by Dianna Brodine, vice president, editorial, Plastics Business

“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it is a mere formality.
It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”
– Erma Bombeck, American humorist

US plastics manufacturing has plenty of family business success stories, so it’s likely that many reading this article have indeed taken business advice from their mothers at some point in their history. However, an external business support team – whether an individual or a group – can provide valuable insight, guide decision-making processes and reaffirm instincts for leaders who need the perspective of someone not involved in the day-to-day operations of their business.

Who are the member/members of your business support team?

Chad Dielschneider, president/CEO, Bruin Automatic Molding in Marshalltown, Iowa: I belong to an industry roundtable of 12 fellow presidents and CEOs in the plastics industry. We have worked together for three years.

Eric Paules, president and CEO, Crescent Industries, Inc. in New Freedom, Pennsylvania: In a closely held family business like ours, your board often is comprised of family members. While this can be a blessing, it is not always the place for impartiality or diversity of experience. My support comes from an individual that was referred to us as a consultant over a decade ago. Through subsequent consulting engagements, we became colleagues and friends. His unique background as both a consultant and a college lecturer gave him a unique and valuable perspective. Our shared values and interests made for a friendship.

Alex Hoffer, chief operating officer, Hoffer Plastics Corporation in South Elgin, Illinois: I think it is very important to be intentional as a leader so that you continue to develop positively. To this end, I work directly with an Executive Coach, and we meet monthly to assess progress. I have worked with the same coach for approximately five years now. In between this, I meet twice per month with an accountability partner. The question I often ask my partner, and the partner in turn asks me, is “What is that you do not want to tell me?” The answer to this question is important because leaders cannot hide. After all, leaders are people others follow, so we have to start our leadership journey with ourselves, living to the commitments we have made. Finally, I also meet twice per month with a small group of men. We study the Bible, share life’s challenges and talk about what is going on with our families. This can be just as important as the other two meetings because of the community aspect of it. In summation, coaching + accountability + community is a healthy balance for me outside of work.

Kelly Goodsel, president and CEO of Viking Plastics, Inc., Corry, Pennsylvania: The first step for me is to reach out to the board members of the private equity group associated with Viking Plastics. Then there are those relationships that are truly external to the organization – people in other trade associations, such as MAPP or OESA, and in local business groups. I also lean on service providers, such as advisors in legal, accounting and tax roles, and industry consultants who I trust and respect.

Do you have formal meetings with this business support team (i.e. board meetings) or is it more of “meet for coffee” as needed?

Dielschneider: It started out as a once-per-month Zoom meeting. It now has evolved to an “as needed” basis. If someone has an issue, it is brought before the group as an email.

Paules: Some of our meetings are formal whereby he facilitates strategy sessions with our management team or helps me with particular initiatives. The bulk of our meetings are informal gatherings over lunch with extensive conversation both business and personal. These happen about once every quarter.

Hoffer: As my wife reminds me, I am “type-A-plus.” So, of course they are scheduled! Given my fluctuating schedule, I have reserved Tuesday mornings at 7 a.m. for either accountability or community group meetings. The Executive Coaching typically happens on an afternoon that is convenient for my coach and me. We also try to meet in-person at least twice per year. Those meetings usually are half-days. Given how “busy” my weeks are, these meetings would never happen unless they were scheduled.

Goodsel: In addition to quarterly board meetings, I talk with my key contact on the private equity board every Friday. Sometimes, it’s a 30-minute check in; sometimes, it’s a 60-minute, in-depth call. In these meetings, he shares weekly trends in the industry, what he is seeing in other businesses and other information about whatever the topic of the day might be. Then there are those external contacts, like the accounting guy I’ve known for 20 years. We talk every six weeks at 6:30 in the morning. With others, I might reach out every quarter or every six months if we don’t run into each other informally at a meeting or event.

What does this business support team (whether formal or informal) give to you as a leader that you are not able to get from those who are involved in the day-to-day operations of the business?

Dielschneider: It allows you to discuss sometimes sensitive situations at a peer level. It allows you to absorb what others are thinking and doing, and to build confidence in some of the decisions that you are making. The COVID-19 situation was a good example of some of the decisions that we bounced off each other. Many decisions were made throughout COVID-19 – from mandatory mask policies to vaccine policies, duration of leave, sanitization policies, on and on. The one thing we all agreed upon is that this was not the time to make decisions by committee. As presidents and CEOs, we are entrusted to make decisions on issues like these in an expedient manner.

Paules: Our relationship is invaluable because he has worked with our management team long enough that he knows the personalities and uniqueness of each member of the team. He is a trusted advisor; someone with whom I can “let my hair down” and be candid. He is someone who can bring advice from other industries and businesses, and he is someone who, as a college professor, keeps me connected to what the next generation of industry is thinking.

Hoffer: The old saying that “leadership is lonely” is probably more accurate than not. Each of the aforementioned meetings gives me community. That might sound elementary, but it is critical. I have been at my worse when I have verbally processed an issue with someone I should not (i.e. in the company). Therefore, having a sounding board is key. Perspective is another gift that outsiders have. They can see the big picture. Recently, my sisters and I were dealing with a tricky personnel issue, yet all of our outside “supports” saw it the exact same way. This clarified things for us. Finally, the accountability piece also cannot be understated. When you get to the “C” level, you have a board of directors to report into, but that sometimes is not enough. I recently watched the Apple TV+ show “We Crashed” with my wife. While watching the show, I wondered how much help an accountability partner could have been to Adam Neuman? While we will never really know, my guess is that one would have helped. I make that guess because mine has been extremely helpful over the last seven years.

Goodsel: Because 99% of the time I think I’m all-knowing, those groups reinforce the confidence I already had in what my answer was to whatever question I’m facing. I’m joking about the “all-knowing” part, but most leaders have a gut feeling for what is right. The non-industry-related people – those connections who are on the fringe of our business, such as my connections at OESA – are able to provide value without worrying about my people, cycle time or customers. They bring a perspective that is different – an outside view. These check-ins give me confidence in what my gut already told me.