Forum helps companies share savvy

There's a forum here that is taking the loneliness out of being the head of a family-owned company. It's the Presidents Forum, made up of some 30 Chicago-area members of independent, noncompetitive businesses.

The presidents or board chairmen join and spend several hours each month talking business. They discuss the nitty-gritty of their companies and new trends in business, from how to select an attorney and an auditor to the latest in telephone communications and estate planning for themselves.

Founded 18 years ago by Richard J. Vrablik, its president, the organization has grown until there now is also a forum for presidents of publicly held companies, and other forums are being formed. In the future, Mr. Vrablik and his son Gregory expect to expand to cities throughout the country.

To encourage the sharing of expertise, the agenda for each meeting is planned to make available to each member executive the latest in management technology.

Mr. Vrablik got the idea for the forum when he was the chief executive officer of a family-held company. ''It is so lonely there,'' he says. ''There's no one to talk with about the everyday problems which a CEO (chief executive officer) must confront.''

After he got the idea for the meetings, he had a hard time getting them started until he realized the leadership that was needed to plan them.

Companies represented in the forum have from $5 to $35 million in sales. Members pay an annual fee of $6,000, less than half the cost of an employee. Mr. Vrablik has a staff of several persons, who are constantly planning meetings to meet the immediate needs of the members.

The members meet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 12 times a year. They look at each other's financial reports and, with the experience of the group, try to spot problems before they occur.

Two months ago, a survey of the member companies found that shipments of 66 percent of them were up during the survey period; only 28 percent of the nonmember companies with which they were compared reported an increase.

Profits show an even sharper difference. Some 73 percent of the forum companies indicate profits will be up at the end of this year. Some 20 percent see no change, and only 7 percent anticipate a drop in profits. The survey of nonmember firms shows 28 percent predicting a rise in profits, 12 percent expecting no change, and some 60 percent anticipating a decline.

What makes the difference?

Mr. Vrablik says he believes that it is the monthly in-depth scrutiny of each of the member companies, plus the fact that members are on call to help each other.

Jim Liautaud, chairman of four companies in the high-technology field, including Capsonic in Elgin, Ill., credits the forum with saving him from bankruptcy some nine years ago: ''I had two top-level men leave me, including my financial vice-president. The bank pulled out on a half-million dollar loan. And when I went to the Presidents Forum meeting, facing this, I asked for help from the group. Six of the members who had faced a similar situation stayed after the meeting, and the next day spent time with me. Then they spent Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. until noon, week by week, bringing me through the experience. They saved the business for me.''

His company used to have $1.5 million in sales; it now has many millions. ''We're going to the moon!'' he said.

He feels a loyalty and commitment to the group as a result of the experience.

In addition to the monthly forum meetings, group breaks up into councils, which meet at the host plant from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., looking over the site and reviewing the business details. ''When you're the host, you really get a working over,'' commented Edward H. Ball of Chicago Allis Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago. His firm makes custom-molded rubber products.

But Mr. Ball knows that the review is for his company's good. The group of six or seven forum members will look at the existing markets of the company and recommend ways to find new markets for old products, old markets for new ones, and new markets for new products, as well as old markets for the old products.

Mr. Vrablik says forum members realize that there are three ways to increase profits, but the best one is to increase prices, rather than increasing volume and reducing costs. ''The most effective and fastest way takes the most courage, '' he said.

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