SELF- Made in Maine
FEATURE- June 2010
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by KristIn Teig
You’d expect to find them in New York, DC, or Los Angeles, but these natives HAVE made dream careers from home and are the leaders of three companies Maine is proud to call ITS own.
Name / John Coleman
Founder of / THE VIA GROUP
Hometown / Augusta
Current town / Yarmouth (MOVING TO PORTLAND)
Graduate of / University of Maine at Orono, Southern New Hampshire University
John Coleman is the founder of The VIA Group, an advertising and branding company that takes its work so seriously, it’s willing to take a tongue-in-cheek approach on the hiring pages of its website: “The VIA Group is an innovative band of thieves up in Portland, Maine, attracting national clients and talent—all in the effort of creating the agency of the future, in the present.” It also says, “We eat a lot of lobster. You will too.”
For The VIA Group, the unlikely location of one of the country’s top ad agencies is often an advantage. VIA uses the Maine lifestyle as a recruiting tool, but Portland also helps Coleman and his merry band of “thieves” differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace. Coleman describes going up against a handful of New York City–based agencies during the final rounds of pitching Silverstein Partners, the developer that put up the first building at the World Trade Center site after 9/11. When Coleman and his team finished their presentation Larry Silverstein asked, “So why would we hire you? You’re from Maine. This is New York, where all the great agencies are.” Coleman looked at Silverstein and said: “All the other agencies you’re talking to are too provincial to handle this very difficult problem.” Silence. Then laughter. Silverstein said, “You’re right. This is a bigger problem. This is a global problem.”
And that’s precisely what gives VIA its edge. Coleman says, “We work in Internet marketing, social media, branded entertainment, and guerilla marketing as well as doing traditional work like TV, radio, print, direct mail, and outdoor. In a typical campaign for a client, we combine all of those things, maybe more. That kind of collaborative culture is comfortable in the state of Maine.” From a couch in his office, next to a bookshelf full of everything from The Feminine Mystique to a history of the Celtics and a compendium of Bob Dylan song lyrics, Coleman goes on to talk about work the company has created for brands like Klondike and Discover Card with a group in L.A. that represents 16,000 filmmakers. Coleman, who grew up as one of seven kids, believes in pooling resources, and trying nontraditional models for creating ideas and content. He says, “We can do all of that because we’re open. You have to be more entrepreneurial living in Maine. You have to hustle a little bit harder, you have to work a little bit longer. You have to want a little bit more, but that’s not a bad thing. It keeps you honest and it keeps you sharp.”
Coleman married his high school sweetheart and attributes his happy marriage to making their life, and raising three kids, in their home state. He incorporated the company (which is still privately held) on his daughter’s birthday in 1993. “I think it would have been a lot easier in the early years if I had been in New York,” he says. “We might be bigger, but I’m not sure we’d be better. There’s a strength in being here, because it gives us a chance to reflect in an objective way. At the center of any industry you can lose your perspective.”
Being here has also allowed Coleman a significant opportunity that VIA couldn’t have afforded in New York: the company is renovating and reinvigorating the historic Baxter Building on Congress Street in Portland, the city’s longtime library and, in more recent history, one of the Maine College of Art’s teaching facilities. Coleman, who has been on the board of directors of the college for the last nine years, stepped up to bring the building back to life after several deals for its sale fell through. “In the board meeting, I felt my hand begin to raise. I was thinking, ‘Stop, don’t do it,’ but I said, ‘I think I have an idea for a tenant-buyer.’ Like a lot of companies, VIA had a tough time last year, but I’m glad we went ahead. I’m proud that we can be the steward of this building for awhile.”
In addition to their private offices, VIA is carving out spaces that will serve public functions, for everything from Portland Greendrinks to ideation salons. “We’re in an interesting business,” Coleman says, “Part of it is engineering and science, part of it is math driven, and part of it is completely creative. It’s incumbent on us to stay connected to both. Maine has a very strong history of connection with the arts. Dating back to the 1800s, this has been a place artists come to create, to reflect. I’d like to think we are a tiny part of that continuum.”
