Olivia Farrell: Six-Legged Stool Approach Key to Success

Olivia Farrell: Six-Legged Stool Approach Key to Success
Olivia Farrell, the former CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group of Little Rock, accepts the Little Rock Rotary Club's 2019 Business and Professional Leader of the Year award. (Amanda Cordell)

From treating vendors as partners to hiring the best talent and serving the community, Olivia Farrell shared her "six-legged stool" approach to running a media company Tuesday at the Rotary Club of Little Rock's weekly luncheon.

The recently retired CEO of Arkansas Business Publishing Group of Little Rock was there to accept the club's 2019 Business and Professional Leader of the Year award.

In exchange, she added a sixth element to her professional philosophy: serving the community.

The term "five-legged stool" was coined by Mitch Bettis, putting a name to what Farrell said she had practiced throughout her career. Bettis purchased the company in February and is now the sole owner of ABPG under his new company, Five Legged Stool LLC.

The philosophy holds that the company is responsible to five constituencies: readers, advertisers, employees, vendors and stockholders.

"Today, I want to add a sixth leg. It's been here all along. It was always there. I just failed to name it," Farrell said Tuesday. "The sixth leg is the community … We have to have a thriving community in order to exist."

Farrell noted that the community provides companies with customers, employees, workplace culture and "future prospects."

"I completely believe that your company has an obligation to contribute to the health of your community," she said. "You'll rise and fall together. You're mutually interdependent, and our organizations have to accept that responsibility to be good, active citizens in the community."

Farrell also said the company has a responsibility to readers. She said it's important for ABPG to meet its obligation to readers and as members of press, which is essential to democracy.

Farrell said she differentiated herself from other publishers by never influencing editorial content for personal reasons. But it came at a cost. She said she lost friends and advertisers because she wouldn't do them favors, such as featuring their companies on the front page or keeping controversial coverage out of her publications.

Advertisers are another leg of the stool. Farrell said she earned their trust and respect by never cutting a special deal with one advertiser over another and by delivering what was promised at a fair price.

The third leg is employees: "One of my most fervent dreams was to work with the very best people," she said.

Farrell recalled how moving in 2001 to a newly remodeled space on Scott Street had a positive effect on recruitment. Before the move, only about half the people offered jobs with the company had accepted. At the new office, everyone accepted. 

She said that's when she learned the importance of offering employees an aesthetically pleasing workspace.

The fourth leg is vendors. Farrell said it's important for companies to pay their bills on time, warning against using vendors as "low-cost banks." She stressed the importance of seeing vendors as partners, not as entities to battle.

The fifth leg is stockholders. Farrell said not overemphasizing one leg over the others is critical, because balance is key to long-term success. She also said that, when she sold ABPG to Bettis, the company had record revenue and profit.

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