Alternative Boards Plan Proposed

November 12, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — When the economy is in a fitful recovery and a small company faces hard choices in trying to claw out of its own downturn, where does that firm’s leader go for solid advice?

Well, two businessmen here last week offered one answer: A good source of solid advice is fellow business leaders going through similar ordeals.

And sharing the benefit of that experience can come in the form of The Alternative Board (TAB), a Denver-based company that has established alternative boards of directors in Canada, the United States and Venezuela.

Darrell Crawford, of Ada, is the first Michigan-based TAB facilitator, named by TAB last month as its West Michigan franchisee. Crawford, founder and president of The Vantage Group Inc., is a marketing consultant with 20 years of experience in brand and product development.

Crawford and Gary Miller, a TAB staff member and former facilitator, invited leaders of small and medium-sized area businesses to several orientation meetings last week. They told the Business Journal that they expect to have two TAB groups in operation here by mid-December and another in January.

Miller explained that the groups, open by members’ invitation only, generally consist of 10 to 12 leaders of non-competing firms who convene once a month to help each other with business problems.

“It’s not a luncheon or social event,” Miller said. “It’s a way to get away from your work to work on your business.”

Crawford said a TAB group serves as its own member firms’ board of directors in which each firm’s leader can learn from his board colleagues’ experiences.

He said TAB board members provide insight and assistance to their peers, with the assistance of facilitators such as Crawford who are experienced consultants. Smaller businesses meet once a month, typically from 8 a.m. to 11. Boards drawn from larger firms, defined as doing more than $10 million annually, at first meet once a month for four hours, and then meet once a quarter.

Crawford says the caliber of advice in such meetings usually is available only through a high-priced board of directors. He and Miller stressed that the meetings are closed and confidential and that board members may have no competitive or business relationship with each other.

Miller explained that the facilitator’s function is to run the meetings and keep the discussions going. The facilitator also is available for one-on-one consultations with TAB members.

Each month, Miller said, TAB groups meet privately to discuss business problems, exchange information and assist each member in meeting the challenges of running a successful enterprise. He said the idea is to establish a long-term working relationship among members.

Though new to Michigan, TAB has been around for 12 years. A retired entrepreneur from St. Louis, Mo., Allen Fishman, founded TAB after he retired to Aspen, Colo. TAB now is based in Denver.

Fishman terms TAB as being “the difference between theory and real life. You learn from other people’s experiences. The key is getting advice from your peers and a strong support system.”

Crawford said Fishman founded TAB believing that entrepreneurs, rather than relying solely on their own insights, need access to forums with answers for business problems. TAB now has more than 1,500 members in over 100 cities in North and South America.

Membership in a TAB group is limited to seasoned business leaders and all of the TAB group’s membership must approve applications.

Crawford said TAB members are chiefs of small, successful businesses. According to TAB, 65 percent of its member companies have sales between $1 and $10 million; nearly all are private. Moreover, 70 percent of the firms are in their first generation of ownership, and 88 percent have been in business more than six years.  Thirty-one percent of the firms employ three to 10 people and 62 percent have more than 31 employees.

“The businesses we serve,” Crawford said, “do not have access to the same kind of advice or resources, which are readily available to large companies through a board of directors. TAB fills that need and increases business success.”

Crawford said TAB can help West Michigan’s small business owners mutually obtain the same advantages that a board of directors brings to their larger corporate cousins, minus the exorbitant costs of creating and running an actual board.

As facilitator, Crawford will conduct board-style meetings that, he said, will entail honest advice and sound strategies to simple motivation.

He stressed that the meetings are both confidential and supportive and that they involve owners, presidents, and CEOs of non-competing, privately held firms.

“These monthly ‘board meetings,’” he added, “enable members to achieve and maintain business success by providing private, one-on-one assistance on business issues.”

Miller said TAB decides to move into an area based on the potential facilitators that come to their attention.

“We’re not looking for an area where there’s business,” Miller said.  “Every town has businesses. What TAB looks for, typically, is good business consultants. And we just don’t go in and offer someone the job. It’s a three-month screening process. Then training follows that.”

Crawford possesses more than 20 years of experience consulting both entrepreneurs and large corporations. He currently focuses on helping firms’ leaders to create, execute and exceed their personal and business success goals. He is a certified coach in Strategic Business Leadership — a trademarked strategic planning program for small businesses — and a certified personal Formula for Success coach.

Prior to founding Vantage, Crawford gained advertising experience with various firms as an account executive and creative director, working on national automotive, retail and packaging accounts.

Selection of TAB members, according to Miller, involves carefully checking the applicants.

He said each prospective member must execute an exhaustive questionnaire. The idea is to keep competitors and firms with, say, vendor relationships off the same board.

Likewise, Miller said TAB doesn’t want opponents in litigation on the same board, or members who harbor personal grudges about each other.

Crawford’s local experience involved doing the groundwork for two West Michigan advertising agencies. He also was responsible for directing the acquisition and management of several key accounts.

He holds several co-patents for the point-of-display and automotive markets. His work has been published in Objectives and Results, a marketing periodical.

Crawford has served as a guest lecturer at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging and as a conference speaker on subjects relating to branding and packaging.

Crawford serves on the Grand Rapids Symphony and Youth Symphony boards, is a member of the Institute of Packaging Professionals and the Product Development and Management Association, West Michigan.

He also has served on the Michigan Biotechnology Association’s Marketing Committee.  He coaches a high school debate team in the NCFCA league, served as a deacon in his church, and has served on administrative and building committees.

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