A brain trust for female business owners

Mon, 08-01-2011
By: Anne Fisher

Marion Hindenburg, owner and president of New York City-based paper distributor Mrs. Paper, recently faced a problem many entrepreneurs know all too well in these rocky economic times: A longstanding customer stopped paying. Ms. Hindenburg mentioned the situation at a meeting of the Women Presidents’ Organization, where the guest speaker that evening happened to be a psychologist with expertise in customer relations.

The expert’s advice: Keep selling to delinquent customers, “because if you cut them off, they’ll just go run up a tab with some other supplier and you’ll never see any of the money you’re owed,” Ms. Hindenburg recalled.

But, she said, “we made a new agreement where, every time this customer ordered a new pallet of paper, he had to pay for an old one. That approach, which I hadn’t thought of, cut the balance owed on his account from $45,000 down to $12,000. It was enormously helpful.”

It was also typical of the kind of practical insights WPO members glean from their monthly meetings. With chapters throughout the United States -- including Chicago -- the non-profit Women Presidents’ Organization has gone global: About 1,800 female business owners on four continents have signed up. Their companies average $14 million in annual revenues and 93 employees.

“When I started WPO 14 years ago, there were lots of programs for women-owned startups, but nothing for female business owners who were well-established and had achieved a certain level of success,” said WPO President Marsha Firestone.

The WPO, she added, is designed to “function as an informal board of directors for its members” and “to bring out the genius in the group.”

One useful feature of WPO meetings, Ms. Hindenburg said, is an “issue blitz.” Each member describes a specific challenge she faces at the moment.

“Then we go around the table and everyone else has a couple of minutes to suggest a solution, starting with the words, ‘If I were you, I would … ,’ ” Ms. Hindenburg said. “No one’s telling you what to do—just describing how they would handle the problem, or how they’ve dealt with it in the past.”

These conversations are an antidote to the feeling of isolation that sometimes besets business owners. She noted: “We all struggle with the same kinds of things, whether it’s coping with a difficult employee or trying to learn how to use social media. Having a place to talk freely with others in the same boat is a huge bonding experience.”

Indeed, willingness to share insights is one of the criteria for joining. Besides requiring that candidates own all or part of a service-based enterprise with at least $1 million in annual sales or a manufacturing company with at least $2 million in annual sales, the WPO looks for female entrepreneurs who are eager to speak frankly.

“It’s all about giving as well as getting,” Ms. Firestone said. “Someone who’s reluctant to open up and share information would not do well.”

To encourage openness, no chapter has more than one member in any given industry, so that nobody has to reveal anything to a competitor. She added: “If two entrepreneurs in the same business apply to a chapter, it’s first come, first served.”

Do you ever have the opportunity to ask other business owners for advice?