April 24, 2014

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Matt Mills: Family Man (11/24/03)

By Reed Bunzel

In an age where post-consolidation economies of scale have swollen the unemployment lines, when shareholders have become more important than listeners or advertisers, Matt Mills considers himself fortunate to be a family man.

The family, in this case, is Greater Media and the five-station cluster Mills manages in Boston. “We’re a privately held company,” he points out. “While we like to run it like a public company … because we’re a family unit, we can operate it differently, and it’s a much more comfortable feel.” Mills credits company founder Peter Bordes with creating that sense of family when founding the company in the 1950s and says that president/CEO Peter Smyth has maintained and nurtured that focus, despite the tantalizing margins promised by deregulation-driven cost efficiencies.

“There are many economies of scale, such as cutting back on your program directors or sales managers, for companies that want to take advantage of them,” Mills observes. “We don’t take advantage of that from a personnel standpoint, but that’s because our company believes in its people. It really is a family organization, so we really haven’t taken advantage of all the consolidation.” As VP/GM of Greater Media’s Boston stations, he oversees five FM stations: WMJX, WKLB, WROR, WBOS, and WTKK.

Prior to his 2001 employment with Greater Media, Mills had been senior vice president/general manager of the AMFM properties in Boston for about six years. He began his career in 1968 as a salesperson for WEEZ in Chester, PA. He subsequently worked in his hometown, Philadelphia, as an account executive, sales manager, and general manager of WRCP-AM/FM. In 1977, Mills headed south to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale to work for Metroplex Communications’ Y100 (WHYI), where he was named GM in 1980. Two years later, the company promoted him to VP/GM of KEZK-FM in St. Louis.
When the station was purchased by Adams Communications in 1983, Mills served as VP/GM at WRTH/WKZK St. Louis for two years before being named president of Adam’s Radio Division in Tampa, FL, where he supervised 17 stations in nine markets. He remained in Florida for seven years before heading north to Cleveland to run a Classic Rock station for Metroplex.

Mills currently resides in Andover, MA, with his wife, Shawn. He has two sons and two grandchildren. Aside from his family, his greatest passion in life, he says, is golf.
Selected one of this year’s top managers in Radio, Mills recently sat down with Radio Ink to discuss leadership, consolidation, the economy and the overall health of the radio industry.

INK: A number of other managers and group executives have identified you as one of the best managers in radio. What’s your take on this recognition?
Mills: I’m honored and flabbergasted that anyone would think so highly of me. I guess maybe one of the things I pride myself on — and have throughout my career — is just being honest with people. I also allow my people to do their jobs. I am not a micromanager, often a mistake with managers, especially first-time ones. I turn it over to my people. I let them hire their own staff. I never interview salespeople or applicants for other jobs here, unless it’s a department head. This gives the staff autonomy, and they know it’s their business to run. Of course, I’m always here as the coach, the manager, the go-to guy if they need help. I also have an open-door policy. A lot of people say that, but my door is always open, and people don’t need appointments to see me. They can come to my office and, if I’m not on the telephone, they’re welcome to come in. I don’t care how busy I am.

Do you have one of those “pick-a-number” tabs outside your door?
Not quite. The funny thing is, when I took over these stations for Greater Media, I had one-on-one interviews with all the department heads. Then I met with all the salespeople, just to get acclimated. I had them come into my office, and I said, “I’m going to call this the good, the bad and the ugly. You just tell me about how you feel about the company, your position, your peers — everything. And nothing will leave this room.” Not only did I find out a lot of useful information, but I was also amazed at how they came in and looked around at the walls. I asked them, “What’s the matter?” and they said, “I’ve never been in this office before.” That just blew me away. There’s no doubt that I’ve changed the environment here. I’m very accessible. I’m never “Mr. Mills” — we use first names for everybody. We just have a great family atmosphere here, and that’s why we’re able to exceed our budgets. We do a good job, and everybody’s happy.

How have your responsibilities changed over the past few years as the industry has consolidated?
Things are very oriented to the bottom line in a lot of public companies. Before
coming to Greater Media, I was with AMFM before they became part of Clear Channel, and everything was bottom-line oriented. The difference here is that we’re a privately held company, and while we like to run it like a public company, we can get away with things that public companies just can’t.

Such as …?
If we’re missing a number for any reason on any station, we won’t be crucified for it. Peter Smyth’s goal is for us to outpace the market, and as long as we’re doing that, he’s happy. While not all of our stations outpace the market all the time, as a group we always outpace the market. That’s what helps us, and that’s what I concentrate on now, more than I used to.

Are public companies hamstrung simply because they are public?
I think so. Here’s a perfect example: If a public company suddenly acquired us — and the good news is that we can’t be acquired because we’re in a trust for a number of years down the road — I can say unequivocally that job cuts would probably occur. We have more than 200 employees here, and we’d probably be cut by at least a third. Instead of having five program directors, the building might have three. And where we now have a director of sales, five general sales managers and five local sales managers, I’m sure a company would cut that. We have five promotion directors, and a company would cut that — right on down the line. Because we’re a family unit, however, we can operate differently. It’s a much more comfortable feel.

