ECM, Sun merger cause to celebrate

For the first four years of my time with ECM Publishers, I managed the company’s papers in Dakota County, where we competed for advertisers with the Sun Current weekly newspapers and other media, including the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. Last December, ECM’s board of directors approved the acquisition of the Sun papers, and my Thisweek papers merged with the Sun to become Sun Thisweek.

Overnight, Dakota County became a profitable place for ECM to do business.

Since then, ECM has merged papers in other communities where we had competed with Sun, and Nov. 12 we got to celebrate at the first ECM shareholder meeting since our two competing companies became one. Our chief financial officer, Rod Garbe, detailed increases in revenue and profit resulting from the merger. And he shared with almost 200 ECM associates the current stock price, which has increased more than 50 percent since last year because of the potential we now have as the largest weekly newspaper company in the state.

The share price matters to those of us who work for ECM because a significant part of the company is owned by employees through an ESOP — an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. But financial matters were just the tail end of the shareholders meeting. The rest of the evening was devoted to honoring the creativity of colleagues who design and sell ads, the journalistic skills that go into our news reports and the commitment of ECM employees who volunteer in the  communities we serve with our 51 newspapers.

Julian Andersen, our publisher and CEO, presided over a meeting at which dozens were given awards for the best ads, best news stories, best photos and the Elmer Andersen Award for public service, which went to graphic artist Tammy Luukkonen, who has volunteered hundreds of hours to raise money to fight pancreatic cancer. Appropriately, Andersen was so anxious to get to the annual public-service award, named for his father, that he almost forgot to officially close the annual meeting.

ECM President Marge Winkelman slipped up to the podium to remind her boss of that bit of meeting protocol. But on this evening, attended by almost half of the company’s workforce, business protocol took a backseat to an extraordinary coming together of former competitors in an industry that has been battered by recession and technological change. Over the past few years, companies that own newspapers have been filing for bankruptcy as people read less and as advertisers move advertising to websites. Among those who have experienced financial restructuring through the bankruptcy court are employees of companies that own the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press and, yes, our new colleagues at what is now known as ECM-Sun.

Monday night at the Harvest Grill Event Center in Coon Rapids, I got to hand out awards with Peggy Bakken, longtime executive editor of the Sun papers. As it happens, the ECM first-place awards were almost evenly distributed between ECM and Sun by judges at St. Cloud State University. It was a coincidence that put an exclamation point on a merger process that, Andersen and Winkelman pointed out, has gone far more smoothly than anyone could have expected. For the spiritual among us, it was almost as if ECM founder Elmer Andersen, the late former governor, was pulling strings from his editor’s chair in the sky.

It was  poetic — from the writer-of-the-year award for Jonathan Young of the Brooklyn Park Sun Post to the general excellence award for ECM’s Anoka County Union. Of the 23 first-place journalism awards handed out that Monday night, 12 went to ECM journalists and 11 to Sun folks.

Marge Winkelman, who was hired by Elmer Andersen a few years after he started ECM in Princeton 36 years ago, smiled out over the room of almost 200 associates and declared us one happy family.

Even Garbe, our chief financial officer who has been delivering news of declining revenue and stock price for several years, was smiling. He declared that the specter of “uncertainty” has been pushed into the background by a new watchword for ECM — “opportunity.” — Larry Werner, ECM Publishers (Editor’s note: Werner is director of news for ECM. His e-mail is larry.werner@ecm-inc.com.)


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