Stamats’ new CEO keeps eye on digital ball

Peter Stamats, Stamats’ Communications new CEO. CREDIT STAMATS


By Dave DeWitte

For Peter Stamats, day one as CEO of Cedar Rapids-based Stamats Communications wasn’t the bracing dive into deep, cold water that other CEOs have invoked to describe the experience.

Mr. Stamats took the reins of his family’s 95-year-old media and marketing company on July 2 after serving for three decades in a variety of roles – most recently as president and COO during a five-month leadership transition period.

It’s a company with an unusual but balanced business model. About 50 percent of revenues come from its business publications such as Meetings Today and Buildings. Most of the remainder comes from Stamats’ Higher Education division, which provides marketing communications and services to colleges and universities.

Even with the company’s careful succession planning, Mr. Stamats will have his hands full with the changes coursing through – and sometimes eroding – the markets it serves.

Competition for advertising dollars is intensifying with internet giants like Facebook and Google. while higher education clients continue to struggle with declining enrollments and the challenge of adapting to the changing digital preferences of prospective students.

Stamats would be hard-pressed to find somebody more prepared for the challenge, however.

“He’s got a huge head start,” said Guy Wendler, who had led and reshaped the company over the past 23 years as president and CEO. “He’s basically been involved in every area of our business.”

That’s hardly an exaggeration. Mr. Stamats has served as CFO and COO, and briefly led the Higher Education division. Among his more recent initiatives was leading Stamats’ expansion into database management for its higher ed clients, leveraging competencies the company developed while managing its audience data.

“I try to incorporate a balanced approach to things,” Mr. Stamats said. “That’s what makes being in our business fun. On any given day you can be dealing with things that are very touchy-feely, and then having to balance it by dealing with hard data, and making those two things work together.”

Peter Stamats is one of two grandsons of Stamats co-founder Herb Stamats who now help lead the company. His younger brother Bill was promoted to executive vice president in February, charged with overseeing the company’s higher education research and marketing division, and its design studio.

At the age of 59, Mr. Stamats could just as easily be thinking of retirement after a successful career. He attended Stanford University in the early 1980s and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering and management science. He then went to work at Hewlett-Packard for five years, fulfilling an expectation for outside work experience for family members who elect to join the business.

“I’ve had some questions about that from our people,” Mr. Stamats said, referring mainly to his age.

“In today’s world they always talk about ‘50 is the new 40,’” he continued. “I’m going to say 60 is the new 50. I’ve got the energy and interest to keep moving forward for a number of years.”

A longtime resident of San Francisco, Mr. Stamats does most of his work from home and isn’t planning to move back to Cedar Rapids, where the company is headquartered. He’s nevertheless found ways to keep his contacts with the business crisp. As he did on his first day as CEO on July 2, he usually starts work in his home office at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate the time difference between the West Coast and Cedar Rapids. He flies out to its headquarters about 17 times a year, staying at a company apartment in NewBo and sometimes looping in a visit to its brand agency in Minneapolis.

At Stamats, that lifestyle is less unusual than it would be at some companies.

“When I came into the company in 1988, we had about 90 percent of our employee base working out of Cedar Rapids and several sales people in territories outside Cedar Rapids,” Mr. Stamats said. “Today we have about 30 percent of our employee base working at different locations around the country and we’re taking full advantage of the internet and digital communications to make that work.”

That distributed approach to work may fuel speculation about Mr. Stamats’ commitment to keeping the company in Cedar Rapids, but he insists the idea is unfounded. Stamats sold its office at 615 Fifth St. SE last year to local architect and developer Steve Emerson, but leased it back for another five years. Mr. Emerson also bought the historic Smulekoff’s warehouse next door, with plans to convert the vertical building into offices.

“We’re real excited with the plans for the Smulekoff’s office,” Mr. Stamats said. “It will add more energy to our little corner of Cedar Rapids between Eighth Avenue and Greene Square.”

Digital conversion

One of the most critical challenges facing Mr. Stamats’ leadership in future years will be finding ways to leverage the company’s expertise and resources to win market share in a rapidly transforming media environment. That’s nothing new, however – it’s the same challenge that faced Mr. Wendler.

Under Mr. Wendler’s guidance, Stamats nearly tripled its revenues by acquiring a California-based publication that became Meetings Today, for event planners. The company also brought the Thorburn Group, a Minneapolis-based branding agency, into the fold, along with commercial interior design publication Interiors & Sources and a half interest in the BOMA International Conference & Expo for building managers and owners.

One of the poignant moments from Mr. Wendler’s first year as president was when a Stamats designer pointed a computer screen at him and showed him something called Mosaic.

“It was the first web browser, or one of them,” he recalled. “I remarked, ‘this is going to change everything.’”

It certainly did. About 90 percent of Stamats’ revenue at that time was based on print media sales. Now, Mr. Wendler said, it’s less than half, and the majority of the company’s business is in digital, market research, marketing services and events.

Mr. Stamats agrees that the future is digital, but he doesn’t think it excludes print. He expects the decline in print advertising and readership to stabilize, much in the way radio eventually stabilized after losing much of its share to television. As it does, he sees opportunities for Stamats to expand its media enterprise to the growing health care market where the company doesn’t yet have a media play.

Stepping back from the leadership role at the company after so long a time has been perhaps more disorienting for Mr. Wendler than stepping into it was for Mr. Stamats. He said the daily drumbeat of emails and calls kept coming in for a week or two, requiring his attention if only to redelegate them. A longtime member of the Amana Society board of directors, Mr. Wendler said he plans to remain active in the society, and on the boards of two other media companies in which he holds seats. He also looks to revive his past activity as a performer and composer on the local music scene.