What qualities does it take to market a cluster like yours?
The key is relying on your people and letting them do their job. The one thing I try to encourage is not to be afraid to make a mistake: “It’s not going to cost you your job. If you have a serious concern, discuss it with me, and we’ll get it handled.” Giving people the freedom to do their jobs is so paramount to being successful here. Another thing is that I don’t believe in a lot of meetings. I have one meeting a month with my department heads, and that lasts about an hour. I’m able to do this and still know what’s going on because I arrive at the office at 5:45 a.m. every day, and I’m usually here until 5:30-6:00 at night. They are long days, but they’re fruitful because I get a lot done. I’m very much a walk-around manager. I can visit all my department heads every day. First of all, I say “hello” to every employee every day, but I can spend two or three minutes in someone’s office, just catching up on things. I don’t need to have frequent meetings; they take up way too much time.

What is the difference between being a good manager and being a good leader?
Being a good leader is that, just by your actions, people believe in you. When you tell them something, they know you’re telling them the truth — as long as you have always done it that way, which I have. They know when they hear something from me, it’s not bogus, and I’m not going back on my word. I have people coming into my office that say “I was just wondering if I could spend some time with you, and let you know how I feel.” And then they thank me for just letting them come into my office. To me, that’s just part of being a good manager and a good leader.

How is your sales department structured? Are there separate teams, or does everyone sell across stations?
We have individual sales departments, and I’m a big believer in that. When you have five stations with one sales force, the lower-tiered stations won’t get the attention they need. Occasionally something may come up, when a salesperson may have an opportunity to sell all five, but those are rare instances. I inherited this system, and it works very well. Because we’re so big and we have so many stations right now, the only department head from the sales department reporting to me is the DOS, Annie McGuire, who oversees all five stations from a sales perspective. She deals directly with the GSMs, and she is like me — she lets the GSM hire salespeople. She gets involved in the interviewing process for salespeople, but the ultimate decision is left up to the GSM.

Do you ever have market-wide or group-wide deals that involve a number of stations?
We do have group deals, where a certain account might be interested in a number of our stations, and that’s where we’ll get the individual salespeople involved with a point-person. That point person will get involved in trying to sell the cluster.

How difficult is it to find good salespeople who understand how to sell radio today?
That’s the toughest part, and we struggle with it a lot. The good news is we have some fine radio stations here in Boston, and when the occasion arises that we need a new salesperson or a new on-air talent, more than likely they come to us. But we also have some stations that aren’t as highly ranked as others, so it’s difficult to get good quality people. We’re out there working with the colleges and the schools of broadcasting, and we have had interns who worked here and ended up staying as full-time employees. I hate to admit it, but people steal from us, and we steal from them. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what we’re faced with.

Recently, emphasis has been placed on accountability and return on a client’s investment. How focused are you on working with clients directly to solve their marketing problems?
We certainly try to do that. A lot of times unfortunately — and this is something that has been going on for a long time — you tend to get too close to a client, and the agency steps in. They don’t like it. But we try to come up with all sorts of solutions for our clients. We have a marketing division here — Greater Media Marketing Group — that specializes in big events.
We had a Tiger Woods Deutsche Bank championship this past Labor Day weekend. It was a PGA event at the new TPC course here, and we tied in as a sponsor of that tournament. As a result, we were able to bring in clients with various sales packages involving ticket sales and ProAm participation in a two-year deal. This was the first year, and we did fairly well. Next year, we expect to hit a hole in one. That type of thing really helps us.

So in effect, you’re talking about nontraditional revenue development.
It’s one of those deals where many people call it nontraditional, but to us it has become traditional. What we call nontraditional is when we’re netting X number of dollars out of a deal. That’s the kind of NTR stuff that we concentrate on. And that’s harder and harder to come by, because it’s basically sales promotion. Many companies have cut back on these expenditures.

What training do you provide your salespeople and managers?
Each station has its own form of training. Some are using the Sandler Sales Institute. We also have a local trainer who’s working with our sales managers and the director of sales. It’s really been helpful, because they’re finding out through her how to better deal with their own people.

Let’s talk a bit about the product side. Are all five of your stations programmed separately, as well?
Yes. This is another thing I inherited at Greater Media, and I like it that way. We have five FMs, but all the formats we currently have are in the 25-54 bracket, so there’s some similarity. Could we do with fewer program directors? Public companies would do it, but we like that individualism for each station, the direct attention that the station gets from an individual PD.

You have the top FM and three of the top 10 stations in the Boston market. What’s involved in achieving — and maintaining — these positions?
The top station, Magic 106, is an incredible heritage Boston station. The reason for its success is the program director, Don Kelley, who also is vice president of programming. He’s a genius. He lives and breathes the radio station. He pays so much attention to it that everyone knows and expects excellence. That’s what keeps us No. 1. Also, because we have good adult numbers and female numbers, we’re able to sell it very well. If we had the spot loads of some of our competitors, we could bill another $10 million. But we don’t do that, because we don’t want to spoil a good thing. We know that Time Spent Listening is so important to any radio station, and we don’t want to mess with that.

