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Transitioning your agency to new leadership (Part 1 of 2)

In this episode, Hubbell Communications founder Ward Hubbell talks about the agency he founded, and how he decided to approach the transition when he no longer wanted to manage the business day-to-day.

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In this episode, Hubbell Communications founder Ward Hubbell talks about the agency he founded, and how he decided to approach the transition when he no longer wanted to manage the business day-to-day.

Ward talks about how he was working with Zach Hyder as his agency business coach when it struck him that Zach would be the right fit to take over Hubbell.

In this first episode of a two-part series, Ward introduces us to Zach and explains the journey he has gone through to make the transition as smooth as possible.

In part two, we will hear more from Zach about why he decided to leave the ranks of agency coaching to re-enter the agency world directly — along with what lessons he learned from being an advisor.

Key takeaways

  • Ward Hubbell: “Start early and start slowly. You know, get to know the person, work with the person, make sure that you’re not trying to find an exact replica of yourself. You’re trying to find someone who can build on what you’ve built.”
  • Chip Griffin: “I think that slow build, that getting to know each other thing is very important because a lot of agency owners, when they start thinking about succession planning, they waited too long. And so then they kind of rush into it and that’s sort of like going to the bar and proposing on the first night. That’s probably not the best approach.
  • Ward Hubbell: “I’m a starter, but I’m not a builder. Zach’s a builder. And I started seeing that he had processes, he had plans. He was a planner and a person who has a game plan and who can take a company and scale it. To scale a company, you’ve gotta have processes and procedures and you’ve gotta have a very deliberate growth plan.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host Chip Griffin, the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And I am delighted to have with me today, two guests, both from Hubbell. Ward Hubbell, the CEO and founder of Hubbell and Zach Hyder, who is the president, CMO, janitor, chief bottle washer, and pretty much everything else of Hubbell. So welcome to the show guys.

Zach Hyder: Thank you. That all fits on the business card, Chip.

Chip Griffin: I hope it’s all printed right there. If not, you should get new ones printed up that match up what I just said, so that we’re consistent, but yeah. We’re gonna have an interesting conversation over the next two episodes here, because we’re gonna be talking about some of the transitions that have gone on at Hubbell over the last couple of years.

Ward, obviously you’re the founder. We’ll talk about the founding story in episode one and your decision to bring in Zach to be that president, CMO, chief bottle washer and everything else. And how you came to that decision, how you decided to settle on Zach. And then in episode two of this two part series, we’ll talk with Zach about some of the lessons he’s learned, because he’s got an interesting background having been in the agency space himself, both within an agency, but also as an advisor to many agencies, so lots to dig into.

And so with that, I’m gonna shut up and Ward, I’m gonna let you start by introducing yourself. And then in episode two, Zach, we’ll let you give your introduction in that one.

Ward Hubbell: Okay. I’m Ward, Hubbell, founder and CEO of Hubbell Communications. We’re a public affairs and public relations firm headquartered here in Portland with an office in Seattle.

I started the business 19 years ago after a corporate career. And, you know, I’m in the process now of, of working with Zach to make sure this company lives on beyond me.

Chip Griffin: So let’s start with that founding story. Cause I always find that interesting. Why did you decide to start an agency?

Ward Hubbell: Well, a couple of reasons. I had been in the corporate world for 10 years, and I just knew that I was gonna thrive and function better if I were not relying on someone else for a job and identity, I’m just that way. You know, you just kind of know if you’re the kind of person who’s gonna do better on his own than working for somebody. So that was number one. Number two was we had moved out – I was 37 years old and we had moved out to Portland to, for me to take a pretty big corporate job at the time. And, we’d gotten dug in and started having babies and didn’t wanna leave. And I knew that that if I were to continue in the corporate world, that probably meant I was gonna, I was gonna have to move somewhere else and we just didn’t want to.

So I just decided I was gonna be successful or I was gonna starve to death. And that was the only two choices. And when that’s the only two choices you have it’s pretty easy. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: Well, it’s good that you chose not to starve to death because…

Ward Hubbell: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: Because I mean, this would be a really weird episode in that case.

So you know, did you originally set out to, to build what I call a proper agency? Or did you start just sort of freelancing and it mushroomed from there?

Ward Hubbell: Okay, Zach’s gonna smile here when I start talking.

Zach Hyder: I have nothing other than to do but smile as I listen to you, hear you tell your story, my friend.

