Peer groups help businesses stay competitive
By Karen Kennedy
Photos by Stan Gurka
We all know that we need to build our network. But we’ve all had days when it was raining, or we were feeling tired, insecure, or otherwise just not feeling it, and we’ve had to force ourselves to paste on our biggest smile, stuff our pockets full of business cards and walk through the doors to shake some hands. Because you never know who might be there or what you might miss if you allow yourself to skip it and just stay home, right?
Imagine instead, a networking function where you not only know everyone in the room, but you know them well enough to share your deepest fears and weaknesses. A room full of people who do pretty much the same thing that you do but never compete against you. A group of peers so tightly knit that they vacation together and spend not just an hour or two chatting once a month, but nearly forty-eight straight hours together three times a year.
Bill Taylor of Taylored Systems in Noblesville has just that.
For the last twenty years, Taylor has been a part of a group called the Information Systems Association. It’s a peer group of around twenty business owners from across the country who are all in the communications industry. They met at the Taylored Systems offices in May.
The Power of a Group Mind
The group talked about the fact that Toshiba has recently announced that it will no longer sell phones in the U.S. For some of the members, whose entire business model was built on selling Toshiba phone systems, this was earth-shattering news that rocked them to their core. But they didn’t have to digest that information alone in their offices and struggle to figure out what their next step should be, because their network was there with support, advice and assistance.
In this particular meeting, they brought in Steve Hopper, a nationally known business consultant and speaker, to help them address the questions that we’re all facing right now: How do we utilize our websites and social media to our best advantage? How do we market to millennials and integrate video? Do we need to have a blog? How do we refine a 30-second elevator pitch when our businesses are so diversified that they’ve become difficult to explain? They also talked about the enormous paradigm shifts that happen with alarming regularity in the communications business and how to be agile enough to adapt with them.
And, as in every meeting, they share their concerns, their successes, their challenges and even their financial statements.
“I can literally tell these people anything about my business,” said Taylor. “And it’s amazing what we find out. We will regularly realize that someone in the group is overpaying for a particular service, like credit card processing, when we compare financials. One person will share how they’ve refined a particular process that we can all adapt in some way. Someone from the west coast will share a trend that hasn’t made its way here just yet. Or if one of us is working on a bid in a field we’re less familiar with, we can pick up the phone and ask another member for advice.”
“Taylored Systems just celebrated its 35th anniversary in June,” Taylor continued. “My business has changed so much since I founded this company. We originally just sold phone systems--hardware. Now, everything other than the actual handset for the phone can be in the cloud. So now we handle tying together voice mail, email and text messaging. We do sound masking, access controls, security cameras and IT. Basically, we work on anything that is wired or connected to a wireless network other than a copy machine. And every other member of the group has had to grow and evolve just like we have.”
Extraordinary Peace of Mind
The group has been in existence since the mid-1980s. The five founding members of the group met at a Midwest dealers’ convention. Bob Shubow, of Big Water Technologies in Southfield, Michigan, is the only living founding member of the group.
“When we started all of this, I was the youngest member of the group,” Shulow laughed. “Now I’m the old guy! I’ve been selling phones since 1974. But it’s essential that we all stay on the leading edge and the group helps us do that. It gives you a benchmark. And every member of the group brings something that we don’t all have. At times, we’ve even harnessed the purchasing power of the group to form a buying consortium. And you know that if you’re in trouble, you can pick up the phone and ask for anything. It’s an extraordinary peace of mind.”
While the January and September meetings of the association take place in various parts of the country, the group meets in Noblesville every May, in large part because Taylor has the ideal facility to do so. In his offices off 146th Street and Cumberland Road, he has a 32-seat conference room that he also shares with the Noblesville Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups that need meeting space. Members have come and gone over the years, sometimes with second generation family members taking over the seat. New members come to the group by invitation only and are accepted after a thorough vetting process. If any one member of the group feels that a candidate isn’t a good fit or may be a competitor to them, they are denied membership.
New members pay $500 to join the association and everyone pays $500 in annual dues. At the close of every meeting, three members are selected to plan the agenda for the next meeting and everything is documented and conveyed to the members by the group’s recording secretary, Pam Kozuch, of Telephone Systems, Inc. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who according to Taylor and Shulow is the “glue” that holds the group together.
“This group, like all good networks, is about giving back and forming a community; a family,” said Taylor, whose commitment to giving back is evidenced by his contributions of time and resources to the Noblesville Boys and Girls Club, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce and the Noblesville Schools Education Foundation, just to name a few. (And his commitment to family is evidenced by the fact that he was distracted by his phone numerous times during our interview and finally sheepishly confessed that his eleven-month-old grandson had just started to walk and his wife, who was babysitting, was blowing up his phone with video of the auspicious event.)
“You don’t go into a group thinking about what you can get out of it,” Taylor concluded. “You go into it thinking about what you can contribute. And what you put into your community always comes back to you. Ten-fold.”