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Support Groups--Where CEOs Help CEOs

February 05, 1989|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Bob Morris, chief executive, was talking about his goals.

"Every time I write down my fundamental life purpose, it comes out different," he said. "But they all have the word 'harmony' in them."

His light blue eyes looking from face to face around the room, Morris explained his difficulty finding a rewarding role in his months-old company, which operates a child-care center in Cypress and plans to open several more.

Sure, the sandy-haired 44-year-old said, he wants to earn $300,000 a year. But other things are just as important. "I need to find the niche where I get to come forth completely as a human being," Morris said.

Group therapy? No--and yes. This was a meeting last week of the Summit Team, one of a growing number of forums in which top corporate executives gather in small groups, drop their facades of omnipotence and, in styles that range from strait-laced to funky, seek out the frank counsel of their peers.

At dozens of conference tables across the country--including nearly 50 in Southern California--these chief executive and near-CEOs, mostly of small- and medium-sized firms, are sitting down once a month to bare their hidden personal vulnerabilities, test business plans and build leadership skills in an atmosphere that combines support with surgically sharp criticism.

How do I go about firing my controller and making sure the new one doesn't fail, too? What do I do about a son who got straight A's in high school but won't stop partying at college? Can I give my franchisees more say in corporate policy without diluting my authority? How do I meld my values and my business? These are the kinds of questions chief executives are paying as much as $10,000 per year to run by other chief executives.

"Only kings know the affairs of kings," explained Bill Williams, president of the Executive Committee, the oldest and largest of the organizations that package and coordinate executive support groups. "They can come expose their downsides, their frailties, their concerns, their worries."

Learned More at Parties

TEC, as Williams' group is known, was founded in 1957 by a Milwaukee businessman who realized that he learned more during the cocktail parties at management seminars than at the formal sessions. Most of the nation's 150 TEC groups, including 37 in Southern California, are run by Williams' company in San Diego, while the original organization in Milwaukee runs groups in Wisconsin and Michigan. Participation has doubled to 1,600 chief executives in the past three years, Williams said.

TEC pioneered the format that other support groups have adapted. A TEC group of up to 14 chief executives, chosen to represent diverse industries, meets once a month for a full day at one of the member's firms. In the morning, an outside expert makes a presentation on financial planning, marketing, taxes, investing, team building, current affairs or some other topic of interest to the group.

The heavy-duty work begins after lunch. Members present their "issues," the business and personal challenges about which they have nowhere else to turn for advice. Their colleagues then drill them with questions, offer parallels from their own businesses and suggest solutions or, more often, the paths to take to find solutions.

In a typical exchange, James H. Furry, president of Grand American Fare, a Santa Monica company that operates 33 restaurants with total revenue of about $30 million, needed feedback on a management issue from his TEC group, which met in Lawndale recently.

Reason Questioned

The problem: Furry wanted his restaurants' general managers to maintain a 5 1/2-day work week, but the managers wanted to cut back to five days.

"What is your fear about the five days?" asked Samuel K. Freshman, chairman and president of Standard Management Co., a real estate company in Los Angeles.

"I think it's just another lowering of standards and expectations," Furry replied.

"I wouldn't care if my general manager worked one hour a day or one hour a week, as long as his supervisors were doing the job," said Aaron Cohen, president of United Education & Software, a troubled chain of trade schools based in Encino. "A manager's job is to make sure other people do their job."

Michael W. Arthur, executive vice president of Los Angeles-based Sizzler Restaurants International, disagreed. "It's incredible, the difference between when the general manager is in or not," he said. "You can go in as a customer and see it."

On this issue, Furry, a husky 40-year-old whose restaurants include the Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas and the Oar House in Santa Monica, acknowledged that he was not ready to change his mind.

"Why am I holding on?" he said. "It's because it's one of the reasons we've been successful."

Afterward, Freshman reflected on the value of such repartee.

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