CEO groups offer support, guidance for company leaders

The difficult economy has not significantly curtailed membership in exclusive executive roundtable groups in Nashville, but it has certainly affected the topics for discussion.

“We’ve kind of had to shift gears,” said Sameera Lowe, executive director of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a members-only, idea-sharing organization for CEOs and business leaders. Lowe said EO recently hosted a speaker, booked in August 2008, who gave a talk on hiring new talent.

“We didn’t have quite the participation we wanted because people just weren’t hiring,” she said.

Still, net membership in EO in 2009 climbed to 64 members, up nearly 5 percent over 2008. The group added 10 members in October.

“Truthfully, in some ways it (the economy) has positively affected our organization,” Lowe said.

“A lot of entrepreneurs have woken up and realized they need to work on their business rather than in their business.”

EO members must be founder, co-founder, owner, CEO or controlling shareholder of their business to belong. The company must gross more than $1 million in annual revenue, and a leader must join before age 50. Initiation cost is $1,425, and annual dues are $2,800 for both global and chapter fees.

Dick Wallace, president of The Alternative Board of Nashville, an executive advisory board and coaching organization, said “at every board meeting there’s a general discussion of ‘where do you see the economy going?’ ”

The Alternative Board has 32 members, off slightly from its 2008 peak of 36. Invited members must be CEO, president, owner, managing partner or key decision maker in a company. One-time initiation is $750, and annual dues are $7,000.

Beginning in January, The Alternative Board will launch a “key executives” component in which a handful of CFOs, COOs and vice presidents will be invited to join the organization, Wallace said.

“It’s an effort to grow the organization,” he said. “It also came out of members saying, ‘I wish we had a way to develop my key executives.’ ”

John Aron, president and CEO of The Pasta Shoppe LLC, a specialty food manufacturer and marketer, has been a member of EO twice for a total of six years.

He credits feedback from EO members for helping him chart the direction of his company during a turbulent economy.

In the 2008 fourth quarter, Aron restated the company’s goals for 2009.

“For the first time in five years, we were not able to forecast double-digit revenue growth,” Aron said.

Instead, Aron pegged the firm’s goals at 5 percent revenue growth, 5 percent reduction in materials costs, and a 5 percent cut in expenses.

“A lot of that … was born out of EO,” Aron said. “Only a group of peers can help with that fast-action planning.”

As a result, Aron said profits at The Pasta Shoppe through October 2009 are up more than 30 percent from the same time last year.

Marion Fowlkes, president of Centric Architecture Inc., has been a member of The Alternative Board for about two years. When asked whether he considered dropping his membership in an effort to cut costs, he answered candidly.

“I could fairly say that everything in our budget has been looked at,” Fowlkes said. “Did it go through my mind or anybody else’s? Possibly — but it didn’t stay there very long … There’s no other place to get this advice … I need and want and desire outside counsel.”

Nancy Schultz, vice president and Nashville office leader of The North Highland Co. Inc., a consulting group, has been a member of The Alternative Board for more than four years.

“You know the old adage, ‘It’s lonely at the top.’ It is,” she said. The Alternative Board provides a sense of community for business leaders because they’re “weathering the storm together,” she said.

“This year we’ve talked a lot about growth, believe it or not.  How do you power through a difficult economy? ... You're not going to cost cut your way to glory."

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