By Lisa Bergson "I applaud you," Herb Benjamin says at the close of the latest MEECO advisory board meeting. "You've never given a presentation like this before." Formerly a high-level marketing guy in the semiconductor equipment business, Herb now runs a successful lumber yard. (After years of spending more time in Singapore than with his family, he made a radical career change.)
My husband and the other three board members concur. Although I've been meeting with my board four times a year since, oh, the '80s, I've never before received kudos on anything but the food. (Hey, we put out a nice spread.) When you run your own private business in a highly competitive market, you need smart mentors to test out your ideas. I sharpen my blade against their stone.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE. Set to introduce a strategic reorganization of both my businesses -- MEECO and Tiger Optics -- I expected to get shot down, as usual. For a change, it didn't matter. "As much as I value your advice, I've found that the thought that goes into preparing these meetings is equally significant." Eyebrows rose. "It forces us to step back and think about what we're doing."
Over the years, I've reflected upon the many reasons for having a board, as well as the care and feeding of same. The only child of an eccentric single parent, I've always had to reach out for nurturance and practical advice. So, while many entrepreneurs prefer their own counsel, I'm accustomed to soliciting input. Mind you, since MEECO is a privately held company, the board serves at my behest, with no voting rights. Still, I expect them to stand up to me. And they do.
Indeed, I'm accustomed to criticism, if not downright flagellation. My board is fairly conservative, serving as a counterbalance to my occasionally irrational exuberance. "You have to stop wasting money on this thing," they exhorted throughout the '90s. Even after I brought our Princeton University technology partner in to explain the science behind so-called cavity ring-down spectroscopy, a new laser-based technology, they remained dubious about its commercial potential.
THE LAST LAUGH. Their concerns forced me to carefully consider my commitment to cavity ring-down. They also made me determined to succeed. One day, I wanted them to say, "You know, you were right."
All told, it took seven years to convert cavity ring-down into a product and begin filling orders. The board continued to glance askance. "What about MEECO's core technology?" they fretted. I think putting money into MEECO's mature electrochemical sensors is akin to adding more sails to the sailboat after the steamship came along. (Not my analogy, it's from a classic Harvard Business Review strategy piece.) Sure, we'll update it and make improvements where feasible. But lasers are the future, baby.
"They may be the future, but MEECO is now," retorted one Board member. "You need to take care of MEECO and make sure it has the money to grow."
BRIEFED AND PREPARED. He quit not long after I actually spun the laser line into a separate business with its own advisory board. Unlike MEECO's board, which consists of guys with mostly semiconductor and gas-industry backgrounds, the Tiger board has more of a strategic and financial orientation. They open doors.
To avoid losing our minds, my staff and I hold both companies' meetings back-to-back, serving the same reliable lunch two days straight. Although a couple members, including my husband, eschew compensation, most receive $1,200 a pop, plus transportation. Two weeks ahead of time, we send a sizable package, with the agenda, and financial, sales, marketing, and other information to help them prepare.
I've tried different venues, from my home, where one particular adored and indulged cat may have held too much sway, to inns and country clubs, but the board has settled on the cinder-block walled MEECO library as their venue of choice. "It makes it more real," says my husband. It certainly offers context.
This time, our theme was "staff and corporate culture." I figured I would talk about the growing pains of my new business as they affect both companies. In preparation, I first updated the Executive Summary, a hand-out that reviews what's happened overall in the last quarter at MEECO and details activity in each core area. A pattern emerged.
EMERGING IDENTITIES. Where MEECO shared services with Tiger Optics, its baby sister, it suffered -- and vice versa. "The initial business model, set up to nurture Tiger Optics through its early stage of development, isn't working," I tell the board. "Where Tiger has dedicated employees...it's flourishing. Where MEECO has dedicated employees -- in production and industrial sales -- it's doing well."
That realization led to a new approach, gradually allowing each company to separate and forge its own identity. Two new organizational charts followed. The whole thing just rolled out. "MEECO must start to reinvest and reinvent itself," I proclaimed. They loved it.
"Before, you were always looking for approval," my husband observes. "Today you told them, 'This is what I'm going to do.'"
"Really?" I ask. If I'm ever going to sway investors, I'd better be able to rally my own board. Then again, they may have concluded that I'm finally listening. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org