What Might We Learn in a Given Month at our CEO Forums?

The CEO Forums certainly offer a great deal of perspective for our members during the confidential sessions as we review issues and challenges as well as trends among our member organizations.  We also can learn from the collective wisdom of the group when we put forth our issue, opportunity or challenge.

In addition, below represents an example of some of the non-confidential perspectives that come forward, in this case, for a one month period of CEO Forum activities.  We hope you might find them of value.

Top Twelve Perspectives Learned / Reinforced This Month – April 2011

  • Understanding ourselves is such an important part of being a good leader; having self awareness.  Jim Myers, Founder of the CEO Forum


  • A CEO hires great people and lets them execute; a CEO defines the future – these are his / her primary functions.  Jim Myers, Founder of the CEO Forum


  • The three most common attributes of Stellar Performers – 1. Positive Person 2. Team Player 3. Do what they say they will do.  Jim Myers, Founder of the CEO Forum


  • We have to make a decision to be more positive!  Marsha Petrie
    Sue, Author of Toxic People and the reactor factor


  • 1 negative customer will influence 67 others.  Marsha Petrie
    Sue, Author of Toxic People and the reactor factor


  • You can’t get angry; when you do, you give your power away.
    Marsha Petrie Sue, Author of Toxic People and the reactor factor


  • When we believe we have arrived, we begin to fall back. Marsha Petrie Sue, Author of Toxic People and the reactor factor


  • Customer Retention and acquisition is one of the most pressing issues companies face today.  Leaders are rethinking their sales strategies.  Consider these: Stop Selling and Start Nurturing; Spend More Time on Win back; Integrate Your Online Marketing Strategies and Capitalize on Business Intelligence. Vistage, Chief Executive Organization


  • Leadership is meeting the needs of the people; ask them what they think!
    Jim Myers, Founder of the CEO Forum


Contributed by Scott Barrows, Multi-Craft  Contractors and

Mike Luttrell, Walker Brothers Insurance


  • While considering the excellent customer service delivered by Arvest Bank, “In a competitive environment, market share is gained when the line of employees outnumber the line of customers.” April “Keeper” by Darin Gray, GrayMatters, GrayMatters Interactive and Northwest Arkansas Business Journal; called a Keeper and final
    edits by Nick Santoleri, Rockline Industries


  • “When you come slam bang up against trouble, it never looks half as bad if you face up to it.”  John Wayne as found by Tom Petrizzo, Ozark
    at the Lindsey Building

Survey of What We Learned from the Prior Decade

The prior decade certainly offered a target rich environment for CEO’s and organizational leaders to learn a great deal about free market behavior and how well our organizations were positioned for such large swings in the economy.  Today, there are some tremendous case studies that were born from this decade of activities represented by growth and easy capital markets turning to the great recession and a retraction of markets and capital that hasn’t been as severe since the 1970′s.  We thought we would stop and reflect on this learning opportunity and see what we find among the CEO Forum members.  This is what we found.

Survey Results of our CEO Forum Members

Learning from the Prior Decade


How We Strategically Drive Our Organizations in the Coming Decade

28 Perspectives Nominated by the 37 members of three CEO Forums

 Those receiving the most votes from our members are:

 What might we have learned from the prior decade?

 1. Some business models are becoming obsolete; great new ones are being created

2. Be humble / considerate

3. Quality even slower growth is likely better

4. Target our customers / prospects based on financial risk and ability to grow

5. Learn to say no

 Have we fully comprehended what
adjustments must be made moving forward?

 1. We must develop plans that address financial weaknesses, establish how and when, if not already, our organization can return to growth while also building more liquidity than what was thought to be necessary in the past

2. Risk of shorter cycles between downturns

3. Limited increase in real estate values

4. Ongoing uncertainty of global events

 How will we strategically drive our
organization in the coming decade?

