There Is An Alternative (Board)

August 20, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Owners of small businesses who may need some advice but can't afford to hire consultants have an alternative available.

The Alternative Board, or TAB, has been serving as a local think tank for business ideas and as a source for best practices for almost two years. Started in November 2002 by Darrell Crawford, president of an Ada-based brand development and marketing firm called Vantage, TAB has grown to 40 members.

Its membership role is largely made up of small, privately held companies. Most have annual sales between $1 million and $10 million. Most have about 30 employees. Most are first-generation owners. And most have been in business for over six years.

"Typically, our members are companies that are too small to have a board of directors, and often the president or the CEO is just kind of out there all by themselves — nobody to talk with, no key employee to work with and they're on their own desert island," said Carol Crawford, no relation to Darrell Crawford, but his partner in TAB.

"So, we bring together and facilitate peer boards for these CEOs on a monthly basis, and in addition provide them with executive coaching," added Crawford, who is also president of the Crawford Group Co., a consulting firm that specializes in organizational development and design.

TAB offers its members monthly meetings where they get to hash out any problems with peers who may have already been there, as well as private coaching sessions. Because the West Michigan TAB is an affiliate of the national organization that was formed 14 years ago in Denver, it provides its members access to 750 experts located throughout the country.

To join TAB, an applicant has to be a president, CEO or managing partner of a business. In short, a company decision maker who can implement an idea without having to sell it. An applicant should also have an accomplishment somewhere in his or her past.

"I look for somebody who has been a winner sometime in their life. I don't care if it was Boy Scouts, twirling the baton or a class spelling bee. If they've been a winner, they know what that tastes like. They know what that feels like. And they want that in their business and they're willing to do what it takes to get that feeling again," said Carol Crawford.

But there are a few things that potential members shouldn't be. Business owners who are resistant to making changes shouldn't apply. Neither should those who are a few steps short of going to bankruptcy court.

"In a four-hour board meeting, we couldn't hope to save a business. TAB is designed primarily to help a business grow," said Carol Crawford. "Or maybe a business doesn't want to grow any larger, but does want a stronger foundation or to make more money at a current site."

When members get together each month, no one sits at the same table with a competitor, a customer or a key supplier, and all have to sign confidentiality agreements to ensure that the discussions are open, honest and remain in the room. Each group is limited to 10 and the international headquarters in Denver certifies all executive coaches.

More information is available at www.tabmichigan.com or by calling (616) 301-8081.

Carol Crawford told the Business Journal that TAB has met with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce about striking up a partnership. She has spoken with GRACC about possibly sponsoring some of the CEO Roundtables that the chamber is noted for as a lead-in to entice business owners to take a closer look at TAB.

"I guess I'm cautiously optimistic," said Carol Crawford of TAB's chance to tie in with the chamber.

"Anytime you propose making a significant change to the way an organization does things, there is a lot that goes into that. So I hope that the chamber will be able to give us an honest look-see and recognize that nationally 85 percent of businesses do less than $10 million a year in sales and West Michigan is no different. And I think we can bring a real benefit to chamber members, too."    

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