Name / Peter Carlisle
Founder of / CARLISLE SPORTS MANAGEMENT, NOW MANAGING DIRECTOR OF Octagon Olympics + Action Sports
Hometown / Cape Elizabeth
Current town / South Portland
Graduate of / Bates College, University of Maine School of Law
Peter Carlisle is a sports agent. If you’re a young Olympic or X-Games hopeful, you know his name. He is the head of Olympics and Action Sports at Octagon, the largest sports and entertainment marketing firm in the world. The company has 900 employees, 60 offices, and a global reach. The Olympics and Action Sports division, one of the company’s most successful, is based in Portland.
For Octagon, Portland holds no strategic advantage. The advantage is Carlisle. As an experienced negotiator (and former lawyer), Carlisle made Portland part of his package when major agencies began to court his boutique firm, Carlisle Sports Management in the late 90s. Carlisle had carved a niche in extreme sports, recognizing the potential of the youth market for companies like Nokia, and managing the careers of people like Olympic snowboarders Ross Powers, Kelly Clark, and Seth Wescott. When discussions turned serious with Octagon, Carlisle, who had a small staff at the time, flew to the D.C. headquarters to talk with top brass. The negotiation was close to final, but there a few sticking points to contend with. One was location. “I wanted to stay in Portland,” Carlisle says, “but they probably figured, ‘What an opportunity for this guy!’ and assumed I’d jump at the chance to move to D.C. Eventually, we reached an impasse on a few points and suspended the discussion for nine months.”
From his brick and burnished wood office in Portland’s Old Port, Carlisle says he credits the company for having the vision to expand into the action sports industry and make the choice to, “invest in Maine, and give us the resources to grow a division here.” However, it still took him a few years to put Portland on the map. “We’d laugh about it because they were almost ambivalent about Maine at first,” Carlisle says. “If you went to the company website, you’d see dots representing Octagon offices all around the world, but we weren’t showing up.” Ultimately, Carlisle’s 15-person team was so successful in its mission—generating media, commercials, and positive PR, that, “ambivalence changed to support,” he says. The Olympics and Action Sports division got their dot—and Portland needed it. “Athletes would call to schedule lunch appointments around their meetings with Nike,” Carlisle says. “And I’d have to find a polite way to say, ‘Maine is a long way to go from Oregon just for lunch.’” Now, just a few years later, Carlisle’s division has become so well-known in the Olympic and action sports community that it has caused a new confusion: athletes sometimes assume Portland is home to Octagon’s headquarters.
Recently, Carlisle lured an employee with a family from the D.C. office, where he had worked for ten years, to Portland. The move piqued the curiosity of other D.C. staffers enough for Carlisle to joke with the company president about moving the headquarters to Maine. There is already some mystique about what happens here, as the Portland office hosts the annual “Octagon Olympics.” The event brings athletes, sponsors, and people from the home office together for a “full day of foolishness and eight events,” says Carlisle with a smile. “Last year we had several Olympians running around town doing funny things totally unrelated to their sport. Of course, those stories get out. We’re marketing Portland in our own little way.”
Carlisle says he never felt Portland created any barriers to growing his business. “It’s just a practical disadvantage,” he says. “It’s an extra leg. There have been occasions where people would judge you, but those aren’t the people you want to work with anyway.”
While Carlisle’s fixation on staying in Maine may seem tangential to his work, it comes down to quality of life: for himself, his young family, and his employees. Maine is where he is happiest outside of the office. And that understanding of the work/life balance is precisely what makes him one of the best sports agents in the world—as a corporate manager and as a career manager. The greatest gift he can give clients like Michael Phelps is the ability to focus on training, while spending periods of rest recharging with family and friends instead of worrying about sponsorships, media, or his financial future.
Carlisle says, “I represent other people; they need to trust me, but the sports agent has not always had the greatest perception in the industry.” He finds that Maine often works to his advantage in initial meetings with athletes and their parents: “Their reaction is, ‘Wow, he must have his priorities straight.’” The assumption also works in reverse. Carlisle says, “I’m a huge proponent of Maine talent. For one thing, people here are smart enough not to live anywhere else.”
Name / Jeremy Litchfield
Founder of / ATAYNE
Hometown / Durham
Current town / Brunswick
Graduate of / Bowdoin College, American University
Jeremy Litchfield went to high school, then college in Brunswick. He got his start in the marketing world at Pierce Promotions in Portland and later moved to D.C. for grad school and work at a Washington marketing firm. Then he went running in a red shirt and everything changed.
