The Value Of Peer Group Membership

Jon Vena, Wholesale Market

Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Warning – overused cliché: “It’s lonely at the top.”

This nugget of business wisdom is intended to describe the feelings associated with the tough choices that only a company president or chief executive can make. I understand it and find myself in that place frequently enough. At that point, many might seek the advice of an outsider or mentor that may or may not have the experience to guide them.

Many small businesses, especially family-owned businesses, don’t typically fill key positions from outside the company. In my experience, this is particularly true of produce wholesalers. Principle employees come up through the ranks and usually know the business inside and out.

But as the company grows they are asked to take on responsibilities in finance, human resources, employee benefits, insurance, facilities management or construction without ever having had any training or experience in those areas. I’ve been there and done that (another overworked cliché). When my time came to take the lead, I felt like I had a lot to learn about managing a company. I read articles, books and searched for classes. Formal training in all the areas in which I was lacking seemed daunting, expensive and difficult to schedule. There had to be a better way to fill in my knowledge and experience gaps.

Years ago, my Uncle Sonny Fiorella regularly had lunch with a group of seasoned businessmen. It allowed him the opportunity to listen to their management anecdotes and to ask questions.

Thinking about that mentorship model, I began to shop around for a peer group and selected the local franchise of TAB — The Alternative Board. Comprised of a group of local, small business owners from a wide range of industries, it seemed to fit my needs. Our facilitator was a former human resources executive with more than 30 years of experience at Conrail. HR was a huge pain point for me, and he provided advice and processes I still use regularly.

There are a dozen or more reasons to belong to a group such as this. Over time, you get to know each other and each other’s businesses well enough to offer valuable advice. Membership allows you to share best practices and expertise, review or critique plans, offer a different viewpoint or just find an empathetic ear. Since these board members are not on your payroll and aren’t involved in company “politics,” they are much more likely to be brutally honest about your solutions and ideas than your staff would be. This can be refreshing. And sometimes, while listening to a fellow board member you find a little, shameful joy in a “glad that isn’t me” moment.

What matters is, when we gather, we check our “competitive” business feelings at the door. We are there to listen, discuss, critique and learn. That’s where value is delivered.

My first TAB group contained a commercial landscaper and an accounting firm, among others. From the landscaper I learned firsthand the difficulties and costs associated with bringing guest workers into the country legally — something our industry will struggle with for some years to come. We also watched as the landscaper and his brother found the right way to transition a family business to the next generation. Our accountant member made sure we all understood the importance of regular monthly statements and that we had good controls in place.

The TAB group met monthly and since it served as my “board of directors,” I was accountable to report on my firm’s financial progress and on our initiatives. When a member didn’t meet monthly goals, these folks wanted to know why, and we pressed each other to deliver.

About 10 years ago, I was invited to join a different kind of peer group. My first group was comprised of business owners from unrelated industries in a common geographic area. This second group consists of business owners in my own industry from different cities throughout the country.

The pros and cons of membership are more or less the same, but in this group everyone understands the field, and I can’t hide behind the “quirks” of the produce industry. A practice common to both groups allows us to take turns hosting the meeting. We are able to visit facilities and meet staff, which affords us better insight into our members’ problems. Those visits also give me an opportunity to see “best practices” in action — a picture is worth a thousand words (one more cliché for the road). An added bonus: Traveling to be with my industry share group also provides an excuse for a few days’ vacation in some lovely cities.

Of the differences between these two groups, sports team loyalty is worth mentioning. In TAB, everyone is a Philly fan and we celebrate and commiserate together. However, visiting my share group members around the country requires a certain discretion when Philly teams are doing well and a certain stoicism when they aren’t. What matters is, when we gather, we check our “competitive” business feelings at the door. We are there to listen, discuss, critique and learn. That’s where value is delivered.

John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.