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Culture + Engagement: Brian Adam and James Swanson

Screaming Images, Olympus Group Report a Successful Merger

What two PSPs learned during their “biggest, riskiest, and most impactful business decision.”

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THE FIRST TIME we met was at Big Picture’s Wide-Format Exchange in Minneapolis in 2018. James had just finished presenting to a room of 200-plus people, describing in detail how Screaming Images put a giant NHL Golden Knights jersey on Lady Liberty outside of the New York-New York Hotel and Casino. “I bought a small Statue of Liberty from a souvenir shop and we measured the proportions on this little souvenir, hoping it would scale,” says James. “Our team then printed giant panels and sewed them together. We shut down four lanes of traffic on The Strip for the installation, hired two gigantic cranes to help install the jersey, and then crossed our fingers and hoped it fit.”

This crazy impressive project was the first step toward merging our companies – Olympus Group and Screaming Images – which we did four years later on January 1, 2022. We felt our two companies and our 250 employees were better together. Neither of us had done anything of this magnitude before. It’s been the biggest, riskiest, and most impactful business decision either of us has ever made.

Screaming Images is James’ Las Vegas-based print shop – a loud, fun, crazy shop specializing in graphics for sports, casinos, and events he started in his garage more than 20 years ago. Olympus Group is Brian’s 130-year-old shop based out of Milwaukee, Orlando, Denver, and Nashville that specializes in graphics for tradeshows, events, and amusement parks. Olympus began as a US flag manufacturer in the late 1800s. Two different companies cut from the same cloth, combined with 250 employees, five locations, and some big personalities; we learned a lot along the way. One year in, we’re going to share what we learned, plus our tips for a successful merger.

Why We Did It

We felt our teams compliment each other and, more importantly, we felt our teams share similar values. We both love to tackle the challenging, the quick-turn, the complex, and the crazy projects. Olympus has a 130-year history, solid back office, some pretty buttoned up systems, and had recently embarked on a goal of expanding geographically in key tradeshow and event markets. Screaming Images has scaled and grown quickly in Las Vegas with tons of creativity and some of the coolest wide-format projects. (Check them out at bigpicturemag.com/screamingimages.) Brian felt Olympus would benefit from a location in Las Vegas, was excited to grow in the event and casino markets, and really wanted to work with James. (He still could not get over how impressive the Statue of Liberty project was.) James felt Screaming Images would benefit from Olympus’ corporate structure, the additional support the Olympus team could provide, and from Olympus’ print facilities across the US. After about six months of negotiations, we did it. We merged and formally combined forces.

What We Learned

We went into the merger with eyes wide open; we understood there would be challenges. The initial announcement was well received. Both teams were on board, believed in our vision, and generally thought the merger was a good idea. Was everything a smashing success? Not even close! We learned a lot. There were (and still are) tough times and challenges. While we’re confident in our future, we made a bunch of mistakes along the way. Any merger is a great learning experience. You are going to learn a lot about yourself and your business. Here are a couple of tips to help make your merger successful:

  • Communication – You can’t overcommunicate with your team. We don’t think an employee has ever said, “I wish my company would stop sharing meaningful updates with me.” In the process of combining two teams, there will be apprehension, uncertainty, and a whole lot of assumptions made by team members. We can’t stress the importance of overcommunicating with your team. Should you use email, in-person presentations, video meetings, or newsletters to communicate with your team? Yes! You should use all forms of communication and use all of them frequently. Tell your team what you’re going to do, tell them why you are doing it, tell them while you’re in the middle of doing it, and then tell them again why you did it once you’re all done.
  • In Person – COVID accelerated the virtual work world: Zoom and Teams are now everyday terms and web meetings are the norm. However, it’s almost impossible to build new, meaningful relationships over a video screen. The importance of quickly building trust and relationships between two teams cannot be overstated. Plan on getting together in person – a lot! The only way to build a common culture and earn the trust of each other’s teams is to spend time together, in person.
  • Move Fast – Integrate systems and processes as quickly as possible, but understand this takes time. Aligning systems, pricing, terminology, processes, websites, and marketing efforts is a monumental task, but it needs to happen quickly if you want to capitalize on the benefit from having one team. You need to get to a common structure and a common system. We recently began the process of integrating our ERP systems, quoting, and pricing … a year after we merged. In hindsight, we wish we would have started this process sooner.
  • Focus on Culture – Nothing is more important in a merger than ensuring your cultures are aligned. We felt our cultures were similar and would instantly mesh, which was a driving factor in working together. We learned even small differences are accentuated when combining forces. Small differences in our approach toward simple things (like work hours, breaks, and overtime expectations) can become contentious. Discussing cultures and management styles early in your
    discussions (pre-close) is key.
  • Time – The M&A (merger and acquisition) process will take more time and cost more money than expected. We both incurred more in legal fees and consulting fees than we originally thought. And then there’s the time investment. We were both operating near capacity before the merger. It was a lot of effort to keep up with our daily workload. M&A is a part-time job, both pre- and post-close, and it’s not something you can do alone. It was taxing on us and on our teams.

Mergers are not easy. According to Harvard Business Review, between 70 and 90 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail. But they can literally transform your business overnight. If we had to do it all over again, would we? Absolutely!

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If you decide to pursue an acquisition, make sure it’s with someone you want to work with – someone you enjoy – and ensure the value proposition has a big enough upside that it’s worth the cost and effort. With the right merger and the right plan, you can make 1 + 1 = 3.

Brian Adam, president/owner of Olympus Group, and James Swanson, principal of Screaming Images, joined forces in 2021. The merger brought together two print shops, 250 employees, five locations, and countless clients. Check out their work on LinkedIn.

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