Support Group Offers Perspective

August 11, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kurt VanderLoon has been struggling to grow his promotional products business after a 40 percent drop following 9/11, and now he has the support of a group of other business owners to help him.

VanderLoon, president of The Embroidery House Inc., is a member of a Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center’s PeerSpectives program, which brings eight to 10 small business owners together to discuss issues that relate to their businesses.

The program was developed by the Edward Lowe Foundation and is licensed in Michigan by the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center. There are currently three groups, one each in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Holland, with plans for another in Ann Arbor. The foundation currently is involved with programs in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, and more programs will start in Arizona in the fall and in Georgia in January.

The Edward Lowe Foundation provides training for five facilitators, materials, a brochure template and a demonstration roundtable to give the states an idea of what can occur during the program, said Penny Lewandowski, director of entrepreneurship development for the foundation.

Facilitators from all the programs have a quarterly conference call to discuss their groups and any challenges they may be facing.

Lewandowski said business leaders have opened up to the PeerSpectives programs.

“Once you get them in those tables, the experiences have been very good,” she said. “We think it’s going very well; the tables are all very strong. They have great facilitators. You’d be surprised at how fast groups bond in this experience.”

Lewandowski said growing companies have been found to learn more from peers than from seminar situations.

“It’s not advice-giving; it’s experience-sharing,” she said.

VanderLoon said he would recommend the program to other business owners.

“It helps foster a CEO to work on his company instead of in his company,” he said.

With a company that fluctuates from eight to 12 employees and is looking at $1.1 million in sales this year, VanderLoon said PeerSpectives has inspired him to move his company forward.

“Indecision is a decision, and it does not promote healthier bottom lines,” he said. “You have to step up to the plate and address the issues.”

VanderLoon said that since he joined the group in March, he has begun to understand what changes must be made in his screen printing, embroidery and sales departments. He is working to implement “lean” working principles in each department.

“The challenges in a small business have been fluctuation in sales, and trying to get a perspective and set up a kind of plan of action of how to manage the company — and try to look to the future of where we’re going,” he said.

Dave Medema, PeerSpectives facilitator, said business leaders usually know pretty quickly whether they can gain from participating in the program, which costs $1,500 a year and meets one half-day per month.

“If you don’t know that you need it, you’re probably in trouble,” he said. “It has to be for people that know they need to share experiences with their peers and have a support network.”

The groups are set up so that no clients or competitors are in the same group. The companies within each group are all about the same size.

Medema said protocol dictates that no advice is to be given, only experiences shared.

“It’s not an advisory group; that’s what makes this really different from other types of roundtables,” he said.

The group members discuss and decide which issues and subjects they will deal with.

“It’s really run by the owners and I stay out of their way,” he said. “If I can be invisible, then I’ve done my job.”

Medema said the goal of the program is for business owners to be open about the challenges that may be blocking the company’s growth.

“This is a place to come to solve the problems that keep you up at night, that you lose sleep over,” he said. “The owners in my group are phenomenally open. They have tackled very, very difficult issues.”

Some of the issues discussed have been hiring and retaining key people, office romance and workplace misconduct.

“No subject is off the table in this group,” he said.

Even though some owners may not have dealt with the specific issues, Medema said, they still can appreciate the information they’re hearing.

“They’re getting information about problems they haven’t faced yet, but perhaps they will,” he said.

Medema said members of the group provide a reality check for each other.

“They will be challenged very directly by their peers if they’re missing the boat on something,” he said.

Nancy Boese, regional director of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, said business owners benefit from knowing they are not alone in the world.

“It’s a very structured process with guaranteed confidentiality,” she said. “It’s a way for them to really look at it and get true feedback, and really get ideas for their companies as opposed to advice.”

Boese said the PeerSpectives program has great potential for expansion in the state.

Companies involved average from $1 million to $50 million in sales per year, with 15 to 99 employees, and an annual growth rate of 10 to 15 percent.  

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