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Buck Freeman Launched a Business Decorating Fraternity and Sorority Parties at the
 University of Iowa, Now Freeman Cos. Is the North American Heavyweight
 in Staging Conventions and Expositions
By Cheryl Hall, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Feb. 11, 2007 - When it comes to conventions, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., sit in the catbird seats. New York is pretty much booked, so Washington, D.C., is landing spillover business.

Boston's new convention center and hotel have spawned a Beantown comeback.

Chicago needs to relax its expensive labor rules. New Orleans needs rebirth beyond the city's core.

And Dallas desperately needs a convention center hotel.

That's the assessment of Don Freeman, the 68-year-old chief executive of Freeman Cos.

He knows where conventions are headed and why because thousands of trade associations, companies and show organizers hire his Dallas company to stage and dismantle their expositions and events.

But Mr. Freeman's heart belongs to his hometown. So it pains him that Dallas is playing at such a severe disadvantage.

"Every major convention wants to see that hotel next to the convention center," Mr. Freeman says. "It's helped Houston tremendously. There's no doubt Dallas is losing out."

But whether a convention comes here or goes elsewhere makes little difference to the revenue of this $1.2 billion convention outfitting giant. It has multimillion-dollar operations in 26 cities and can send rental furnishings, drapery, staging and audio-visual and exhibit equipment just about anywhere in North America.

On Monday, Freeman will begin moving its headquarters staff of 275 into a 108,000-square-foot high-rise near Brook Hollow Country Club. It's a testament to the company's comeback since its business was severely rocked by 9/11.

Revenue for fiscal 2007, which ends in June, will be about 10 percent higher than last year and well above the $900,000 recorded for 2001 before the bust.

The Freeman family owns 62 percent of the company. An employee stock ownership plan established in 1980 owns the rest.

Then and now

In 1923, Don Freeman's dad, Buck Freeman, launched a business decorating fraternity and sorority parties at the University of Iowa. After college, Buck moved his tiny enterprise to Des Moines, putting up downtown Christmas decorations and setting up auto shows, state fairs and events for the lumber and hardware associations.

"You put up a registration counter, a few booths and maybe a welcome sign, and that was it," says Don, who took over in 1977 when his father died.

Today the company does grunt work for more than half of the 200 largest trade shows in the country, 3,800 smaller expositions and 8,000 corporate events.

On some days, it's the world's largest moving company.

A major convention usually has 3 million to 4 million pounds of freight arriving in a two-day period. Whether it's a 58,000-pound Caterpillar offshore drilling engine or a 2-pound sign for Dow Chemical, Freeman has to get it to the right booth at the right time. After the show, it has to be dismantled, crated and moved out.

The company's largest gig last year was Automotive Week in October, when three auto-related expositions were held simultaneously in Las Vegas. It took nearly 1,700 workers to move in 20 million pounds of freight and set it up in displays that included mock racetracks and off-road driving courses.

Michael Payne, managing director of SmithBucklin Corp., coordinates 1,200 meetings and 55 trade shows a year for trade associations, professional societies and tech user groups. Freeman handles a "substantial portion" of those events.

"They do everything well, but they really focus on customer service and responsiveness," Mr. Payne says.

Lawson Hockman, vice president of association services at IMN Solutions in Arlington, Va., manages 24 trade shows and 700 meetings a year.

"I've been dealing with Don for more than 30 years," he says. "He's set an industry standard for integrity and service that other companies have to live up to."

Bringing brands to life

Last week, Mr. Freeman and his 43-year-old daughter, Carrie Freeman Parsons, who heads up marketing, were in Orlando for the National Association of Home Builders' annual meeting. It was the 26th year Freeman has orchestrated logistics of the enormous trade show.

Just one of the particulars: This year, the 100,000 attendees walked on 12 miles of carpet that Freeman temporarily laid down in the aisles.

Freeman is using its trade show expertise to get into new forms of "exhibitions." It recently did the corporate lobby for a tech company in California and is working with American Airlines Inc. on a project for its headquarters.

"Companies want consistency in their brands -- whether it's in marketing, on the trade show floor or at corporate headquarters," says Ms. Freeman Parsons. "They're talking to us about bringing their brands to life in a three-dimensional way."

When Starwood Hotels and Resorts wanted to introduce its latest lodging concept, called aloft, it gave Freeman eight weeks to come up with a mobile marketing tool with an American feel. Freeman developed "aloft-a-go-go," which combined two American icons, a Jeep Commander and an Airstream camper, outfitted with custom fabrics, laminates and cork surfacing that mirrored the contemporary materials used in aloft hotels.

With Freeman coordinating logistics and staffing, Starwood sent the Airstream to hospitality industry conferences and consumer conventions, where it's been a big hit, says Tracy Scarlato, director of marketing for aloft hotels in New York.

While Mr. Freeman isn't talking about retiring anytime soon, he is setting up the company for the third generation.

"My father is such a non-ego-driven guy," Ms. Freeman Parsons says. "He has no problem relinquishing authority."

Son-in-law Joe Popolo has taken over the business and financial operations as president, while Ms. Freeman Parsons, vice president of marketing, maintains the culture with employees and customers.

"Even though we've grown substantially, we still want to feel like a family-owned business," she says.

"There will always be Freemans at Freeman."


Copyright (c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News

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