Ward Hubbell: So, I’m not a real, I’m not a big planner and I’m not a, you know, kind of process person do it by the book and had some big strategic plan. I’m kind of a, kind of a bust on up in there and make it work kind of guy. And so, I didn’t have a plan other than I just wanted to make a living doing, doing PR and, I just took opportunities when I saw them, and created them when I didn’t see them.

And, got to a place, you know, pretty good place, where we’re, you know, one of the major firms in the region. And, but it didn’t come from a lot of planning and, and that’s probably what we’re gonna start talking about here in a minute when we start talking about Zach. But, but yeah, that’s, that was, I just wanted to, I just wanted to have my own business. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think your experience isn’t, isn’t that different from a lot of the agency owners that I, that I talk with, in that they didn’t have a concrete plan of, of how they were gonna develop the business. But I guess my question to you would be, how did you, how did the business grow and evolve?

Was it, did you have sort of sudden overnight success and you just kept adding headcount? Was that, was there some inflection point along the way? Talk to me a little bit about how you’ve gotten from here to there or there to here, I guess, over the last 19 years.

Ward Hubbell: So I would say – that’s a good question.

I would say that if, if I’m good at anything, it’s I’m a connector. I try – I’m kinda like water, you know, I seep into every crack I can find. And, most of the – and I’ve always done that and not, not because I’m trying to be, you know, opportunistic or anything like that. It’s just, that’s just my nature.

And so I know a lot of people and I make it my business to know a lot of people. And what I did was just start with the people I knew. And, you know, I always tell people when they’re, they’re thinking about doing this, I say, you know, go get the easy stuff first. You know, find the, you know, work that inner circle and build out from there.

So, the way this business got to where it is today pre-Zach is, just my persistence and my ability to get out there and really connect with people and find opportunities and, you know, bring ’em in. That’s kind of how it worked.

Chip Griffin: And, and obviously at some point along the way, you said, you know, I need to bring in someone like Zach to, to help me out and, and continue to, to pull this ball forward.

And so what, talk to me about the thought process that you went through. Was there, was there an aha moment where you said, this is what I need to do, or is it just sort of, you know, you’ve progressed along and you wanna move to the next stage, you know, where did that come from?

Ward Hubbell: Well, I said I wasn’t a planner, but this is one thing that I planned on.

And pretty much from the day one, from the day I started, I, I started thinking about succession. I started thinking about how do I, how will I monetize this? How will I get out of it? You know, how will I hand it over or whatever. And so I – it was a priority. It’s been a priority for, you know, the whole time we’ve been in business.

I didn’t know what I was looking for. And I learned more about what I was looking for by finding what I didn’t, what wasn’t gonna work, you know. I’ve, I went through several cycles of people and possibilities. And, I learned a lot about what I didn’t need and want. And, you know it wasn’t…

and so by the time I met Zach as my business coach, you know, I don’t know Zach, what, four or five years ago, whatever that was? Long time.

Zach Hyder: Yeah.

Ward Hubbell: I started thinking, wait a minute, this guy is, this guy’s a builder, right? So I’m a starter, but I’m not, I’m not a builder. Zach’s a builder. And I started seeing that, that, okay.

He had processes, he had plans. He, he was a planner and a person who, who has a, you know, I keep using the word plan, but, a person who’s got a game plan and, and who can take a company and scale it. To scale a company, you’ve gotta have processes and procedures and you’ve gotta have a very deliberate growth plan.

And that’s just not me. I’m a starter. And so I can get it going and I can get it to a certain level. But, having Zach as my coach helped me to appreciate the skills necessary to move beyond that level. And, you know, through a course of, you know, getting to know each other and becoming, you know, friends and everything, it, I guess became apparent to both of us that this would be a, you know, a good thing to do. So yeah.

Chip Griffin: So that’s a good opportunity, Zach, for you to explain a little bit about, you know, your most immediate past life, and how you came to work with Ward.

Zach Hyder: Well, the story of Ward and I meeting, Chip, is actually kind of an interesting one. And I’m gonna tell you the personal professional story, and then we’ll talk about the, the professional part of that question.

So Ward and I were supposed to actually meet 15 years ago. When I left, like him not long before me, left DC, moved back – so I’m from Portland. This is my hometown. You can’t tell from his accent, Ward’s not actually from Portland, he adopted it as his home. But my agency in DC, said, Hey, you know, don’t leave us, stay with us.

