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It’s time for new leadership

There comes a time in the life of every company when it needs new energy, perspectives and ideas. Unfortunately, that also means some of those who grew the business need to go. A case in point.

  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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This is hard, giving up what you love to do. Many of you out there know what this is like.

Your mind tells you there is still so much that can be accomplished — and that you could accomplish it.

But it’s as if there are these chains of reality around your wrists and ankles tethered to a rock wall, keeping you from chasing all those other dreams you wanted to catch. The chains: your lower energy and tolerance levels, the new generations in the work force, technology.

The reality is: It’s time.

The same story kept circling over the past year and a half. A few years ago, Tampa entrepreneur John Simmons, principal of Growth Advisors in Tampa, shared a business reality with the members of the Gulf Coast CEO Forum:

“The most painful part of being a growth company is outgrowing the loyal employees who have been with you from the start,” he said. “Eventually, you need something else, and the best thing you can do is help them find somewhere else where they will be happy. If you don’t leave them behind, that will be a checkpoint for your growth.”

As the Observer Media Group evolved over the past 18 to 24 months, Simmons’ picture sunk in: He was describing me, the founder and CEO of our company for the past 26 years. The company is outgrowing me, it needs something else, and I’m taking the hints and signs to find somewhere else where I’ll be happy.

That last part will be difficult. I love the Observer Media Group. I love my associates. I love what we do.

Being a reporter and an editor in the newspaper business is an amazing job. You are paid to meet people of all walks of life, talk to them about what they do and then share what you’ve learned with everyone. It’s the only school in existence where you are paid to learn something new every day of your professional life.

But Simmons is right. Unless I get out of the way, I will be a checkpoint and obstacle for the growth of our company.

If you’ve read the news story on Page 4, you’ve read that my wife, Lisa, and I have elevated our eldest daughter, Emily, to president of the Observer Media Group. We decided to announce it July 28, the 43rd anniversary of the start of our first newspaper, the Longboat Observer, which we purchased in 1995.

This is a role for which Emily has been in training since she was 15. Her first job in our company was that of janitor, one of three at the Longboat Observer office at 5570 Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Starting in 1995, every Sunday afternoon for several years, Emily; her sister, Kate; and brother, Brian, cleaned the Observer office — emptying trash, mopping and vacuuming floors, and cleaning the toilets in the men’s and women’s bathrooms. They used to leave love notes on the mirror in the men’s bathroom:

“If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be sweet and wipe the seat.”

Emily became a member of the corps de ballet at Sarasota Ballet that year and was intent on making that her professional career. As often happens, however, an injury ended her ballet career when she was 20.

Home after a semester at Florida State University, Emily informed us she wanted to move to New York City to try to resume her ballet career. Her mother advised her of the cost of New York and suggested she might need to earn some money before heading north.

Lisa said to Emily one day: “We’re short staffed. I need someone to take pictures at a Black Tie event. How about you?”

She did, and much to our surprise, Emily was hooked. Since then, she has held just about every job in a newspaper. As our family’s fourth generation in the newspaper business, she has, as the saying goes, ink in her veins. Her 20th anniversary at the Observer will be this November.

We’ve been preparing for this transition for about four years, more earnestly the past two. She has told me repeatedly lately: “Let me lead.” She is already bringing that “something else” to the Observer Media Group, all the while staying true to what we do: provide the best local news coverage of any medium in the Sarasota-Manatee market.

When we started this journey in 1995, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune had paid circulation of about 120,000. The Longboat Observer had 20,000 free weekly circulation. One of our objectives was to answer these business questions: Can David (the Longboat Observer) overtake Goliath (the Herald-Tribune)? What would it take? And how long?

We predicted it would take 30 years. Last year, during our company’s 25th year in business, the Herald-Tribune’s paid circulation had dropped to 31,700 on Thursdays. The Observers’ four papers — Longboat Observer, Sarasota Observer, East County Observer and Siesta Key Observer — reported audited weekly circulation of 59,200.

The Herald-Tribune still generates more revenue than the Observers, primarily because it is a daily. But every year, our market share has continued to grow.

When we started this journey, we did not want to do business the way most of the other failing dailies were doing  business. We believed the idea that providing quality local news coverage — and no wire or national coverage — and employing the golden rule to readers and advertisers would be the keys to success.

We’re not perfect, but those tenets continue to work. And Emily and her team are committed to improving on what the Observers do.

As for me, with Emily now president, I’ll be relinquishing a big part of what I have loved — being involved in every detail of our business and trying to steer it in a good, growing direction. That job will now fall under the  leadership and guidance of Emily and her capable team.

I will take on the role that is bestowed on many business founders who can’t let go and need “to find somewhere else” — that of listener, adviser, mentor (when asked). And it will call a new business card that politely casts my title in a way of saying “has been,” “old guy,” “NLI” — no longer important.

For now, though, I’ll continue to serve as the Observer’s voice on the opinion pages, writing editorials, albeit not weekly as done for the past 25 and a half years and gradually fading, as they say, into the sunset.

One of my beliefs about a community’s newspaper always has been that it should have a strong, decisive editorial voice, one that advocates freedom for the individual; free-market capitalism; limited, constitutional government; and for issues and causes that promote a strong, growing, local economy that will make a community a better place to live.

In the words of radio commentator Larry Elder, we have a country to save. And for that cause, I’m not ready to quit.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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