 1. Stronger drive for greater efficiency (using technology and improved processes)

2. Work to try to give more meaning to the work that our co-workers perform; be reminded that as the economy heats up, others will come after our A Players

3. Enhanced / More dynamic strategic planning process

4. Drive to create a higher value proposition as viewed by our customers


A lot has happened with our economy; where are we?
What is different as we look to the next decade?

Information Derived from the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Center for Business and Economic Research Business Forecast Luncheon, February 4, 2011 & the CEO Forum Proprietary Learning Conference Call with Keith Maio, January 20, 2011

1. Job Creation Remains a Problem / Large Concern

a.     While Washington has spoken more optimistically about our economy, the Federal Reserve, in conversations we have had with them recently, are concerned about the U.S.’s economy to create adequate new jobs — Keith Maio, Executive – 20th largest U.S. Bank, speaker at the January 20, 2011 CEO Forum Proprietary Learning Conference Call (inquire within if you’d like the link and pass code to the playback of this informative conference call)

b.     The U.S. must create 300,000 new jobs to keep up with the monthly increases in our workforce yet in January of 2011, the U.S. produced 36,000 new jobs – Kevin Stephenson, economist with Cambridge Associates, advisers to large foundations such as the U of A Foundation, speaking at the Sam M. Walton College of Business 2011 Business Forecast Luncheon, February 4, 2011

c.      In the early to mid prior decade, NWA was creating 10,000 new jobs a year.  NWA lost 10,000 jobs last year and NWA is forecasted to create 2,000 new jobs in 2011 — Kathy Deck, Director of the Center for Business and Economic Research speaking at the Sam M. Walton College of Business 2011 Business Forecast Luncheon, February 4, 2011

d.     As people drop out of the workforce and discontinue looking for employment, this will positively impact unemployment rates making the statistic potentially not as strong as it may sound.

e.     U.S. unemployment rate today is 9.4% and is expected to decline to perform at 8.9% in 2011 – consensus of economists – Kevin Stephenson

f.       NWA’s unemployment rate is between 6 and 7%, much better than the U.S.  – Kathy Deck

2. Housing Finance – Up to 20% down payment for future home financing?

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have “owned” the home mortgage market other than large jumbo loans.  The stimulus oriented low interest rate financing combined with accommodating terms have served to slow the decline in the home market pricing.  As the government begins to reign in these two mammoth organizations and the private sector begins to become a larger provider of home mortgage finance, expect down payments and criteria to become more difficult.  As this wind down begins to occur, we will likely see new home loans require more down payment ranging from 10 to 20% down.  Financing will move toward the way private jumbo mortgages are issued today where the government is not buying the mortgages – Keith Maio

3. Home Prices according to the median forecast of economists – no decline in 2011 yet we could have across the U.S. an additional 15% decline before they stabilize

a.     The consensus forecast of major economists, while individually having a wide range of predictions yet arrived at a median forecast of near 0% – Kevin Stephenson

b.     Based on the most credible analysis we have found, home prices on average across the U.S. likely have another 15% decline before they stabilize – Keith Maio

4.  In any given region, median prices for homes will perform at three times the median income – Keith Maio

a.     This statistic may actually be valuable relative to NWA.  NWA, in our view, has stability and the ability to have wages begin to increase compared to most of the U.S.

b.     We will ask Kathy Deck for insight on NWA’s median income and median home price and see where we are today.

c.      The most aggressive larger high growth housing markets were trading at 4 and 41/2 times median income; not sustainable – Keith Maio

d.     Keith reviewed a Moody’s analysis that indicates that Las Vegas and Phoenix will be the last to come out of the housing price collapse and in those markets, prices are expected to return to the peak – mid 2006 around the year 2032

5.  Credit to businesses is loosening; commercial loans in all banks increased in the most recent quarter by 5% for the first time in several quarters – Keith Maio

6. Commentary from the CEO Forum relating to corporate finance and how organizations will be financed

As banks consider how they will make money moving forward, and without the ability to book large commercial real estate loans, banks will begin to pay significant attention to serving and lending to operating businesses.  Banks will be increasingly interested in financing your business.  That being said, banks will only do so with solid primary sources of repayment (cash flow) and a solid secondary source of repayment – tangible accounts receivable, inventory and FF & E that offers a margined secondary source of repayment.

