I’m the fifth (and last) generation of my family to own and operate our manufacturing company. So obviously, I’ve had the world handed to me on a silver platter, and I have nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, along with all the benefits of inheriting a family business, there are some problems. It narrows your options, and requires you to take on a lot of responsibility for the livelihood of a lot of people, often at a young age. And despite all the exposure to business that comes from being surrounded by it growing up, when you finally step into those leadership shoes, you quickly find how much you don’t know.
In my case, by the time I was 40, I found myself responsible for almost 1,000 employees in over a dozen locations, running a company in a rapidly changing economy that was bringing entirely new challenges. In the recession of the early 1980s, the company lost money for the first time in 50 years.
Through a friend, I learned about the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). It was derisively called the “Lucky Sperm Club,” on the assumption that it was just a bunch of rich kids whose daddies have given them jobs, so I wasn’t much interested in it. Ultimately I was persuaded to join, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, for two reasons:
- First, it was the best education I ever experienced. YPO offers a range of formats, from monthly chapter meetings (a chapter generally being about 100 members), to Regional and then International Universities — weeklong events with an amazing array of resources on subjects ranging from business skills to personal health to international politics.
- Second, through another format called Forums, I was introduced to the idea of a peer group, which is what this blog is really about. A YPO Forum is a group within a chapter, typically about 10 members, who meet for several hours each month, typically hosted in rotation by the members. The objective is to exchange wisdom on any subject in a totally confidential setting. You learn about each others’ businesses, and each others’ lives — families, fears, frustrations, anything at all. Over time, this group becomes very close, and becomes a resource unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.
The adage that “it’s lonely at the top” has a lot of truth to it. Nobody understands your problems, and there’s no one you can discuss them with. Except here. You learn that all businesses have the same problems, even if they don’t look alike. For example, my Forum included a construction company, a wholesaler of office supplies, an operator of convenience stores, and a jet charter service. What could that possibly teach me about manufacturing? The answer, I soon learned, was a lot. And about life? Even more.
I wasn’t the only one struggling with marketing problems, and I wasn’t the only one with a cranky teenager, and hearing my peers’ stories made us all better equipped to do our jobs and live our lives. In retrospect, it’s amusing to realize how easy it was to see solutions to everyone else’s problems, but how difficult to see my own. And when the whole group offers the same insight month after month after month, eventually you see the light, and good things happen.
It was an amazing experience.
However, YPO means it when they say “Y.” When you turn 50, they throw you out, or into another group which I call “OPO” (not their name for it!), which has a similar structure, but is less intense. In my case, I chose not to join OPO, as I was in the process of re-locating my family to another city, and continued participation was impractical. But I soon missed the benefits of the peer group, so I set out to find another. There are, it turns out, many of them. There are groups within trade associations, where people with similar businesses but no competing geography get together. There are professional associations. There are, at the local level, service clubs. I chose to join an organization that was then called The Executive Committee (TEC), which had a structure similar to YPO. After a few years, six of us became dissatisfied with TEC, so we went off on our own, and we still meet one evening a month to discuss business and personal issues. We’ve been at it for 20 years, and I find it very valuable.
The point to all this is simple: I urge you to find a peer group and take it seriously. Commit to it. You will start out saying that you don’t have the time, that you can’t justify the cost, that you’re just not interested, but — if you find the right group and really get involved — it will be one of the best decisions you ever make.
Just do it!
Alec Pendleton took control of a small, struggling, family business in Akron, Ohio, at an early age. Upon taking the helm, he sold off the unprofitable divisions and rebuilt the factory, which helped to quadruple sales of the remaining division within seven years. These decisions — and the thousands of others he made over his time as president and CEO — ensured that his small manufacturing business thrived and stayed profitable for the generation to come. The culmination of a lifetime of experience, accumulated wisdom, and a no-nonsense approach to looking at the books allows him to provide a unique perspective. Big Ideas for Small Companies featuring Alec Pendleton is one of a series of blogs provided to IndustryWeek by The MPI Group.