TIPP CITY, Ohio — On a Wednesday morning here in March, the owner of a California business explained that his company had enjoyed years of success selling products directly to consumers through TV — until the formula stopped working. “People aren’t watching TV the way they used to,” he said. “We’re Blockbuster.”
One by one, the 20 business owners in the room identified themselves and their companies and talked about their struggles. As they spoke, the meeting took on the feel of a 12-step program, one aimed at helping the businesses take the next step.
An owner from Ohio said he had inherited his manufacturing business from his father and uncle but had moved slowly to assert his authority, so slowly that he now realized the company had been adrift for two years.
“Either you run it or you don’t,” the owner from California said.
The owner of a tourism business had made it to the meeting, even though his flight had been canceled, by driving overnight from Virginia through a blizzard. He told the group that he had been trying desperately to find employees who would approach their jobs as passionately as he approached his.
“Not gonna happen!” came the response, a chorus that echoed through the room.
The program, a two-day seminar held in a secluded building about 10 miles north of Dayton, was hosted by a nonprofit organization called Aileron. The name refers to the mechanical part of an airplane wing that helps control steering and stability, a metaphor that resonates in Wright brothers territory.
Initially, Aileron — “serving business owners since 1996,” according to its website — sought to help Dayton-area businesses. Despite little publicity or marketing, however, word spread and owners have been coming from around the country and even the world. “They don’t come here unless they’re in pain,” said Clay Mathile, Aileron’s founder and benefactor and himself once the owner of a troubled business.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Mathile took over the management of a pet food company, first as an employee, later as the owner, that had less than $1 million in revenue. At the beginning, he likes to say, he was trying to sell dog food that dogs didn’t like to eat in packaging that people didn’t want to buy — “and it took me five years to figure that out and another five years to fix it.”
The company was Iams. What it did have was a nutrition-based pet food that was ahead of its time and that would eventually produce a billion dollars a year in revenue, once Mr. Mathile had survived his 10-year learning curve and adopted the best practices of professional management. In 1999, he sold Iams to Procter & Gamble for $2.3 billion.
So far, about $150 million of Mr. Mathile’s money has gone to expand and endow Aileron, whose goal is to help owners shorten their learning curves. But before introducing the theory of management gurus like Deming and Drucker, the program tries to address the issues that cause the owners immediate pain.
At the session in March, Ed Eppley, a management consultant who serves as a guest facilitator, set a trap.
He asked the owners to grade the employees who were reporting to them with an A, B or C — a B indicating that the employee was not competent but might get better and a C indicating the employee was not competent and not likely to become competent. “The acid test is this,” Mr. Eppley said. “Knowing what you know now, would you hire them again? If the answer is no, they are a C.”
Several of the owners labored over the assignment. Only after the grades were in did Mr. Eppley initiate a discussion of the price the owners pay for keeping employees who are unlikely to become competent. “We grew so fast,” one owner said. “The systems weren’t really in place.”
“I hear excuses,” Mr. Eppley said.
“We have some doing O.K.,” the owner said.
“Would you hire them again?” Mr. Eppley asked.
The owner sighed. His wife and co-owner answered for him: “You wouldn’t.”
“Stop kidding yourself,” Mr. Eppley said.
To get to Aileron, every owner has to drive on an access road that winds for over a mile through tall grass and more than 100 acres, a journey that is meant to provide separation — “the longest distance between two points,” according to the architect who designed the complex, Lee Skolnick.
Eventually, the road leads to a low-slung retreat built with locally sourced limestone and Douglas fir. The $30 million, LEED-certified building features a soaring two-story rotunda and a roof that is intended to evoke a series of wings but still manages to blend seamlessly with its surroundings: the hills, the trails, an 80-foot waterfall. The goal, said Mr. Skolnick, who started his own architecture firm and whose father founded the Juicy Juice beverage company, was to create an environment that felt safe. “More people would come,” he said, “if they weren’t afraid to expose the flaws and mistakes that they think they are unique in having made.”
Offered once a month, Aileron’s flagship Course for Presidents takes a Socratic approach, similar to the sessions offered by business peer groups like Vistage and Entrepreneurs’ Organization. It targets businesses with $1 million to $30 million in revenue and costs $1,800. “We think people should pay a little, but we want to make sure it’s affordable,” said Mr. Mathile, who with his wife, MaryAnn, has also endowed organizations in Dayton dedicated to supporting single mothers and improving nutrition around the world (for humans).
After taking the course, the owner fill out a detailed assessment of their business, which forms the basis for eight subsequent meetings with an adviser, included in the price. That is where much of the real work happens.
Sometimes the owners come back and take the course again. “They hear what they are ready to hear,” said Joni Fedders, Aileron’s president. “They come back when they are ready to hear more.”
As the March session drew to a close, a woman with a design firm talked about what was keeping her up at night. She had a team of design associates in Indiana, but no sales people. Over the years, the firm had grown, but most of the growth had come from a single client that now accounted for more than 60 percent of its revenue.
One owner suggested that she assess whether her firm would survive if the client left. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Eppley said, the woman was working for her client.
“No,” the owner began to protest.
“Oh, yeah,” Mr. Eppley said gently, “you are.”
The perils of this position were quickly exposed when the owner of an Ohio food business stood and told the group that a client of 16 years had just departed, taking two-thirds of his revenue. “The next few months will be tenuous,” he said, adding that he now understood that the client’s presence had blinded him to problems that should have been addressed.
The advice came quickly:
“You have an opportunity to restart the business,” Mr. Eppley said.
“It sounds like it’s a good time to get rid of those Cs,” said another owner
“Hunker down,” said an accountant. “Get into survival mode as soon as possible.”
Several weeks after the session, and after further conversation with the owner of the food business, Mr. Eppley said he thought the business would survive. But he added, “If he had come to us four or five years ago, he would have had a lot more options.”
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