Media Owner Gives Employees a Parting Gift

7
1521
Firebrand owner Allan Simon, Laguna Beach media company
Firebrand owner Allan Simon is retiring and turning over ownership to 10 key employees.

Ownership of the Laguna Beach Independent newspaper, Laguna Beach Magazine and other publications of Firebrand Media will soon shift to 10 of its employees.

Owner Allan Simon, who since 2009 has invested $7 million in expanding the company’s portfolio with new titles, announced his intention this week to retire and leave the company in the hands of some longtime workers.

The company’s financial footing in 2015 will be strong, an estimated $3.8 million in revenue, in part because of steps taken to wipe out debts and money-losing initiatives, Simon said. “There is never a right time,” he said, but nevertheless feels the timing is right for Firebrand “to learn to stand on its own two feet and quit relying on big daddy.”

That task will fall mostly to Steve Zepezauer, Firebrand’s co-publisher and editorial director, who founded the company and met his financial backer serendipitously at Zinc Café and Market in 2008.

Zepezauer will own more than 50 percent of the company, Simon said. The remaining equity will be divvied up among nine others, who include Scott Sanchez, co-publisher and technology officer, creative director Sonia Chung and Cindy Byrne, who leads the sales team.

Simon, 82, grew up in New York and worked for the deputy secretary of defense in the Nixon administration. He left government in 1974 and started a business involved in stealth technology, which he sold in 1983. Simon parlayed that payday into real estate, including half ownership of 101 Ash St. in San Diego, Sempra Energy’s headquarters. He moved to Laguna Beach in 2007 and now owns several commercial properties in town, including Firebrand Media’s current location, 250 Broadway St.

Simon said he made no effort to sell the company, which he estimates would be valued at $5 million, out of concern for consequences to the current staff and his own disinterest in the proceeds.

“I didn’t come into the world with much, but a lot has come to me,” said Simon, who intends to give away his wealth. “An extra $5 million makes the giving away harder. I’d rather give it to who I want to give it to now,” said Simon, who with his wife Stefani are the parents of two adult children. Lauren and Ben, who are also local residents, have established careers outside publishing.

Simon expressed confidence in Zepezauer, whom he described as “the inspiration, the hardest worker, the guarantor of quality, our face to customers and our go-to guy.”

For his part, Zepezauer said, “I think we’re sustainable and can operate on our own two feet.”

Zepezauer, 50, who lives in Laguna Niguel, studied journalism and always knew he wanted to be involved in publishing. He founded Firebrand in 2003 and has worked in content creation, publishing and marketing for numerous well-known brands in various industries.

Amid a recession, Firebrand grew aggressively under Simon’s ownership, rescuing the failing Indy and starting an array of new print publications: the weekly Newport Beach Indy, Newport Beach Magazine, weekly Coastal Real Estate Guide, the semi-annual City Guide and four hotel magazines of varying frequency.

“He always said to zig when others zag,” said Zepezauer, who credits his mentor’s compulsion for new initiatives with bolstering the company’s brands and reputation. And some of Simon’s forays were less successful. He funded dazzling technology for the now closed One Laguna private visitor’s center in downtown Laguna Beach, but was unable to turn it into a viable enterprise. “If I lost money, I’m responsible,” Simon said.

Simon’s best friend, local resident and real estate developer Sam Goldstein, expressed shock at Simon’s decision to give Firebrand away. “He’s taken a local jewel and turned it into a kingdom,” said Goldstein. “All you have to do is keep up standards and get the bills collected; you’ll be in great shape. He’s created an opportunity for 10 very lucky people and a legacy to Laguna Beach.”

Chris Keller, another local business owner, also expressed respect for Simon’s approach. “Bill Gates and Warren Buffett donate their wealth to charity, but if more would do this for employees they would be creating more entrepreneurs,” Keller said.

As a longtime Firebrand advertiser, Keller said the reach of the company’s publications has raised the town’s profile and has driven customers in the doors of his various ventures, from Hotel La Casa del Camino to the Marine Room Tavern to Juices and Shakes shop. “I can’t wait to see what happens now,” Keller said.

For Simon, publishing proved eye-opening on several fronts. Clients that don’t pay their bills and the lack of predictable revenue from small, weather-dependent merchants surprised him. So does the city’s approach to economic development, which he describes as hands-off. A more pleasant surprise was the motivation of Firebrand’s staff, who step up to accomplishing weekly targets, compared to his experience in government work where years-long contracts masked incompetence or laziness among workers.

Simon’s gotten a kick out of hanging out among Firebrand’s ambitious staff. “I always cared for the people and it’s given me something to do besides reading the Wall Street Journal slowly,” he said.

He expects his own lightning-fast decision-making will soon find another target. “I don’t know the next step. Somehow I find them.”

 

 

Share this:

7 COMMENTS

  1. In a day and age consumed with so much self absorption, it is indeed a breath of fresh Pacific ocean air to hear a local brethren is acting on his heart and doing such a brave movement in business.
    I can only wish the universe rewards this man with great outcomes in the end!

    -Vincent

  2. Allan, my hat is off to you (see hat in my picture.) This is a wonderful gift to ten of your dedicated and deserving staff. I’d like you to consider me for 12th Man honors. Of course, that means we need an 11th. I’ll do both. Again, congrats to all!

  3. I’m sorry, but I worked for the guy in a gallery he co-owned and then closed in 2012 while owing me about $8k and after an excruciating small claims suit which I won but couldn’t collect on because the LLC was closed, I certainly don’t have the same altruistic opinion of him that this article nauseatingly paints. . I only came across this article cuz I’m in town from NY and saw that Firebrand Media was no longer in it’s old location and I googled his name, curious if he was dead.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here