An exclusive bonding session for CEOs makes its way from Massachusetts to Maine
By Torrey Meeks
Maggie Melanson was hitting a roadblock. As CEO of Gimme the Skinny, a two-year-old restaurant and catering service in Norwell, Mass., she was having problems with cash flow and attracting the right kinds of customers. She tried different marketing approaches on her own, but nothing worked the way she wanted. Then she discovered a peer group for CEOs and company presidents called The Board Forum. "What the forum has done for me is helped focus and streamline my marketing. It used to be if the sun's shining and my hair looks good, I'm on a marketing binge," she said. "Now I'm more streamlined. I get out and make really solid marketing and sales calls."
A direct benefit of the marketing strategy that the group helped her develop, she says, was better cash flow. That in turn gave her the freedom to expand her business the way she wanted. As her business grew, Melanson said, members of the forum helped her keep her feet on the ground with good advice. Today she's an active five-year member, and says she's still benefiting from the peer feedback.
The Board Forum is run by Plympton, Mass.-based Growth Strategies, a business consulting firm that's owned and operated by Laurie Kirk. There are two groups that meet in the Boston area - one of which counts Melanson as a member - and one that recently started meeting in the Portland area. Each group is designed to accommodate 12 CEOs from non-competing sectors of industry. "We make sure they're at a certain level and fall within a certain bandwidth," says Kirk of each group's members. "That allows them to be talking about similar issues and understand exactly what some of the others are talking about."
Each group meets once a month for half a day in a board-style surrounding, with two moderators who keep the sessions on track. To ensure the issues faced by each member are similar, the forums are divided by revenue. The Maine Forum, which had its first meeting in September, includes companies that do $5 million to $25 million in business a year; Kirk hopes to launch another Maine group for companies with revenues of $30 million to $70 million. "There's a certain amount of isolation in running companies to begin with, and it appears that it's true a little more so in Maine," said Kirk.
The Maine group thus far has five members; Kirk hopes to add more as she and her partners find well-suited applicants. Wick Johnson, CEO of Augusta-based Kennebec Tool & Die, was a recent addition to the group. "I think in Maine if you own a business it's often difficult to find a peer group to work with," he said. "A lot of times you'll be the only company of your kind in the area you're operating. If you can find a way to work with other business owners and develop a relationship, I think that has real potential."
Still, there can be drawbacks associated with such groups, according to Robert Kriegel, the California-based author of Sacred Cows Make The Best Burgers: Paradigm-Busting Strategies for Developing Change-Ready People and Organizations (Warner, 1996) and a commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. "A lot of times you get people together, and everybody's trying to show how good they are, how successful they are. Egoism of the members can be a pitfall," he said. "I think the leader [of the group] has to be a peer with the people that they're talking to. They have to be willing to call people on their bull and be ruthlessly honest."
The Board Forum was started in 1999 as Group Strategies' flagship program. Laurie Kirk spent 16 years focusing on marketing research and growth strategies at Fortune 500 companies before becoming a business coach and launching Growth Strategies. Her company offers seminars and individual coaching sessions as well.
Kirk says she tapped the moderators for the Maine Board Forum for their expertise in business strategy and coaching. The two men, Jim McHugh and James Buchanan, have extensive experience working for corporations in troubleshooting and advisory roles.
McHugh has served as an interim CEO for businesses in the manufacturing industry, and is currently on the board of directors for Lowville, N.Y.-based Climax Manufacturing Co. and Monroe, La.-based Shield Pack Inc. Buchanan has developed software and athletic equipment brands for manufacturers such as Hasbro and Hyde Athletic Industries, has served as CEO of a biotech company and is currently on a board of directors as well.
Joining the Board Forum costs $7,900 annually. During the meetings, members are free to bring up issues for analytical feedback, opinions or solutions from the other CEOs. The theory is that another forum member has dealt with the problem in question, and can offer hands-on advice about effectively solving it. "The members can learn a lot from the person sitting next to them," said Buchanan. "What you find is that they say, 'Oh, I went through that last year, let me tell you how I dealt with that.'"
