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Coffee, Cake, and Constructive Criticism

A dozen people sit around a table, drinking coffee and talking passionately. Some are in suits, some in work shirts. They are a real estate developer, a printer, a restaurant consultant, an attorney, a roofer, a graphic artist, and a distributor of industrial supplies.

They're all part of the President's Resource Organization (PRO), a peer group for small-business owners that meets once a month and functions like an advisory board for businesses too small to have one of their own. Members share challenges, solve problems, and identify opportunities. They discuss subjects that range from cutting expenses to marketing strategies, look at compensation policies, and debate succession plans, says PRO founder Ray Silverstein.

"It's always lonely at the top," he says. "Small-business owners have no board to consult with or share decision-making. That makes it hard even in good times. But when the economy is soft, peer power is something one can't afford not to afford."

THE VISION THING. Silverstein, an ex-CEO twice over, formed the first PRO group 10 years ago. Today, he facilitates groups throughout the Chicago area and sponsors franchises in other parts of the country. He defines the typical PRO member as "an entrepreneur who not only wants to grow his or her business but is willing to accept and give criticism freely."

Although members come from a wide range of white- and blue-collar industries, from manufacturing and distribution to service industries and professional services, most generate between $2 million to $5 million annually, Silverstein says. Members pay a startup fee, along with quarterly dues ranging from $550 to $825, depending on company size.

What's the benefit for outfits typically squeezed for extra cash? According to Silverstein, it's deceptively simple: "The downfall of many small-business owners is that they get so caught up in day-to-day activities, they forget their first role -- as visionary. PRO forces its members to step back and take the long view." By Karen E. Klein in Los Angeles

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