On Top of Going Green

Lamar V.P. Bobby Switzer is leading the outdoor giant into a green future

Who would have thought the flip of a coin would impact future generations in such a way. That is how Lamar Advertising Company began 108 years ago when then Pensacola business partners Charles W. Lamar, Sr., and J.M. Coe decided to dissolve their partnership. Lamar actually lost that coin toss and was “stuck” with the part of the holdings that is, today, one of the country’s largest outdoor advertising companies.

Now a public company, Lamar remains a family business under the control of third and fourth generation members of the Lamar and Reilly families.

Robert “Bobby” Switzer, the great-grandson of Charles Lamar, Sr., is vice-president of operations and has been with the company for 35 years. He started out in 1969 as a high school student, cutting grass underneath the billboards, painting holes, wiring the signs and doing “basically, whatever was asked of me.”

When he set off for college, he vowed, “I would never work for the family company.” But, with a laugh, he quickly adds that in 1976, with a degree in zoology from the University of South Florida in hand, he returned to Pensacola and went to work full time at Lamar Advertising.

In recent years, Switzer has headed one of Lamar’s biggest projects. The company, under his leadership, has a multidimensional plan to convert approximately 1,370 billboards throughout Florida to renewable energy. The $12.5 million project will place throughout the state, with solar and wind power billboards designed to return energy to the electrical grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy is providing a $2.5 million grant to the project through the Florida Energy and Climate Commission and the Governor’s Energy Office. And Lamar is funding the remaining $10 million.

The project, which targets eight markets from Pensacola to Daytona and Tallahassee to Fort Myers, is expected to be completed by April 2012. The installations will be on billboards along interstates and major roads to give the project the widest public exposure.

“While this will eventually be good for Lamar’s bottom line, one of the main reasons we are undertaking this project is to show Floridians that this exact technology can be utilized to convert their homes to renewable energy,” Switzer said. “That’s why we are intentionally avoiding unproven technologies or methods. The large-scale deployment of hundreds of small systems, like we are undertaking with the conversion of each structure, closely resembles the kind of renewable energy systems available to most homeowners.”

This is not Lamar’s first foray into sustainable business practices. Even before skyrocketing energy prices, Lamar made changes to transition Lamar Advertising, and the outdoor advertising industry as a whole, to raw materials and products with a lower carbon footprint to decrease energy use and raw materials in manufacturing and to increase recycling of its products.

Lamar prints its billboards on recyclable polyethylene, has been phasing out glue in its poster operations, switched to zero-VOC UV-curable printing inks in lieu of solvent-based inks and installed 26,000 energy-saving lighting fixtures in place of conventional billboard lighting. To make all these changes, the company invested approximately $15 million.

“We know the initial investment in initiatives such as these billboard conversions is steep,” said Switzer. “But we are looking for a dual return. First, over the 20- to 25-year life span of the billboards converted to renewable energy, we will return an untold amount of renewable, emission-free energy to the power grid while demonstrating in a very graphic manner to the public the payoff that comes with renewable energy.

“Second, this is a smart business decision that in the long run will mean significant savings for Lamar while helping to preserve the environment for future generations. The lifespan of these systems allows them to be amortized, giving us a very logical business rationale for incorporating systems such as these on a widespread basis.”

Switzer, personally, has also embraced green initiatives. His home and boat are solar powered. And his home has geothermal air conditioning units. “I try to do everything I can to reduce the amount of carbon emissions I use and reduce the power bill,” he said.

Switzer’s cousins, Lamar CEO and President Kevin Reilly, Jr., Charles Lamar III and his sister, Mary Lee Lamar Dixon, great-grandchildren of the company’s founder, did own most of the company at one time. Since Lamar went public some years ago those shares have been significantly diluted. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, La., the company’s 3,300 employees are spread out in 150 offices in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. Lamar employs about 75 people in four offices across the Panhandle in Panama City, Fort Walton Beach, Tallahassee and Pensacola.

In 1999, after the acquisition of Chancellor Media for $1.6 billion, Lamar became the nation’s largest outdoor advertising company, measured by number of displays. In 2005, Lamar generated revenues of more than $1 billion for the first time.

Switzer envisions Lamar will remain a family-run business. “I’m in my 50s and one of my cousins is in his 40s, so we are (going to be) around for a while. Currently, my son is working in the business, and in a few years there may be a few more family members joining. My son is the fifth generation, and hopefully more cousins will come on,” he said.

Questions for Bobby Switzer

Q: What first drew you to the idea of using renewable energy for your signs? About four years ago, there was a lot of talk about the rising cost of energy and its effects on the environment, such as global warming. At the same time, we were introducing the digital signs that consumed more energy than the regular signs. When you take all those things into consideration — and the fact that the state had a rebate for businesses to put solar on their business — I put all the pieces together with the idea that we needed to do something that would conserve energy and maybe even produce energy to compensate for the new digital signs that were going to be more energy intensive. The state turned me down when I applied for the rebates and when I talked to the governor’s office, they suggested we apply for the grant. I was looking to do a small project and it turned into a huge project. Some of the funds from the federal government are from the stimulus package. I would not have done as big a project, or done it as aggressively, if not for the stimulus money. It helped create the project and the jobs.

Q: What has been the best business decision you have made? What I do for the company is run the operations side of things. We create what others in the company sell. We are moving our product to be as sustainable as we can make it. Over the last few years, we moved away from paper and that has probably been the best move. Getting rid of the 100-year-old process and using a recyclable product to get all the messages on the board is good for our business.