Being the company CEO can be a lonely position, especially when a dilemma the company has never seen arises and demands a new solution.

It's a position Nick Leonard knows well. The president of The Horizon Group, a north Davenport cabinet manufacturer, has led the company for half of its 30-year history. During his tenure, the company became employee-owned, expanded its manufacturing shop, entered the Chicago market, and rode out the 2008 recession's downturn in construction. A custom builder of cabinets and casework for commercial clients, he said on a tour last week that the 50-person operation has returned to its pre-recession staffing level.

"When you're a president, CEO or leader — whether it's a big or small company — you always run into situation you haven't faced before," he said.

It can be insulating, said Leonard, who began with the company as a production manager. "A lot of situations something land on your desk and (you think) 'Wow, what am I going to do here?' You don't have a CEO next door you can ask 'What are we going to do here?'"

That is where Advance Iowa, a state-funded program located at the University of Northern Iowa, is stepping in to assist company leaders across eastern and central Iowa. Among its menu of education and consulting assistance is new Peer CEO Groups. The program is designed for mid-sized, second-stage businesses that employ between 10 and 100 workers. The groups, which hold private monthly roundtables, are designed to unite CEOs to discuss pressing issues and concerns and, more importantly, offer solutions.

Mark Hermann, of Bettendorf, leads two of the state's three Peer CEO Groups, one located in Dubuque and the latest group, located in Davenport. A third roundtable meets with business leaders in Cedar Falls.

"What we hope they are getting is a better insight into managing their businesses in a way that saves them time, which we all know is money," said Hermann, a consultant and facilitator with Advance Iowa. A retired risk manager and a former business owner, he wishes that he had such a resource back when in his early days of business ownership.

"There are a lot of issues for them that they face as CEOs and owners happening every day," said Hermann, who is CEO of his own company, Risk & Consulting Services, Bettendorf. "It's hard for them to seek input."

How it works

Each Peer Group involves about 12 CEOs, who are recruited and commit to the one-year program. The leaders agree to meet once a month for a 3½-hour session in which they discuss topics based on issues encountered in their workplaces.

Hermann said the key to its success is that all the discussions are confidential, and every member discusses their experience with the topic and offer solutions. "Our groups are confidential and members sign a confidentiality policy or they leave the group," said Hermann, who facilitates each meeting with a structured agenda. 

The CEO who is facing the topic is then asked to return to work and implement some of the solutions discussed and "comes back and reports on it."

In addition to the CEO roundtables, he said Advance Iowa's role is to provide education, resources and consultancy for Iowa's mid-sized businesses, "which are our bread and butter."

Hermann said the state of Iowa launched Advance Iowa as a pilot in 2012 realizing the gap of resources for its second-stage businesses. "There's so much out there for new business startups."

Advance Iowa since has worked with hundreds of Iowa-based companies that are in need of strategic planning, growth management, succession planning or even exit planning.

The 'right mix'

As part of Hermann's job, he actively recruited the Iowa Quad-City CEOs for the program, which began five months ago. "The goal is not just to get 12 company CEOs, but the right mix," he said.

Most participants in the Quad-City group are companies with 25 to 55 employees, but represent a wide variety of business and industry. Additionally, each CEO brings varying levels of leadership experience. That variety, he said, enables all the participants to learn from one another.

Discussion topics, which the group decides on at each meeting, have ranged from teamwork to cash flow, taxes, staffing, sales, marketing, growth, turnover, real estate and banking.

"On any of those issues, you don't know where the discussion is going to go,'' Hermann said. 

As part of his facilitator education with Advance Iowa, Hermann received training from the Ed Lowe Foundation.

Wider reach

Leonard, like many CEOs, has plenty of responsibilities just running The Horizon Group, which made him skeptical about joining and committing the time. "I was pretty hesitant because I've been in roundtable settings like that and found them to be more social and networking-based."

But after five months meeting with the small group of other CEOs, he is impressed by the meeting structure and the advice and experiences each bring to the table. "It stays on point," he said of the strict agenda each meeting follows. "It's a good tool for being able to use my experience for people going through something for the first time and vice versa." 

Asked how the experience is helping him run his business better, Leonard said, "I'm taking the information I'm hearing from people at those meetings and trying to consider how it could be implemented in our environment. I've certainly gained from it."

Located in the heart of an industrial park on West 76th Street, The Horizon Group designs and build custom cabinetry, reception desks and casework for a variety of commercial buildings, including offices, medical facilities, banking facilities and schools. "Most people don't know these are made here because we work directly with general contractors," Leonard said. 

Still, his company facing many of the same issues as his peers. In fact, he attributes the Peer Group feedback with helping The Horizon Group alter how it recruits young workers and structures the job positions they fill.

Overseeing a 32-year-old company, Leonard also believes he has helped others. "I'm able to share with (other CEOs) what we've done to get through the growing pains."

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