Well, we know this guy in Portland and you can go office with him and kind of be part of, you know, our team and maybe his team. And, and I was, you know, well, who is this guy? Well, he’s not from Portland. He’s from Mississippi. And I was like, that sounds like not very promising and never followed through on it.

Ended up taking – just like Ward – took a corporate job here in Portland. And then years later, when I went out to, you know, start my own consulting business, working with agencies, Ward and I got in touch. I can’t even remember how we got in touch, but we got connected. He said, Hey, I wanna meet you.

I said, Hey, I wanna meet you. And we went and, you know, had a bottle of wine and caught up on all kinds of things. And in the course of that realized, I was like, wait a minute. You’re the guy I was supposed to meet 15 years ago when I came out here from DC. They were good friends of his and it’s amazing to think that all these years later that now Ward’s a good friend of mine.

So that’s actually the story of how we met. And then the story of how this partnership happened, really sort of began from there. Ward was just someone who, again, in that first meeting, we, we just had an instant chemistry and connection. Ward always tells me. And, and I often don’t tell him back that I just kind of liked how his mind worked.

I liked his style. You know, he and I are not stuffy suit types. We just aren’t. We are just a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more casual. And, you know, I, I had been through just like he was saying, I had been through some attempts at partnership before that just didn’t really feel right.

They just didn’t feel good. And he was someone who I enjoyed talking to and it sort of started slow. I think, Ward correct me if I’m wrong. The first thing was like, y’all had a presentation and I think I came in to like help you guys get ready for the presentation. I think he was trying to make sure that I was actually good at what he thought I was good at.

So it started slow and, you know, won a piece of business and then he had me do some other stuff. And then before I knew it, it was really kind of helping him figure out his succession plan more than anything else. Like what am I gonna do with the agency? And we started mapping out a lot of options. It was funny, I’m sort of like – Chip, I’m sort of like Dick Cheney, cuz people don’t know Dick Cheney wasn’t supposed to be vice president. He was supposed to help find the vice president and ended up being, so that, that’s kind of what happened to me. I started helping Ward, you know, we mapped out on the whiteboard.

Here’s like five options for what you could do with the business. And he came to me, and said, you know, who should run this business is you. And I said, but I already have a job. So I’m, I’m gonna say no. And then he did it again, maybe a third time. And we, it, honestly, it just was one of those things that the more I thought about it and the more I looked at, what I thought he and I had as far as a good, you know, connection, I realized the thing that I was avoiding was all those kind of not great partnerships I’d had before. And what I really wanted was to do it with Ward. And that’s how this happened.

Chip Griffin: So Ward, I mean, obviously you had a chance to, to get to know Zach through the coaching relationship.

And, as Zach has described, you went through the options for succession planning, but it’s, it’s a difficult decision as an owner to bring someone in to your own baby. I mean, you literally have your name on the door. And so, you know, talk us through a little bit of your thought process and you know, what you, you know what, whether that was easy or difficult and sort of what the calculation was.

Ward Hubbell: So, I had the advantage of, of having Zach as a coach and a mentor for I don’t know, gosh, what, two, three years. And so I knew, I knew his mind very well. I knew I liked the way his mind works. And, so the trust was built in. When we had that conversation, I, you know, he was helping me understand that I, I did not have a good succession plan in place.

And, I knew it. I knew it deep down, but I’m just, I just didn’t wanna admit it to myself. And, and I didn’t wanna, you know, I didn’t want to rock the boat, honestly. So I just kept ignoring it and kept ignoring it and kept ignoring it. And finally he, and he kept telling me, he kept telling me. And finally, just kind of half as a joke, I said, well, why don’t you do it then, if you’re so damn smart, you know?

And, um, but you know, and then, and then…

Zach Hyder: Exactly how he said it, Chip.

Ward Hubbell: Yeah. Yeah. And then, and then I started thinking, okay, this really, you know, it’s not like I just drove this car around the block. I mean, I’ve been driving it for three years. I know exactly what kind of person this guy is. And I know I know what he can do, and I know how his skillset complements mine.

We could go into that, but we really do complement each other. And, I think it makes us, you know, better together. But, but yeah, it was, it was slow, but, once the day I made the decision, it was like a no brainer. It was like, wow. Okay, good.

Chip Griffin: Mm-hmm. Well, and I, I think that, that slow build that, getting to know each other thing is, is very important because a lot of agency owners, when they start thinking about succession planning, they waited too long.

