Power surge: one year after a failed boardroom coup, Chuck Curtis has firm control of Kansas city shop Valentine-Radford - and big plans for the future

One year after a failed boardroom coup, Chuck Curtis ….In retrospect, the palace coup that rocked Valentine-Radford last summer should have been expected. For some time, president and ceo Chuck Curtis had been ambitiously pushing to bring the old-line Kansas City agency into the ’90s, and his aggressive efforts were bound to cause friction.Still, few realized just how much Curtis had upset the status quo at staid Valentine-Radford until just after the Memorial Day weekend. “I called Chuck at 9 a.m. that Tuesday morning,” recalls one staffer, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down.’ He had an ashen look on his face when I got there. ‘They just fired me,’ he said. ‘The board just fired me.'”The five-member board–which included founder’s son John Valentine and creative director Scott McCormick–may have won the battle, but it did not win the war for control of the 45-year-old agency. Within hours of the firing, key management members rallied behind Curtis. CFO Ernie Capobianco then sent a letter to the board indicating the ouster would result in lost business for which board members could be held liable.Holding the upper hand, Curtis went back to the board with an offer to buy out the disgruntled partners and their majority interest in the agency. By the following week, the would-be usurpers had left to start their own shop and Curtis was back in charge.Now, one year later, Curtis has solidified his power base at the $120-million agency, which handles retail and promotional materials for Hallmark Cards and regional franchises for Pizza Hut, among other accounts. Curtis also has laid the groundwork that he hopes will turn Valentine-Radford into a broader, acquisition-minded operation. “The game plan is to grow along two axes,” he says. “One is public relations, sales promotion, direct response and advertising. The other is in delivery of services in areas outside of Kansas City.”The effort is already yielding results. Valentine-Radford recently opened an office just outside Denver to service Pizza Hut cooperatives in that region. The shop is also attempting to acquire the Quest Business Agency, a Houston-based marketing firm. And it’s in discussions with a respected Chicago agency about an acquisition. In addition, Curtis has restructured the financial workings of Valentine-Radford. “The country club days are gone,” says Capobianco. “There’s a new vision here. It used to be that if staffers were breathing, they got a bonus. Now it’s performance-based.” Indeed, employees no longer receive an extra month’s salary on Feb. 14–once designated “Val-Raduary Day”–just because they are employees. Flat-rate holiday bonuses, which used to be issued every November and amounted to 20% of salary for each staffer, have also been discontinued. The size of such bonuses is now based on merit. Even the agency’s 15% profit-sharing contribution, which used to be issued annually to employees regardless of how well or poorly Valentine-Radford had performed in the preceding year, has been redone to reflect the new realities of the industry.So if Valentine-Radford isn’t pouring cash into an antiquated bonus system, where is it spending money? Much of the money is reinvested in the agency in the form of new computers, new offices, new staff and acquisitions. Most recently, the shop purchased $150,000 worth of Macintosh computers and established computerized link-ups with clients.As far as Curtis is concerned, the agency had to change. “Somehow, that process (of modernization) was going to come to the agency,” Curtis says, “either through lost business or through change. I was the agent of change.”Curtis, a former Tracy-Locke executive who has been ceo at Valentine-Radford since 1989, is not concerned strictly with size. He also wants the agency to become recognized for its work. In the past, Valentine-Radford was the kind of place where comfortable people did comfortable work. One former staffer says “If you became a stockholder in the old V-R, you had a job for life.” While that sort of atmosphere is conducive to long employer-employee relationships, it doesn’t necessarily make for breakthrough creative.With an eye on turning Valentine-Radford into the kind of creative shop that could make Kansas City the next Minneapolis or Portland, Curtis set about to change that situation. His attempts at a creative overhaul figured in last year’s boardroom battle.Curtis has boosters, even among competing agencies in town. “He is playing a high-stakes poker game,” says Pete Kovac, president/ceo of NKH&W Inc., an agency formed more than a decade ago by a group of former Valentine-Radford executives. “If he wins, and I truly hope he does, it’ll be great for our town. We need the Fallon McElligott of 10 years ago. If it’s Valentine-Radford, that’s great.”Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)