Group Think or Think Group?
It may be lonely at the top, but CEO peer groups offer support, advice, and “tough love” to help business owners build value.
by Karin O’Connor
Even the most successful businesses face a myriad of challenges every day—market uncertainties, disruptive new competitors, cash crunches, employee skill gaps, and more. It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees and start to wonder whether the effort it takes to build a valuable business is really worth the struggle.
At Perimeter Advisors, we are big fans of peer advisory groups—small teams of business owners who meet regularly with one primary focus—to help each other work on their businesses, not just in them, and achieve significant goals. Organizations like Vistage International, the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), and a number of independent groups offer just this type of support. They are not for every business owner, but for those who are willing to be open about the questions they face and participate in explorations and discussions that may not always be comfortable, they can be a gold mine.
“I thought I was the only one. . . .”
After spending her early career in marketing and creative roles, Eileen Chin joined civil engineering firm R.M. Chin & Associates, the company her parents founded, in 2004. As Executive Vice President, Eileen has assumed many of her dad’s responsibilities and is charged with steering the firm into an increasingly competitive future.
Last year, she joined a Peer Advisory Network co-sponsored by professional organization ACG Chicago and the Minority Business Development Authority (US Department of Commerce). She was part of a group that included CEO’s of companies ranging from manufacturing, to distribution, to logistics, to professional services. The businesses varied in size from $10 MM in annual revenues to over $300 MM. The group met monthly to set individual goals, hold each other accountable, explore member issues and challenges, and hear from speakers on topics ranging from human resource management to finance.
Eileen found her time with the group both refreshing and valuable. She was surprised to discover early on that many of her peers had gone through similar issues. “There was a comfort factor from knowing that everyone was facing the same challenges, “she says, “as well as a resource and some good advice from people who had managed through them.” At the same time, she felt pressure to deal with issues, rather than avoid them. “You didn’t want to come to the next month’s meeting being the one that didn’t deliver,” she laughs.
Thanks to a connection made through one of the other members, Eileen brought on a consultant to help her craft a leadership development program for her senior team, many of whom had been with the company for many years. “It’s been a major success,” she reports. “Our folks are engaging in a whole new way. We have great momentum and are moving forward on new initiatives as a cohesive team. The group gave me the push I needed to make this happen, and it’s been great.”
“Thinking at a higher level. . . .”
Founded over 75 years ago, Aaron Equipment Company has grown to become one of the nation’s largest dealers in used process equipment. Alan Cohen, grandson of one of the company’s founders, is its CEO and has been a member of Vistage International, a global organization that operates over 50 peer groups in Chicago alone, for over 15 years. Each Vistage group is managed by a “Chair”, who possesses a solid mid-market operating background and has also received extensive training in group facilitation.
Alan says that the value he has gotten from Vistage has come in different ways at different times. “Often I’ve pulled real value from the speakers my Chair brings in—some real cutting edge thinking on key topics. At other points, working issues with peers—both my own and those that the others bring—has been extremely helpful. And sometimes, it’s the intensive monthly one-to-one meetings with my Chair that have brought things home.”
Over the years, Alan has noticed that he is able to spend increasing amounts of time thinking about the business at a strategic level, rather than a tactical one, and that he can better plan for its future as a result. He gives his Vistage experience a great deal of credit for this change. “If you really open up and participate,“ he says,” you’ll gain a lot of confidence in yourself and your judgment. It’s truly empowering.”
“The group made me rethink my position. . . and, you know what, I was wrong!”
Frank Gonzales and his partner founded US Messenger & Logistics in 1999 as a provider of reliable same-day courier and delivery services. As technology has rapidly changed the landscape of USM’s business, the company has branched out into medical specimen deliveries, “next flight out” services, mailroom management, and more.
Frank was one of Eileen Chin’s colleagues in the ACG Chicago/MBDA Peer Group and believes that the process was a catalyst in helping him make a major change at USM—moving from an employee-based structure to an independent contractor-based one, a change he had thought about but had rejected. “It was in one of our meeting at ACG that I was pressed to revisit what I thought was a brick wall,” Frank recalls. “One of the members encouraged me to get legal help to review the basis for my argument and what do you know – I was wrong. There was a legal basis to make the change from employee to independent contractor – I just didn’t see it.” Though a complex undertaking involving lots of process change, Frank is convinced that the results are worth it. “We met our goal of doubling profits in 2012 over 2011,” he reports, “and things are looking bright for 2013, as well!”
Frank is also enthusiastic about another benefit cited by many peer group participants. “I’ve had great opportunities to visit some of my peer group colleagues, tour their facilities, and see how much we have in common even though our businesses are very different. I’ve made some wonderful new friends that I never would have met otherwise!”
Interested in learning more and in thinking about whether a CEO peer group is right for you? If so, just give us a call!