Raper admits,

because of the ’responsibility everyone feels by being an owner. We find

it difficult to keep a balance between work and family because everyone

feels that they must contribute as much as possible to the success of

CRT. Another downside to being employee-owned is that there are less

excuses for us to make because there is no ’us vs. them.’ It’s never

’they didn’t win that account.’ It’s ’we didn’t win the account.’

Everyone feels accountable,’ he says.



Raper says they frequently receive buyout offers, but while ’our current

vision has acquisitions,’ CRT will be the acquirer. CRT’s plans for

growth are geographically driven. They will be expanding the Richmond

headquarters and making forays into Los Angeles. Plans for New York,

Chicago and Atlanta are also being considered. Strategic partnerships

are another possibility the firm is mulling to spur development. When

asked to look 10 years into the future, Raper predicts he will no longer

be leading the agency, as management wants to rotate senior people into

lead roles every three years.



’In eight or nine years, I will probably be involved more than

(management) wants, but my golf game will be better,’ he quips. ’One of

the things we talk about is to let the young blood come through.’ At an

agency named after children, that seems like a smart policy.



MARK RAPER

Founder, CEO

Carter Ryley Thomas

1980

Director of marketing, Sentara Health Systems

1984

PR director, Stuart Ford & Westbrook

1988

Launches Earle Palmer Brown’s Richmond PR office

1996

Founds Carter Ryley Thomas



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