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posted: 10/8/2012 6:00 AM

Manufacturer's advisory board could be your blueprint

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Thinking about an advisory board? The one at Simmons Engineering Corp., a privately held, Wheeling-headquartered manufacturer of cutting blades, could be the model to copy: A blend of highly capable outside advisors and senior staff hungry for feedback -- and not cowed when it comes -- provides Simmons President Bruce Gillilan the "advice and answers" that led to the board's creation two years ago.

I was an observer at the board's September meeting. Agenda items included what you'd expect -- year-to-date financials, customer service initiatives and lean manufacturing. More interestingly, discussions during the two-hour meeting were tightly focused; points were made politely but firmly and, when the outside advisors thought necessary, repeatedly.

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"It can be hard," Michele Kuper says of the discussions. "But it's also invigorating. I've learned a tremendous amount about running the company, the strategic mindset -- things that aren't talked about at the water cooler."

Kuper, Simmons human resources manager, is one of three employees on the board. The others are Colin Murphy, originally an outsider but now Simmons vice president/general manager, and Gillilan.

"They look at things differently than we do," Murphy says. "There is value to the points they make. Michele and I sit down with Bruce and talk about suggestions that need to (become) action."

That's pretty much what Gillilan was hoping for when he followed up on a suggestion from an insurance consultant and put together what is a six-member -- three outsiders, three insiders -- advisory board.

The Simmons Engineering board met monthly for the first six months, beginning September 2010, but now typically meets quarterly. Outsiders receive a small stipend and dinner which, the night I was there, was a load-your-own-plate mix of pizzas, mostaccioli and other Italian food.

Advisory boards have no legal authority. Insights, perspective and advice are the offerings. Consequently, success depends heavily on what the outsiders bring to meetings.

"Every business has its own culture, and executives (in the business) begin to look at life the same way," says Edward Schroeder. An advisory board member "needs to have some deep experience in some aspect of business (that will bring) a different, or alternative, point of view."

Or, as Charles Liedtke puts it, a business owner choosing members of a small business advisory board should "pick someone who will tell you the things you need to hear, not what you want to hear. We (Simmons' outside advisors) have an ability to say what needs to be said so it is listened to."

Liedtke, senior consultant at the University of Illinois Business Innovation Services, Naperville, and Schroeder, principal at The Griffing Group Inc., an Oak Park-based business valuation firm, are two of the three outside advisory board members at Simmons Engineering. The third was traveling and unavailable when I did follow-up interviews.

Gillilan built his own advisory board. It works. There are companies that will build an advisory board for you, an approach that seems to hold promise at a north suburban transportation company.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com.

2012 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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