The Advent of Charity

Advent President John Roberson (left) and Todd Austin, the company's vice president. (Courtesy of Advent)

Good work and good works are equally lauded at marketing firm Advent, where employees share a common bond through various charitable causes.

In fact, the company's business plan for 2008 includes the employee-supported idea of building a Habitat for Humanity house - if the 25-person firm can grow 50 percent by the end of the year.

Advent has found a recipe that works in any business - engage employees in company goal-setting and decision-making. The company also pays employees for time they spend on charitable causes and makes cash contributions to nonprofits that employees care about.

"We believe here that a highly integrated team of people who has a common vision, common beliefs and a common value system can grow very rapidly if they keep their proverbial ear close to the customer," said John Roberson, president of the Nashville, Tenn., firm. In seven years, the firm has grown by a multiple of seven.

"To play well together, [members of a] team have to have similar values," said Roberson. "We engage in these nonprofits and charities because we're called to live out these beliefs. We are a global citizen and our economy is global."

Roberson's philosophy espouses that an individual who shows up at work is a "whole person" who has to balance a whole life. "They're not going to look back and say I wish I had spent more time at work. They will wish that they had contributed more. We call these ideas corporate pearls because we believe they're special and rare...this is not a business focused just on transaction."

Advent's warehouse manager gets Friday afternoons off with pay to work on a rehabilitation program at a local women's prison. "He is much more valuable to society doing that than helping rid the world of" bad-looking trade show exhibits, said Roberson with a laugh.

Linda Vindal, who is in charge of monitoring the firm's "corporate culture," sits on the board of an organization providing clean drinking water to countries such as India, Kenya and Haiti. She is able to use Advent company equipment to produce brochures, labels and other materials that go toward her cause.

"We absolutely encourage" charitable work, said Roberson, who noted that each employee participates in some kind of charitable work. Last year when he heard that one of the accounting interns was taking six weeks to work in Honduras to build sustainable housing, Roberson determined that the company couldn't afford to pay the intern's compensation during that time - but he did pay for the plane tickets.

"We don't want our people to just give corporate dollars. Our people are doers and initiators who contribute through experience." As leader of the company, Roberson also spearheads efforts to offer free Advent services such as help with a marketing campaign or annual fundraising to low-income outfits or non-profits.

But wouldn't it be nice if it just took an altruistic outlook to achieve a fat bottom line.

Advent, which Roberson bills as an "experiential" marketing firm, has seen challenges.

Roberson is entrepreneurial at heart. He ran a T-shirt business in college and before he could drive was an AM radio disc jockey. He also got his real estate license at a very young age and "knew that someday I'd be a leader of my own business, but I needed to find the context after grad school," he said. Roberson said his degree from Vanderbilt University's business school has been helpful, but quickly added "I thought I was going to die in the first couple of years there...trying to get a handle on accounting and finance." He felt more comfortable when his courses began to focus more on case studies and strategies in lieu of accounting and finance.

The company was founded in 1988 and Roberson, his wife and other family members bought the firm in 2000. "This was a business that had one computer of three that was connected to the Internet - a 28.8 dialup modem - and none of the computers could talk to each other."

Then the firm, like many, was mired in the tough economy stemming from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Advent's bread-and-butter was setting up display booths at trade shows and refashioning firm lobbies. Fewer people were attending trade shows and many shows were cancelled. Roberson's father and father-in-law invested in the company to help it through that tough time.

It took the firm about a year to recover from that time of no flat growth, but it's grown at a rate of 35 percent or greater over the last six years.

The company also has seen rapid expansion through its launch of The Web site generates 25 percent of Advent's business and most of its revenue. "It's a sector of our business that's growing by more than 200 percent a year," Roberson said.

Advent can redesign a company lobby in as little as two weeks. For example, clients who are trying to seal a big contract may enlist Advent's help to spruce up an office to look more professional, polished and to convey a certain message.

"We compare ourselves like an E.R. team to a traditional doctor. We treat the problem very quickly," Roberson said.

The company is careful with its hires and tests employees with a sort of Briggs-Meyers type personality test to identify at least five out of 32 strengths that an employee harbors. "We're not going to put in what God left out of that person. We just try and focus on their strengths," explains Roberson.

Interesting, Vindal noted, that the firm has found that no two employees have exactly the same strengths in common.

Vindal and Roberson chuckle when asked how they plan to retain the current corporate culture while the company grows quickly. "We're fixated on that. The heartbeat of the company has to be the same," Vindal stressed.

Roberson adds, "We believe so strongly that it's our culture that makes us unique," but acknowledges that "it gets harder and harder to treat [employees] less like a number.

"We can't send the company to Hawaii for vacation, but we can afford to wash an employee's car once a month as a surprise," he said. The company's bottom line also has forked out funds for a pair of boots for one employee and another who is interested in animation and drawing got a Mac Mini.

"No one here is in charge of [research and development], we're just a group of people that tries to say yes most of the time."

By Sharon McLoone |  February 12, 2008; 9:06 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

What comes around goes around as I always say. If you help others including employees or even co-workers, you have made the choice to even help yourself. Charity in the work place or business environment is good for everyone concerned, and goes a long way towards productivity!

Posted by: Homejobsite | February 12, 2008 4:30 PM

This company seems to be a model for how all companies could and should run. Very good article on a deserving organization.

Posted by: David Ferguson | February 14, 2008 1:49 AM

I think one of the best examples of how in tune John and Todd are with modern and cutting edge business and marketing practices can be found through listening to their Experiential Marketing Today podcast. It's nice to see them finally getting recognition for their work.

Posted by: Seth Gardner | February 29, 2008 4:05 PM

Here's a link to John and Todd's marketing podcast:

Posted by: Seth Gardner | February 29, 2008 4:06 PM

As a small business owner I'm always looking for opportunities to help others in my community. We often donate our excess inventory of office furniture to churches, charitable organizations, and not-for-profit companies. Our donations not only makes my employees feel good, the new furniture helps increase the productivity of the staff at these community-focused organizations.

Posted by: Cheryl's Office | March 12, 2008 12:07 AM

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