By Mae Lee Sun, Inside Tucson Business
Published on Friday, January 23, 2009
Just over fifty years ago, in 1957, Robert Norse, a CEO from Milwaukee, was quick to notice that it was ‘lonely at the top’. Few executives in C-level positions could argue against that notion, making it easy for Norse to gather together and find solace and counsel in the company of others who felt the same. This group of peers formally became known as the Executive Committee-TEC, and more recently, re-branded itself as, Vistage International, the world’s first and largest executive membership organization.
Based in San Diego, and operating under the original premise that it’s lonely at the top, Vistage now boasts 15,000 members worldwide in 15 countries including China. Collectively, member companies generate over 300 billion dollars and have direct access to one another via a secured website. Tucson came on board as one of four new markets Vistage opened in 2008, contributing to a record year for Vistage of 1,800 new members organization-wide—an eight percent increase over 2007. Gary Hirsch, an executive with an impressive corporate background in consulting and C-level management is Vistage’s first Tucson chairperson and there are more than 12 Vistage groups with over 150 members who meet regularly in Phoenix.
According to Hirsch, who over the past year has presented the quarterly Vistage CEO Confidence Index on KVOAs Inside Arizona Business, which addressed the concerns of CEOs on the state of business and the economy, CEOs need support now more than ever. And, that those who do seek out Vistage, have on average, over the 50 years the organization has been running, have nearly tripled their growth rates despite changing economic conditions. These are not the kind of decisions made over a casual game of golf or in professional leads or networking groups says Hirsch.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what the sector or type of business it is, the same three issues continually plague CEOs and key decision makers: hiring and retention, strategy, and the bottom line. These issues typically don’t change, except maybe in order of priority, and can have devastating consequences if you don’t make the right decision. Meeting in a small group of your peers, in confidence, is a place to have your answers questioned and be asked questions no one you typically interact with is willing to ask. You can’t come here and rest on your laurels and it’s not the place for sick companies to get well,” says Hirsch, adding that having that sort of commitment is what helps CEOs stay focused on strategic issues verses the things that typically distract.
Membership in the group requires a fairly rigorous screening process however and the dues aren’t cheap. If you ‘qualify’ it runs about 12,000 per year—inclusive of private, monthly board meetings, world class speaker forums and one-to-one sessions with the group’s chairperson. Unlike similar sounding executive membership groups, no other services are allowed to be sold and members have to be from non-competing businesses. And, if many of the INC 500s fastest growing companies are any indicator of ‘type’, then the so-called ‘perfect’ member according to Rafael Pastor, CEO of Vistage International, “is passionate about growing their business, passionate about helping others do the same and are a lifelong learner them self. This is not just about surviving. It’s about thriving,” says Pastor.
Locally, Hirsch says the members are not the companies you always hear about. “Many Vistage members here fly under the radar and they like it that way. They tend to be modest about their accomplishments and are in it to become better leaders, make better decisions and get better results and they know that that doesn’t happen alone. A tangible example of how effective our group is, as a direct result of one of the speaker meetings we had in the fourth quarter of 2008, member Mike Popovich, founder and CEO of Scientific Technologies Corporation, actually raised prices for his IT services while everyone else was cutting costs or in a holding pattern. At five percent, it amounted to over 400,000. That’s remarkable. His company won a Copper Cactus Award for corporate growth in 2008. On the other hand, we’ve also had to smack members on the side of the head if they’re about to do something stupid!”
Mark Berman, a long time Tucsonan and owner of Benjamin Supply, a plumbing hardware company, another member of the Tucson Vistage group, says by joining, he’s gotten over professional isolation, become more organized and has made business decisions that have brought positive, long-term benefits to his business and employees.
“Vistage has been instrumental in our Web site and technology improvements, and in evaluating and switching 401k and payroll providers which isn’t necessarily an easy decision when you’ve had a business relationship for a long time. However, I leave most meetings with something I’ve committed to do which ultimately makes my work easier, more organized or more profitable,” says Berman.
In 2009, Pastor projects an even larger increase in member joins as CEOs face economic conditions the likes of which they haven’t seen before as leaders-conditions which can only add to their anxiety. However, cash, credit and costs he says can be met with calm, courage and confidence in the midst of the challenge through working comprehensively with an unbiased and committed group of peers found in Vistage.
Mae Lee Sun is a Tucson-based freelance writer.