Do you think listeners are aware of the increased spot loads?
No question. Believe me, there are times when we toy with the idea, because we get so sold out. Occasionally, Don will help us out on a weekend, or during TV sweeps when it gets so tight. We’re still running only 11 units an hour, which is pretty tight, compared to our competitors that are running 14 or 16.

Greater Media put on one of the first FM Talk stations in the U.S. How has that been progressing?
It is doing extremely well. That’s a tribute to Peter Smyth. He believed in this format so much, and he invested a lot of money early on. The station is only four years old, and in the beginning, the concept was so new that they couldn’t sell it. There were no ratings. In the first year, that station lost $4 million; the second year, it lost $3 million. Last year, we were budgeted to lose $1.1 million, and we lost $244,000. This year, we were budgeted to make $270,000, but we’re going to make $1.2 million. We’ve really turned the corner. The ratings have improved, and we have a great PD — Paula O’Connor — who concentrates on the product. We have a combination of syndicated talent as well as local talent, and our afternoon show with Jay Severin has gone through the roof. In the winter book, he went to No.1.

Your other three stations are Country, Classic Rock, and Triple A. That’s quite a diverse bunch.
The Country station, WKLB, is the only Country station in Boston. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of what I experienced early in my career in Philadelphia and what also occurs in New York and other major markets: People don’t seem to embrace Country — or at least, they don’t say they do. The thing is, we have an excellent product, and we know the people are out there. Buzz Knight programs the Classic Hits station, and he does an excellent job. We were very fortunate to get him from one of our competitors 18 months ago. Not only is he involved with WROR, but also he’s involved with WBOS, our Triple A station, and he helps out in Philadelphia.

How has the Boston economy affected your stations’ performance?
We expected a pretty decent year this year, but unfortunately, it remained flat. National went up a little bit, but the local market through September was basically flat — up less than 1 percent. On the other hand, national is up almost 6 percent. We also had a tremendous October. While November looks like it’s going to be in the toilet, December looks good.

What sort of performance are you projecting for next year?
We are estimating that the market will go up 4 percent next year. That’s being conservative, and we’re able to do that. My competitors at Infinity, Entercom and Clear Channel are all projecting 7 percent increases for the market, some as high as 9 percent. I don’t know how they justify that, but fortunately, we don’t have to do it.

How much autonomy do your department heads have in creating their own budgets, and what does corporate expect for 2004?
Peter Smyth always loves to have double-digit growth on the bottom line, but he knows we can’t always do that. When we go into the budget process, I let the department heads know what we’re estimating for the market next year, so the sales managers can get a good feel for how much we expect them to go up. After the budgets are turned in to the controller — the program directors, promotion directors, and chief engineer all do the same thing — we sit down one-on-one and go over, line-item by line-item, exactly what they spent this year vs. what they’re going to spend next year. Sometimes there’s not much change, but we take a good hard look at things. I learned when I first became a GM to keep a good eye on the expenses. We budget a lot for promotion, but we also know that, if push comes to shove, we can pull back if we have to.

Recently an MSNBC segment suggested that radio was “losing its relevancy.” Are you concerned that radio might be losing some luster, especially among younger listeners?
It is a concern of mine, and you’re right — the younger listeners now have so many avenues to get what they need for music — the Internet, iPods and so forth. They have so many choices, so many ways to do things that we never had. The thing that could hurt radio is that, right now, you can take it anywhere, but with all the new technology coming out, you’ll be able to get music, data and so much more on your wristwatch. This could change the outlook for radio, but I’m still a big believer in radio, and I think it will continue the way it’s been going for a good number of years.

Likewise, are you concerned about consolidation’s effect on the radio industry?
Having the resources that we’re given at Greater Media, we never have to want for anything. If it’s a new piece of equipment, our company steps up and gets it for us. We have the latest equipment, and we have a good physical plant. The key is to make sure that everyone enjoys coming into the building and having an opportunity to grow their careers. The sad part is that there aren’t as many career opportunities as there were before consolidation. Many of the GM jobs, especially in the major markets, have been eliminated, and you now have a market manager overseeing five stations. Four jobs are eliminated. This concerns me going forward.

Because so many GM positions have been eliminated, it is more difficult to make the leap to market manager?
It’s a much bigger leap. In all likelihood, the relatively new position of director of sales is where the next managers will come from. Occasionally, you’ll get someone from programming, but most market managers come from sales. It’s just going to take a longer process to get there. Once you’re a market manager and doing your job well, you’re going to stay there.

Have the economies of scale that were prophesied in the early days of consolidation come to pass?
In some areas they have, and some they haven’t. There are many economies of scale for companies that want to take advantage of them, such as cutting back on your program directors or sales managers. We don’t take advantage of that, but that’s because our company believes in its people. It really is a family organization, so we really haven’t taken advantage of the consolidation. On the other hand, we have a lot of leverage here with five radio stations — when it comes to dealing with vendors or the snowplow guy.

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