Freeman, which annually produces more than 3,000 expositions and more than 10,000 other events worldwide, has formally announced the acquisition of Wheelhouse Solutions, the parent company of Champion Exposition Services, George Fern Exposition and Event Services and Immersa Marketing.
Both companies chose not to disclose the financial information related to the transaction.
According to Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Wheelhouse Solutions, the company has been approached in the past by strategic buyers.
“Wheelhouse Solutions always evaluates opportunities to expand the array of services we offer our customers,” said Priest-Heck. “It was determined by our board that this was a good time to listen to those who have expressed an interest. We believe that the industry is evolving and this creates an opportunity.”
Priest-Heck went on to describe Freeman as an ideal fit for the Wheelhouse group of companies.
“All four organizations share a purpose: to enable clients to realize the promise of face-to-face, experiential and event marketing, encompassing expositions, conventions, corporate events, tradeshows and exhibits of all sizes,” he said.
Under the terms of the deal, Champion will be integrated into Freeman, while George Fern, an exposition services company, and Immersa Marketing, an experiential marketing agency, will operate as individual brands under Freeman.
“If you look at Champion’s operations, they fit hand in glove with our current Freeman operation,” said Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman. “So it makes sense to take the Champion sales organization and merge them with the Freeman sales organization and then combine the operations on a local level. The thing that gets us excited is taking care of our customers, and Champion has a great legacy of providing outstanding customer service.”
George Fern services the Ohio Valley, which is a region where Freeman doesn’t have a large presence.
“We think their brand and the way they go to market with their products works very well and we want to leave that alone,” said Popolo.
Prior to the acquisition, Freeman produced 48 percent of the 250 largest U.S. tradeshows. With the addition of the Wheelhouse Solutions group of companies, that number has now grown to almost 60 percent overnight.
The sheer size of the new organization will now only be matched by the number of products and services it can offer to clients.
“Our focus is on being the best, not the biggest,” said Popolo. “Our current customers are going to have the best of all worlds now and Champion, Fern and Immersa clients will now be working with a much deeper company with more resources in more locations, and I believe they will see better support at an execution level as well.”
Priest-Heck agrees that the combination of the two companies provides an unmatched platform for its clients.
“This merger joins two organizations whose companies are focused on respect for their people, customer service, creativity and innovative solutions that will evolve the experiential marketing industry,” he said. “We really value the work that Freeman has done on the exhibitor service side of the business. They have made great strides to improve exhibitor satisfaction.”
From an industry standpoint, Popolo believes the acquisition will have a positive impact.
“We think it is going to be a real plus,” he said. “In a world where we are all facing declining margins and costs are going up faster than revenues, we think this is a great way to provide some efficiencies to the industry.”
The acquisition of Wheelhouse fits Freeman’s continuing strategy of investing in the face-to-face industry.
“Providing an outstanding experience for the exhibitor and show organizer is really what drives us at Freeman,” said Popolo. “Everything we are trying in terms of adding customer solutions, geographic capabilities and technology is all about enhancing that experience. We are always looking for strategic opportunities that fit for us.”
Once it was certain the acquisition was going to take place, the two companies began working on a strategy that would preserve the continuity of both organizations for its clients.
“Freeman and Wheelhouse established integration teams representing all of our brands to plan for this acquisition and make the transition as smooth and seamless as possible for customers and employees,” said Popolo. “Many times, acquisitions are done and the comment is that there is still a lot to be determined. We wanted to do our best to work through all of that up front so when the announcement was formally made, we would have very thoughtful answers to questions our employees and customers would have.”
Freeman also confirmed that this acquisition is indeed a merger and will not negatively impact the number of employees at Wheelhouse.
“We absolutely want to retain as many as possible,” said Popolo. “They have done a great job selling to some of the marquis brands and we want those customers to know they can work with the same management team that they have worked with in the past.”
That thought was echoed in a message that Wheelhouse sent to its employees.
“We let them know that this merger brings together the experiential marketing industry’s premier companies to deliver the most trusted and creative experiences in face-to-face marketing,” said Priest-Heck. “We wanted to share in our excitement about broadening the range of solutions and services that will now be available for our customers. Our offerings for customers will be the best of the best.”
With this acquisition, Freeman has clearly positioned itself to be the premier experiential marketing firm in the industry.
“It is a very exciting day for our employee owners and for Champion, Fern and Immersa personnel who will be able to participate in the Freeman employee share option plan (ESOP),” said Popolo. “I believe it is also a great day for our customers who will have better solutions and a deeper set of resources to help support them in their goals.”
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