And so then they kind of rush into it and it’s, you know, that’s sort of like, you know, going to the bar and proposing on the first night. Right. You know, that’s, that’s probably not the, the best approach. And so the, the more you get to know somebody, the, the better the fit can be. And, and so I imagine that, that you really wanted to make sure there was a good fit, both because it’s important I’m sure, for you and, and for your livelihood. But also because it’s, you know, part of your legacy.

Ward Hubbell: Yeah, so, so, you know, knowing that, that this was gonna work for me and knowing that Zach was, had the skills and the, and everything he needed to succeed made it, you know, that kind of completed the decision.

Chip Griffin: Mm. And so, you know, when, when you made the decision that, that you’re gonna do it, I mean, what kind of, what kind of transition process did you envision? Was this, I mean, obviously you’d gotten to know Zach for, for quite a while before you made the decision.

But once you finally wore Zack down and he said, fine, I’ll, I’ll give up consulting and, and come in house, how did that process go? Was there, was there a long lead time? And, and I know from, from my previous conversations with Zach, that the timing of this ended up being just a wee bit interesting.

Ward Hubbell: Yes. So, we sat down actually and, agreed. We had a contract pulled together and it, we agreed to a three month period. I mean, excuse me, a three year period of time where, he was gonna come in and I was gonna start pulling back. And, we would, you know, if all things went the way that we both wanted them to go then we would move to a transaction. So we’re actually two years into that three year process. And we’re, we’re working on the framework of that, of that transaction as we speak.

Chip Griffin: Mm-hmm . And so, so that becomes an opportunity for you to, to really get to know each other on a much more intimate basis then, because you know, we all know that as coaches and consultants, you can only get so close to your clients. You think, you know them probably better than you do, but once you start working side by side, full time, that changes. And, and that’s something that we’ll explore in part two of this two part episode. But before we wind down episode one here, you know, Ward, you know, what advice would you give to agency owners as they’re thinking about making this transition themselves?

They’re saying, okay. It’s time for me to get out of running the day to day, either because I want to go off and do something else, or I’m looking ahead to retirement or, you know, how should they be thinking about succession? What lessons would you share from your own experience?

Ward Hubbell: Well, I would, I would say regardless of, of where you are in your career, start now. Start now, because it, you know, it takes, it takes a while and, you know, I wonder sometimes was I, was I lucky or was I, was I just persistent? And I think, I think it was more the latter than the former. I really don’t believe in the former too much, but, you have to be committed. And you don’t wanna, you know, you don’t wanna run your business with that as the sole objective, you know, you gotta, you gotta focus on other things. But you have to be thinking about, about how this thing is, is gonna, is gonna outlive you.

And, so I’d say start, start early. And I would also say start slowly. You know, get to know the person, work with the person, make sure that, you know, you’re not trying to find a exact replica of yourself. You’re trying to find someone who can build on what you’ve built. And usually that means you gotta, you gotta a person who’s a little, whose skillset’s different from yours that you’re looking for.

So that’s, that’s an important thing to do, you know, and if I, if I had, for example, If I had gone out and hired myself, so to speak, I would’ve hired a, a starter, a hip shooter starter kind of person. And, that would’ve been okay, but I don’t think the business would’ve would’ve grown much, beyond where it was when we started versus finding someone whose skills compliment mine and who is a builder and a strategist and a planner and a person who can, can take something good and make it better.

Chip Griffin: Mm-hmm. Well, and that’s, I think that’s great advice, whether you’re talking about succession planning or just, you know, building your team out in your small agency, it’s important to have complementary skill sets, as opposed to just trying to look in the mirror because frankly, most of us would probably go bonkers if we had to deal with ourselves every day.

Ward Hubbell: You’re right.

Chip Griffin: It’s, it’s useful for someone that’s perhaps a little bit different. Well this has been a great start to the conversation. Ward, if someone wants to learn more about Hubbell, where can they go?

Ward Hubbell: They can go to thinkhubbell.com. Think like with your brain, Hubbell, H U B B E L L.com. And, probably more than you wanna know is on there. So go take a look.

Chip Griffin: Great. Well, I want to thank you both for, for joining me for this first of two parts, and we will have both Ward Hubbell and Zach Hyder back next week for the second part of this episode. Thanks for joining us.

Ward Hubbell: Thank you.

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