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The Business of Meetings

Oct 10, 2023

The Business of Meetings – Episode 187 – How People and Culture Build Value with Aaron Bludworth

We are delighted to be speaking with Aaron Bludworth today! He is a true thought leader who has massively impacted our industry!

Until recently, Aaron was the CEO of Fern Expo. He joins us today to discuss his process of managing the company and selling it. He also shares his views on the future of the industry.

Getting Into the Industry

Aaron's initial introduction to the industry was largely accidental. While he was pursuing his education and working elsewhere, his uncle was working as an official contractor in the service sector of the industry. Aaron initially steered clear of the industry, even though his uncle kept mentioning all its potential opportunities. However, he eventually decided to try it out, thinking it would be a brief detour during his time in school. Yet, he is still there thirty-one years later!

Joining Fern

Aaron had been working for a private equity firm that recruited him when he started working at Fern. He joined Fern in 2008, initially as the Chief Operating Officer and eventually becoming the CEO due to the absence of a formal CEO. A while later, he found an investor, got a group of people together, and bought the firm. Sometime after, he took out the investor, leaving him with just the group of individuals within the firm.

The Unique Culture of Fern

Fern has a unique culture and history dating back 115 years. The company had a traditional image with a regional focus, and Aaron was committed to preserving the culture and the way the company focused on growth. However, it was challenging for him to find talent, customers, and acquisitions that aligned with the values and culture of the company.

Balancing Culture and Corporate Consolidation 

Aaron feels concerned about the increasing corporatization of the industry and how that could impact personal relationships and innovation. He emphasizes the need for a mix of large and small players to maintain the innovative spirit of the industry and personal connections.

Navigating the Pandemic and Prioritizing People 

Fern managed to weather the myriad of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was committed to its people and customers and focused on keeping employees engaged during difficult times. Their proactive approach included developing innovative solutions like Fern Health Check, which did vaccine and COVID testing to support their customers so they could resume their activities safely.

The Speedy Recovery and Unexpected Growth 

The post-pandemic recovery of Fern exceeded all expectations. Aaron attributes their rapid rebound to customer loyalty, winning new business during the pandemic, and introducing innovative products. Despite all their initial challenges with labor and supply chain issues, Fern still managed to achieve record revenue in 2022.

Navigating a Sale Process 

Aaron explains that emotional factors often come into play when selling a business, especially for sole proprietors. He cautions against entering the sale process with a specific monetary goal because that could lead to disappointment. Instead, he suggests that the timing should rely on having a viable, strong business and the right representatives in the market environment.

Selling Fern

Selling the business was a complex process. Aaron received offers from many potential buyers, including strategic and non-strategic buyers. He considered the long-term outlook in addition to the financial aspects of the business because he was looking for a buyer who would maintain the existing leadership team, treat customers well, and bring value to the table. While acknowledging the uncertainty of selling a business, Aaron aimed to set up a successful transition for his team and customers.

Aaron’s Thoughts in the Transition Period 

Between signing the letter of intent and closing the deal, his primary focus was on the impact the transition could have on his team and customers. He was concerned about ensuring a smooth transition for both parties and making the right decisions for the future of the business.

The Ever-Changing Events Industry 

Aaron worries about excessive corporatization as the industry continues to evolve. He mentions the importance of maintaining a mix of players to preserve the unique character of the industry, emphasizing the need to keep innovators, thinkers, and passionate individuals involved to ensure its continued growth and vitality. He hopes that personal connections, community, and innovation will remain integral to the industry as it evolves and faces consolidation, stressing the importance of smaller and more personal businesses in driving success and maintaining the unique character of the industry.

Life After Selling a Business

During the post-sale period, business owners often struggle with maintaining a sense of purpose and finding direction after exiting their businesses.

Maintaining a Work-life Balance

Business owners should maintain balance between business and other aspects of their lives rather than allowing their companies to become the sole focus of their existence.

Promoting Innovation and Passion 

Aaron underscores the need for the industry to keep innovators, thinkers, and passionate individuals involved to ensure its continued growth and vitality. Because of the positive impact of the events industry on his life and hopes he will remain connected to it.

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