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Small Companies Benefit From Outside Advice

The input of an advisory board can be invaluable to the success of your business--and you don't have to run a Fortune 500 company to benefit.

Gayle Martz worked for years to solve a big problem for people who want to travel with their pets. As founder of Sherpa's Pet Trading Co., Martz not only designed stylish, lightweight, ventilated pet carriers, but she lobbied hard to convince major airlines to allow small pets to ride in the passenger cabin.

"I saw people squishing their animals into hard plastic cases and came up with a great idea," said Martz, a former flight attendant and passionate handbag collector. She designed the first carry-on bag to transport her own dog, a Lhasa Apso named Sherpa. Now the company manufactures several different pet totes for use around town or in the air.

When she needed help to improve and expand operations at her New York City-based company, she turned to Susan Stautberg, founder of PartnerCom Corp. Stautberg, a former journalist and publisher, creates and manages advisory boards for big and small clients. In recent years, she's created boards for Avon, Avis, Swissotel and Cigna. She's currently creating a special advisory board for the United Nations. While the U.N. sought international business leaders, Stautberg recruited a group of pet-loving, high profile professionals to guide Martz.

"The advisory board can be your trip wire," said Stautberg. "An advisory board can alert you to new companies anywhere in the world that can wipe you out."

Stautberg, whose clients fondly describe her as a "walking Rolodex," first figures out what type of help a business owner or executive needs to build their business. Then she handpicks an experienced, prestigious group willing to work for a small fee and, possibly, free products.

Martz said she needed financial guidance and a good public relations strategy. So Stautberg recruited several high-profile pet lovers, including public relations veteran, Lou Hammond, founder of Lou Hammond and Associates in Manhattan.

"I wanted to support Gayle and what she does," said Hammond. "I'm a great dog lover-I think dogs are better than humans."

Hammond, who has a miniature Dachshund named Presto, suggested Martz send New York gossip columnist, Cindy Adams, a bright red Sherpa carrier for her dog. Even if Adams never mentions the bag in her column, she probably uses it to tote her dog around town. Hammond also provided Martz with an invaluable list of 75 journalists who cover dog-related topics. Hammond said she was a natural choice for Sherpa's advisory board because promoting pet-related stories is one of her personal passions.

"When we opened a hotel with pet menus, we got the biggest (press) pick up in America," said Hammond.

Marsha Firestone, president of the Women Presidents' Organization, a national group for entrepreneurial women; Amy Kopelan, founder of Bedlam Entertainment, a conference and event planning firm; and Carolyn Chin, an experienced media and communications executive, also serve on Sherpa's advisory board.

"The board has been a very good thing for me," said Martz, who recently hired an operations manager. "Having an advisory board makes you accountable."

Martz said Sherpa's Pet Trading Co., with eight employees, will soon be marketing its bags to Europeans.

Susan Shultz, author of The Board Book: Making Your Corporate Board a Strategic Force in Your Company's Success ($35, Amacom), said having an advisory board is a "great first step."

"An advisory board can focus on strategic issues and not get mired in the details of operation," said Shultz, adding that informal advisors are not liable legally or financially for the decisions they help make.

But if you manage a rapidly growing business or are about to go public, Shultz suggests forming a formal board of directors.

"We tend to think of boards for the Fortune 500, but the real value is to smaller and family-owned businesses," said Shultz, president of SSA Executive Search International in Phoenix. "A good board is your best single strategic advantage. They can help you avoid making fatal mistakes." A strong board of directors may also open doors to your company. For example, Shultz recently recruited the outgoing general counsel for McDonald's to serve on the board of a small, New York Stock Exchange firm that finances fast food restaurants.

"Now that board member is bringing the company to the attention of McDonald's," said Shultz.

She said a strong board of directors may also help you attract better employees and investors.

"Boards are a pivotal success factor for all companies, especially small ones," said Shultz.

SUCCESS TIPS
Serving on an advisory board can also be good for your career, according to PartnerCom founder Susan Stautberg.

Here are some good reasons to participate:

  • Serving on a board can build your network with access to experienced and articulate leaders.
  • Board participation can help you innovate, which can create new wealth for the company and individual.
  • Serving on an advisory board can be more stimulating than a corporate board because members are chosen for brainpower, not position
  • Advisory board membership can build relationships with decision-makers at the company.
  • Advisory board membership may increase your comfort level if you are chosen to serve on a corporate board.
  • For a free copy of Jane Applegate's Small Business Owner's Check Up and other resources, send your name and address to: Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, NY 10803.


    Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist, author and founder of Small Business TV, a global network for entrepreneurs.
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