How networks play matchmaker for entrepreneurs, investors. In White Plains: less chit chat, more hard leads

Some of the best ideas are old ideas - refined. Ask Michael Davies. The president of Copytex Corporation has taken to breakfasting every other Wednesday with a dozen local business owners.

``I love it. From the leads at each of the last six to eight meetings, I've made a sale,'' says Mr. Davies, who markets copiers and facsimile machines.

Sure, trading tips over bran muffins isn't a new notion. But Davies has found something that goes beyond power meals. New York-based American Business Associates (ABA) runs local breakfast clubs. Its founders have gone to some lengths to purge networking of the awkward chitchat and ``inefficiencies'' inherent in social settings. ABA meetings are tightly run lead-swapping sessions.

Membership costs $850 annually. But it's industry exclusive: If a town has three printers, only one can join. Members who do not supply four sales leads per meeting may be asked to leave. Three consecutive meetings missed are grounds for expulsion.

If a recent gathering of the White Plains breakfast club at the Stouffers Westchester Hotel is exemplary, then ABA is on to something. Before the meeting, coffee, tea, and Danishes are downed. At 8:30, 20 members and guests find places at four large linen-cloaked tables and briefly introduce themselves: a marketing consultant, a furniture mover, a long-distance telephone salesperson, a stockbroker, a signmaker, and so on.

Sessions typically include an ABA member company profile (so other members understand their products and needs) and testimonials of successful sales calls or visits to member firms. But the payoff comes when lead sheets, filled out before or upon arrival, are circulated.

``Delivered a copier to those guys two or three days ago,'' says Davies of a new data processing firm. ``They need furniture to the max.''

An insurance agency is ``expanding its building - may need a phone system,'' reports another member. ``They're nice people but take a long time to make a decision,'' warns yet another.

The word on a real estate development group in town is that ``they're spending money very freely.'' A financial services firm is bidding on a building in White Plains - ``but it may not be public knowledge yet.'' A multinational paper corporation nearby is renovating.

Some 30 leads are shared, including names and phone numbers. Each member also notes whether dropping his or her name may prove beneficial. Members are also encouraged to do business with one another. The hotel hosting the meeting is a member and has signed on with the messenger service in the group.

But not every ABA participant has felt the $850 investment was worthwhile. One advertising agency quit, citing the poor quality of leads. And Gloria Marwell, a broker at Thomson McKinnon Securities, didn't renew her membership.

``I got new accounts but I didn't get the specific type and level I was looking for,'' she says. ``A broker targeting corporate or small business pension funds might have more success. I was looking for individual referrals for a financial planner.''

Sheila Miller hasn't made any sales either, but she did re-enlist. ``If we get one job in an entire year, that will more than make up for the membership cost,'' says the head of Design Works of Westchester Inc., an office interior design firm. She likens the fee to a subscription to publications which provide leads on corporate plans to move, expand, and build.

There are 12 ABA-owned breakfast clubs operating in the Northeast. After four years of development, franchising ($25,000 for five clubs) has begun.

``No doubt others will copy us,'' says says ABA founder Jerome Feltenstein. ``But those that have done this on their own often find they end up being nothing more than business-card exchanges.''

Mr. Feltenstein's vison for ABA embraces nationwide industry-specific networking. Soon, he hopes, an ABA printer in White Plains will be able to swap marketing ideas by talking with an ABA counterpart in Florida.

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