Chamber Program Lets Small Businesses Think Big

August 25, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Had she been running the Rouse Co. or the Ryland Group, Malynda Madzel could have summoned a host of executives to brainstorm on strategies for surviving the recession.

But in the rush of day-to-day responsibilities in running Telemarketing Services, her company in the Wilde Lake Village Center, Madzel had only her husband and informal business contacts to turn to for advice.

When she discovered Business Dialogue, she says, she found an instant "board of directors" to help hash out her problems during the recession. Without them, she insists, "I probably wouldn't be in business."

The program was created by the local Chamber of Commerce to bring small-business owners together for monthly meetings to discuss their problems, review their successes and failures and help map theirfutures.

"A lot of times I think people get caught up in the day-to-day business and kind of lose sight of where you're going," says Robert Holland, who runs Robert Holland Designs Inc. out of his western Ellicott City home.

Shortly after he launched his one-man graphic design business in October, Holland discovered he had a place to turn for discussions beyond meeting the looming weekly deadlines.

Inhis group, which included Madzel, he was able to share ideas and experience with a telecommunications specialist, a speech therapist, a banker, a computer expert and an insurance salesperson, among others.

One of the keys to the program, which was launched in 1987, is that no competing businesses are allowed in the same group.

About 40 people signed up for an introductory breakfast meeting Aug. 16, and Business Dialogue chairman Dave Murphy predicts even more will sign upbefore the Sept. 1 deadline for new groups. Old groups are free to remain together or split up and form new groups.

The popularity of the groups has grown in the last several years, from only three groups of nine to 12 people in the 1989-1990 year to seven groups so far scheduled for this fall.

The idea is so popular that some people make it their business to form such groups.

John Barkdoll, principalpartner of the Business Network, a Baltimore-based company that builds "inner circles" similar to Business Dialogue groups, was chairman last year of the chamber's dialogue committee and continues to provide advice on running the program.

Although business owners of 50 years ago might have been able to operate under the same conditions year after year, he said, today's dynamic, technology-driven business climate has made the exchange of information imperative.

"All of us are going to have to stay in a continuous learning environment almostfor our entire lives," Barkdoll says.

What Business Dialogue and other such groups do is force business people to set aside two to 2 1/2 hours each month to focus on the big picture in a non-competitive setting. Group members take turns as host and setting the agenda for meetings.

Before each meeting, the host fills out a questionnaire describing the host's business, its milestones, successes and failures. It also outlines the host's personal history and strengths and weaknesses.

After familiarizing the group with the business, the hostpicks a topic for the group to discuss.

"That could be 'How do you hire new employees?' 'How do you target government contracts?' 'Howto manage growth,' " explains Murphy, president of the Damar Group Ltd., a computer training and consulting firm.

"While the opportunity (topic) is specific to the company, it's actually a topic that's fairly relevant to everyone in the group anyway."

Madzel, who co-chairs the chamber's Dialogue committee with Murphy this year, said advice from members of her group may have saved her business.

"The main thing they helped me with was pricing my services and charging a retainer for the service," rather than billing after service was rendered, she says, "because that was killing my cash flow."

On the advice of her group, Madzel now charges upfront "until I get to know a client very well."

That decision has kept her from faltering as some of her competitors have, she says.

The group also helped Madzel with her company's image and her concerns about negative reactions to"telemarketing" in the name.

"I've talked about changing the nameof my business and what would happen if I did that," but members advised her that "to do that would be a denial of what I am and what I do."

She said group members told her it would be better to be more specific about what her company does, which is business-to-business telemarketing, and not "hey, do you want to buy storm windows while you're having dinner at night."

The discussions are strictly confidential, so not to jeopardize a company's competitive edge, but some business people still express doubts about participating in the program, Murphy says.

"One of the concerns that Dialogue members had was that they might participate, but not get as much out of it" as other group members did, he said.

But after participating, "people always felt it was worth their investment of time and effort."

The 1991-1992 year will be kicked off with a second breakfast meeting Sept. 20, and Murphy said he can bend the Sept. 1 sign-up deadline as long as interested people call him before then. The cost of the breakfast is $15, and there is no additional fee for Dialogue members.

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