“The shirt bled dye all over me,” he says. “I started doing research about chemicals in clothing, and realized there’s a huge opportunity to focus on creating outdoor and athletic gear that’s safe for people and the planet.” Two days later Litchfield walked into his boss’s office at the marketing firm and resigned. This was May of 2007. By July Litchfield had formed a company: Atayne, based in Arlington, Virginia. Over the next 15 months he made a lot of phone calls. “I literally had no experience in this space,” he says. “I had no idea what materials I was going to use, how to even get clothing made. I had a lot to figure out.” By the end of August 2008 Litchfield had secured funding and Atayne launched sales. The company creates outdoor and athletic clothing from what they affectionately refer to as “trash,” but most people would call “recycled material.” An important piece of the company is marketing a point of view, rather than a brand: each T-shirt has an environmental message rather than a logo.
As the company built momentum, it came time to choose a headquarters. “We were literally considering the other Portland, Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, D.C., New York, and Burlington. But I strongly believed that the best place to bring the company, and live the life we wanted to live, was Maine.” Atayne moved to Maine in February 2009.
Litchfield contends Maine gets a bad rap when it comes to business. The year he moved the company from Arlington, Forbes rated Virginia the most business-friendly state in the nation, but Litchfield felt that designation applied more to half a billion-dollar businesses than start-ups. “I had begun to notice a lot of support for start-ups in Maine,” he says. “I saw this as a business decision—it was going to be a very good place for us to access resources to help us grow and reach our potential. And it has been absolutely incredible.” Atayne won the Entreverge Award from PROPEL in 2009. The company also received a grant from the Maine Technology Institute and was selected to the Maine Center for Enterprise Development’s inaugural Top Gun program. But perhaps more important, people in Maine cared. They not only took Litchfield’s calls, but they made worthwhile connections to help Atayne develop. Litchfield says, “It’s not only because of what we represent and what our values are, but I think it’s also my personal story of being the hometown boy—people here want to support that.”
Atayne has been bolstered by positive connections to likeminds with similar goals; among them, Beth Shissler, founder of Sea Bags, with whom Litchfield founded the Advanced Textiles Technology Consortium. Although the group is in its infancy, its members include the leaders of The Belted Cow, Planet Dog, Sterling Rope, U.S. Felt Co., and the Manufacturers Association of Maine, along with Tom Chappell, the founder of Tom’s of Maine, who now has a start-up clothing company of sustainably produced wool garments called Ramblers Way. The Consortium aims to look at ways to eliminate waste in the production process and keep textile jobs in Maine. Litchfield says, “One of the things that Atayne is dedicated to is a model of localized production. It’s not only the idea of minimizing the carbon footprint in the miles that a garment travels, but it’s also about supporting jobs in the areas where people are buying our stuff.” Southern Maine is one of Atayne’s biggest markets.
Litchfield is in the process of shifting all of Atayne’s cutting and sewing into Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. He recently discovered a company called Creative Apparel Associates that does mostly government contracting work—which means they specialize in the kind of unique flatlock stitch Atayne requires for its garments (flatlock reduces chaffing—an important criterion for athletic clothing). Creative Apparel Associates has operations in Belmont, Dover Foxcroft, Fort Kent, Harmony, and Princeton, and is 51 percent owned by the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Litchfield says, “I’m trying to see if we can create our entire supply chain within a couple hundred mile radius, which is absolutely unheard of in apparel.” He also has big dreams of partnering with Poland Spring to someday turn plastic bottles into fabric.
Litchfield shares the company’s progress and practices on the slick Atayne website under “The Story of a Red Shirt” blog. This includes a yearly, transparent reckoning of Atayne’s progress as a business, but also as a leader and innovator of product lifecycle management. Of course, he also talks about running, and Maine. “In D.C. my friends used to say, ‘I’ve never met anyone who can bring their homestate into any conversation.’ They would warn clients in business development meetings, ‘He’s gonna talk about Maine—he likes Maine,’” Litchfield says. Clearly Maine was the right move for him, but it was also crucial for the company. In the difficult economy of 2008–2009, Atayne’s sales doubled. “I think we’re on track to double our sales again this year, if not more,” Litchfield says. “The support we’ve gotten in this state has been instrumental for us to be able to do that. And I sometimes question, if we had stayed in D.C. or if we had moved to Burlington, what position would we be in?”