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March 27, 2018

Diversified Communications foray into solar latest step in its evolution

Photo / Maureen Milliken Diversified Communications President and CEO Ted Wirth checks out the company-owned solar array at Brunswick Landing, a new investment venture for the Portland-based business to business event and publications firm.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it was lending $1.5 million to Diversified Communications to help fund the solar array the company owns at Brunswick Landing, it was one of the rare times the company has been in the news.

Investment in the solar array is the latest step the business-to-business event and publication company based in Portland is doing to continue to grow in a changing economic climate. But despite its growth and evolution, the family-owned company, which began when Horace Hildreth Sr. bought a Bangor radio station in 1949, tries to do it quietly.

Diversified’s Portland office has grown from 181 employees in 2013 to 218 at the beginning of this year, an increase of 20%. It employs 516 worldwide in offices around the world, including Canada, the UK, Belgium and Australia.

Since the beginning of the year, eight new positions have been filled, ranging from web designer to associate editor, customer service coordinator and systems administrator, and the company has announced 19 promotions.

Still, with Portland’s 2.4% unemployment rate, there is a lack of applicants for some jobs, company officials said in a recent sit-down with Mainebiz.

The company made recent benefits changes to respond to the lack of applicants, including adding six weeks of parental leave when an employee, or his or her spouse, has a child, or an employee adopts a child, on top of the six weeks of maternity leave the mother would already get. Everyone in the company got the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day off, aside from normal vacation time. And the company, in a move the popularity of which surprised company officials, is allowing casual dress for most positions.

The changes were in response to changes in the marketplace, said CEO and President Ted Wirth.

“We had to look at what we’re doing in order to recruit or retain good people,” he said in a sit-down with Mainebiz. “It’s about more than salary.”

Janice Rogers, corporate vice president of human resources, said the changes are also about work and life integration and giving employees “the gift of time,” to recharge.

'Incredible growth' in event industry

Photo / Diversified Communications
An employee birthday party at Diversified Communications' Portland office. The company recently has made benefits changes to help with employees' work/life balance and also to help recruitment for its growing staff.

Diversified began in Bangor in 1949, when Hildreth bought the license for WABI-AM radio in Bangor. The former Maine governor added WABI-TV in 1953, the state’s first television station.

In 1970, the company acquired National Fisherman magazine and the Fish Expo in Boston, widening its reach into publications and events. Things grew from there.

Fish Expo is now the Seafood Expo North America & Seafood Processing North American trade show, which hosts more than 1,340 exhibiting companies and in 2017 attracted a record 22,600-plus attendees. Diversified also hosts the Seafood Expo Global & Seafood Processing Global in Brussels, with more than 1,850 exhibiting companies and 28,500 attendees.

Besides its Portland workforce, the company employs another 300 worldwide in 10 offices, with more than 100 events, seven publications and 10 digital products.

B2B events focus

Photo / Diversified Communications
The Oyster Shucking Contest at Diversified Communications' Seafood Expo North America & Seafood Processing trade show in Boston.

The company’s focus is now mainly on business-to-business events.

“We’re having incredible growth in our industry,” Wirth said. “People wondered, ‘Will people still want to get together in big crowds?’ But they do.”

The numbers aren’t in yet, but the 2018 Seafood Expo, which took place March 11-13, drew crowds that rivaled last year’s — despite a blizzard on the last day. “People were still coming in, Wirth said.

Diversified Communications Group Vice President Liz Plizga said this week that the 2018 expo featured record-breaking exhibit space of more than 258,360 net square feet with 1,341 exhibiting companies from 57 countries and more than 22,200 seafood professionals from 117 countries. She said the size reflects “the global importance of the show for the seafood industry and the value of the North American market to both suppliers and buyers alike.”

The company in 2016 began the Global Connect program, in which employees can go to one of its overseas offices for a week to help with an event. It’s a way to share, network and learn about leadership practices, said Michelle Roberts, director of office support services.

Rogers and Wirth said that it is the company’s policy is to be an engaged part of the community, something that employees embrace.

“The Hildreth family really embodies the philosophy of giving back,” Rogers said. Employees are encouraged to volunteer, including a 20-hour work time volunteering allowance and a company day of caring,where employees volunteer with a nonprofit. The company also has an employee-nominated Holiday Contribution Program, annual Maine Share & United Way Auction and four corporate partners it supports with donation, promotion and volunteering for two years each. Current ones are The Pixel Fund, the Maine Women’s Fund, Portland Trails and the Ronald McDonald House of Portland.

Moving forward

The company sold New England Cablevision, which it had formed in 1972, as it began to focus more on events.

The company had also owned a variety of TV stations over the years, selling off its last two, WABI and WCJB in Gainesville, Fla., a year ago.

Wirth said both moves were “big steps” for the company. Some of its significant recent evolution is less tangible.

When asked what has changed in the past year at the company, Wirth said, “For me, the answer is the higher level of trust in the professionalism of our people and our desire to help improve work/life balance.”

He said when the company first relaxed the dress code, there was concern people might dress inappropriately. “When we did change the policy, the change in dress was hardly noticeable and employee morale was higher,” he said.

There were similar concerns when the company decided to close the office between Christmas and New Year’s. “We were concerned about having a negative impact on the business,” he said. “The impact was exactly the opposite. With everyone off, no one felt like they were falling behind and they could truly unplug and enjoy time with their families. The impact was a refreshed and recharged staff eager to get to work on their new year’s goals.”

He said employees realize that the company has high expectations, and the company will trust and support them to achieve the corporate goals.

Commitment to sustainability

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Diversified's solar investment at Brunswick Landing is part of the company's commitment to sustainability.

The investment in solar is part of the commitment to sustainable energy by Daniel Hildreth, chairman of the company’s board, but it’s also an issue employees are “very excited about,” said Rogers.

Wirth said the move doesn’t mark a major diversion from the company’s core business, but is emblematic of the company’s commitment to the community and environment.

The 1.5 megawatt array opened at the end of December. Diversified owns it, selling the energy to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority. MRRA has an option to buy the 4,500-panel array.

Combined with Brunswick Landing’s anaerobic biogas plant, more than 2 million pounds of CO2 emissions annually may be eliminated.

Wirth said in January the opportunity to invest in the array came when the company was starting to look for “new and meaningful investment opportunities.”

But the company has also been been low-key with the news.

Roberts said the company, “doesn’t do loud,” but its recognition comes “through the industries we serve.”

At the March 21 Brunswick Landing announcement of the USDA loan, Oakley Dyer, corporate vice president of of strategy and corporate development was the last of half a dozen people to speak. “We’re a business to business media company, so we’re not the typical solar investor,” he said. “But we are based in Maine and have roots going back to 1949 and our founding, and we have a group of owners and employees that have a deep commitment to sustainability in our state.”

He thanked MRRA, USDA and ReVision Energy for a “truly collaborative approach to make this project come together. There were a lot of moving parts and a lot of complications along the way, but hopefully we’ve got a model here for future projects along the way.” Then he led a round of applause for the partners in the project.

Wirth, a week before the announcement, agreed with Roberts that the company is used to keeping a low profile.

“We’re a good-sized business, but we’re a family business,” he said.

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