According to Kirk, one of the biggest challenges in bringing the Board Forum to Maine is raising awareness of the service: Many CEOs, she says, don't know anything about it. She's marketing the service via direct mailings to businesses that fall in her targeted revenue brackets, but she says word-of-mouth referrals have been successful as well.
In addition to being unaware of the service, CEOs may be wary of taking what they see as personal risks - such as talking about difficulties with employees - during group sessions. But Board Forum staffers say a required confidentiality agreement helps alleviate some of the initial reserve. "When people join these in the early stages, I give them a lot of credit, because they're making a big leap, and they're showing courage to do that," said McHugh. "They're stepping outside their normal day-to-day [routine] and are immediately put into a situation with a number of people they don't know."
While members get to know each other, the meetings mostly operate on an ad-hoc basis. "In the beginning what we're trying to do is flush out the issues that are important for the different attendees. So we sort through them and work through them over the meeting," said McHugh. As things get more comfortable and bonds are established, the meetings transition into more structured time. Recurring issues are addressed by more in-depth, planned discussions. Specialists and experts are occasionally called in for talks.
While it's important for such groups to have strong moderators, Kriegel says there's a bigger concern: "Trust is a critical thing. It has to be there for the group to talk about what the real issues are. So, it's really important for people to be honest. If they aren't honest, nothing's going to happen," he said.
According to Buchanan, forum members usually work well together. The moderators try to stop any problems before they start by carefully screening applicants. They look for qualities such as motivation, desire to learn and strong leaders who know how to work as part of a team.
For Melanson, the forum's less tangible benefits are the ones she values most. "Being an entrepreneur, my mind is going 100 miles an hour in 55 directions," she said. "The forum helps me say, what's your focus going to be right now? If it's marketing, or bottom line, we're going to help get you to that place."
The appeal for Johnson is in talking to other motivated professionals dedicated to building their organizations. "For me, I had a board of advisors in place for the last six to seven years. That's provided the professional feedback from people who understand business development," he said, "but the sort of peer level was missing in it. The impression is that in general, [for] forums like this, if it's well done, it's something businesses will participate in."
Raising the pulse
The most frequent issue the moderators have noticed in the meetings relates to employees. CEOs in Maine and Massachusetts say they have a hard time finding qualified individuals to fill the gaps as a company expands. "The most common issue in the forum is probably people. People, and I think probably close to that is strategy. Given all the challenges, a lot of those [issues] go hand in hand," said McHugh.
In the lower revenue brackets, Kirk has found most CEOs to be founders or second-generation owners who join the group to broaden their horizons. "I think the forums are relevant because one of the things so often heard with Maine companies is that they need to do business outside of Maine. That's where business is," Kirk said.
As businesses look to expand outside state borders, and foreign markets grow more competitive, Kirk has seen a shift in members' focus, with many of them starting to do business internationally since joining. "As far as global distribution and manufacturing abroad," Kirk said, "it's more and more in the forefront of our discussions."
While discussing the finer points of growth, strategy, and bottom line is the crux of the meetings, it's the human aspect that Kirk is drawn to the most. She says her team derives the most satisfaction from simply watching a group come together.
"I leave the meetings with my heart pounding. Members have said that when they present an issue, they'll get 12 different opinions and suggestions, and other times they'll have 12 people saying the same thing. I think it's the dynamic and the learning, and the exchange that they like. People walk out of a meeting fired up. Then they have continuity because they come back together again after four weeks," Kirk said. "So it's progressive growth. You get to see things happening, see changes being made. People get over the hump much faster."
Sharing experience: Laurie Kirk, founder of The Board Forum, with the moderators of the Maine Group, Jim McHugh (left) and James Buchanan
On board: Wick Johnson of Kennebec Tool &Die recently joined The Board Forum