Media Owner Gives His Company to Employees

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 Andrea Adelson | Special to the NB Indy

Allan Simon in Firebrand's Laguna Beach office. — Photo by Jody Tiongco ©
Allan Simon in Firebrand’s Laguna Beach office.
— Photo by Jody Tiongco ©

Ownership of the Newport Beach Independent newspaper, Newport 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 Laguna Beach-based 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 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 he feels the time 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, while the remaining equity will be divvied up among nine others, including co-publisher and technology officer Scott Sanchez and creative director Sonia Chung.

Simon, 82, grew up in New York and worked in the Nixon administration’s defense department. He left government in 1974 and started a business involved in stealth technology, which he sold in 1983. He parlayed that payday into real estate, including half ownership of 101 Ash St. in San Diego, Sempra Energy’s headquarters. He now owns several commercial properties in Laguna Beach, 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 Stefanee are the parents of two adult children. Lauren and Ben, who are also local residents and 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.”

Amid a recession, under Simon’s ownership Firebrand grew aggressively, buying the failing Laguna Beach Indy and starting a raft 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.

“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, but also occasionally making costly forays beyond its core competency.

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.

Allan Simon in Firebrand's Laguna Beach office.  — Photo by Sean Armenta ©
Allan Simon in Firebrand’s Laguna Beach office.
— Photo by Sean Armenta ©
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