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Chairmen’s RoundTable Mentoring group helps business owners survive in tough times

By Gina McGalliard

In these difficult economic times, many businesses are undoubtedly wondering how to stay afloat. But the Chairmen’s RoundTable, which members describe as “the best-kept secret in San Diego,” local businesses can not only survive but grow and become more profitable.
The nonprofit Chairmen’s RoundTable, or CRT, was founded more than a decade ago for the purpose of providing mentoring services free of charge to privately-owned local companies facing challenges or a strategic crossroads. “We act like a mini-board of advisers to help people out, and we’ve done over 200 companies since we’ve been in existence,” said Dave Cox, current CRT chairman. “It seems to work very, very well.”
Mentors, who are all former or current company CEOs, presidents or senior executives with board of director experience, volunteer their time in order to give back to the business community. The mentoring process usually lasts three to six months, during which two mentors are typically assigned to work with the client company. A series of meetings are held to determine the nature of the issues and to set a course of action. Clients also have the option of making a presentation to the entire group of CRT mentors, therefore getting the broadest possible range of suggestions. They then meet with their assigned mentors to decide which direction to take.
“The work is done principally by the owner of the business. It’s our job to help teach, coach, guide,” said Cox. “It’s not our job to come in and do their work because otherwise they’re not going to get value out of it. They have to really apply themselves, working with people who have been in their shoes. It’s an approach that seems to work pretty well because the mentees are motivated. They volunteered for this assignment, and the mentors are motivated, they volunteered for this assignment. And there’s a lot of homework for the owner of the business to do as they get through the process.”

Firms Represented
A tremendous cross-section of industries are represented in CRT on both the mentor and client sides, including manufacturing, distribution, retail, Internet and professional services. Well-known San Diego businesses such as Allele Biotechnology, Intellitouch, Productive Learning & Leisure LLC, Rudi West, Salient Networks and Vektrex have all benefited from mentoring at CRT. The majority of client companies have between $10 million and $30 million in revenue — although past companies have ranged from as low as $1 million and as high as $150 million — and 10 to 50 plus employees.
“The variety’s a blast and you get to learn kind of what the key metrics and what the drivers are in each business, but you also see a lot of the same patterns,” said Chairman Emeritus Jeff Campbell, a former CEO of Burger King who also has done brand development and marketing for Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
Funding for CRT is provided by about 20 sponsors who contribute $2,000 annually and are the primary source for referring clients to the organization, the other main sources being word-of-mouth and referrals from previous clients. CRT also partners with a number of local nonprofits, among them San Diego State University, Cal State San Marcos, Corporate Director’s Forum and the Entrepreneur’s Organization.
“It’s the only model we know of in the country,” said Holly Green, chair of marketing for CRT. “We’ve gotten requests from other cities, (but) at this point we haven’t ever done anything outside of San Diego.”
The strategic issues motivating client companies to seek mentoring take a variety of forms, be it learning how to utilize the Internet for marketing purposes, growth issues in terms of now offering a higher number of products and services, transitioning family-owned businesses to the next generation, whether or not to franchise, how to create a new business model in order to facilitate growth, how to transition from being the primary boss to managing through other managers or exit planning for someone who would like to retire and is thinking of perhaps selling his company. However, CRT does not advise on fundraising or legal issues.
“They’re facing the strategic issues that a lot of companies face as they grow or as they struggle,” said Dave Duvall, a CRT sponsor who spent eight years on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and now works as an investment banker. “If you’re growing, your company is different at $5 million than it was at $1 million. It’s different again at $10 million, it’s different again at $20 million, and it’s different again at $50 million. A lot of things happen, so if people haven’t been through it before, they can really appreciate the outside perspective of mentors they get at Chairmen’s Roundtable.”

Positive Effects
As a sponsor, Duval has directly observed the positive effect of CRT mentoring. “A client of mine that I’m working with, a manufacturer, probably would have gone out of business because of some lack of knowledge of really where he was until he got his mentoring from Chairmen’s RoundTable,” said Duvall. “I know of another case where a company was mentored that was really two companies, two totally different lines of business. And the advice was to split up and go separate ways. They did, and both companies very quickly became bigger than the two had been together.
“There was another case where some people I brought in as CRT clients were brought to some self-realizations they had never thought of … the husband is a real dealmaker, and his wife is much more of a marketing person. And they’re trying to figure out how to grow and he was trying to pull the company toward growth through acquisition, and she was thinking more along the marketing lines. And they hadn’t been doing a whole lot of the acquisition thing and he said, ‘You know, I’m really bored with what I’m doing.’ And his wife’s eyes got big and she said, ‘You’ve never told me that before!’ And it was a life-changing experience for them, and they are still together both as business people and as husband and wife.”
As the recession has radically changed the business climate, CRT has seen changes in the types of businesses that want mentoring. For instance, as the real estate market plummeted, CRT has seen fewer construction and home building companies. In addition, the difficult economic environment has made the needs of client businesses more immediate. “Strategic planning used to be a five- to 10-year horizon,” said Holly Green. “We’re now really looking at 12 to 24 months for strategic planning. So you’re coming in much tighter on the time frame because things are changing at such a dramatic pace.”
Going into 2011, CRT plans to recruit additional mentors to further diversify their pool. “We’ve got about 40 right now, but we’re looking also for people that have had a lot of experience in some of the new technologies and the marketing methods as well,” said Cox.
They also want to make sure you’ll be hearing more from them. “The thing that we did and didn’t completely finish in 2010 was our own business plan, because one of the things that we concluded collectively as an organization was that we were the best-kept secret in San Diego,” said Campbell. “We were doing good work for people but not a lot of people had heard of us. So we wanted to raise our profile, and we wanted to make sure that we were not only maintaining our clients well, but we’d actually like to increase it.”
“What we’re trying to do is help companies in San Diego do better,” said Cox. “It’s part of the process of giving back to the community. We like the business community here (and) want to make it better.” Indeed, CRT just might not remain a well-kept secret for very long.
For more, visit crt-sd.com.

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