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
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
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
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
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
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
While admitting that ’greed is not all that bad,’ Raper insists that
it’s not all about the money - national recognition is what he
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
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.
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.
Carter Ryley Thomas
Director of marketing, Sentara Health Systems
PR director, Stuart Ford & Westbrook
Launches Earle Palmer Brown’s Richmond PR office
Founds Carter Ryley Thomas