7.   The SBA, similar to what Freddie and Fannie are doing in home financing, has tried to make adjustments that will be helpful to stimulate or stabilize the U.S. economy relative to small business.  It took them a while to get around to this but it is meaningful.   The SBA now allows for banks to renew their own bank owned credit to an SBA guaranteed loan.  The SBA is willing to consider enterprises that have sufficient cash flow to service the debt but may not have a completely solid secondary source of repayment as will be required, in our view, to get bank financing, witbout and SBA guarantee.  The SBA has also loosened how it extends their 504 product, a product to help businesses finance their owner-occupied commercial real estate.  This too, can now be an existing commercial real estate loan held by a bank that can roll into the 504 program providing up to 90% of appraised value and will enable borrowers to lock in on fixed rates before, in our view, they begin to rise.

We will be asking Dennis Smiley and Mike McFarland, two of our CEO Forum members who are executives with Arvest Bank to consider having their SBA specialist shed additional light to these programs.

8.  CEO Forum Recommendation

CEO’s are smart to invest in their information systems as any third party supporting your organization financially such as a bank or obtaining a line of credit from a supplier or obtaining an equipment lease, will want to better understand the credit risk they are taking before approving such credit.  This includes improving your accounting systems and use of accounting firms for reviews and audits to assure your information is put forth consistent with generally accepted accounting principles.

9.   The hardest and smartest capital to access is known as institutional capital.  This capital is often for organizations that are prepared to “take off” and this capital is used as “jet fuel.”   To access this capital in addition to having a great business model, plan to execute and team to execute the plan, an organization must prepare in an extra ordinarily disciplined manner in order to achieve success.  For an outline on how to be successful at attracting institutional capital prepared by CEO Forum member Dathan Gaskill of River Corporate Finance, please inquire within.  Dathan’s background and experience makes him as excellent of a resource in this field as anyone we know.

10.  There was a large volume of commercial real estate loan securitizations during our prior decade that are coming due at this time and most are not in “good shape”- Keith Maio

a.     The majority of these loans are underwater and will require new equity and often partnerships in order to resolve the financial position – Keith Maio

b.     The good news is that these securitizations mature with a “tail” as a group as the terms of these loans were 30 year amortizing loans due in 10 years.  Each year some of these securitized loans come due allowing the market to better digest them vs. them coming due in a shorter span – Keith Maio

c.      Securitized loans are dealt with by servicing agents who do not like to take ownership of the asset via foreclosure but would prefer to sell the note at a percent of the loan amount in order to move the “asset” before foreclosure to the owner is emanate – Keith Maio

d.     Because of the risk of commercial real estate and a larger amount of capital is required to finance and hold a real estate asset, capitalization rates have increased.  Increasing cap rates and a difficulty in arriving at the income of a property looking forward from which to apply the cap rate both decrease real estate values, especially in the larger metropolitan areas of the U.S.—Keith Maio

11.  Other comments worthy of sharing:

a.     Maria Hayley, Director of Arkansas Economic Development Commission we have more inquiries from foreign country companies wanting to expand each year over last four years

b.     Kevin Stephenson – it’s ok to feel good; don’t feel great

c.      Kathy Deck – be thankful; we are less worse

d. On federal debt problem via a panel at the Business Forecast Luncheon – no responses with answers that had meat

All of the above amplifies why regions need public and private sector leadership to develop regional development plans like the one that the Northwest Arkansas Council just released known as the Northwest Arkansas Development Plan.  We all can be thankful for the leadership of this group over the past few decades and each one of us owes it, in our view, a debt of gratitude!  A full copy of that plan can be found at   www.greaternorthwestarkansas.com.  Our regional economy will likely out-perform the U.S. economy in the coming years.  How does this help all of us?  As one example, a region that has an economy with growing median incomes is a region that, over the long run, will have growing median home prices allowing every homeowner to prosper from the leadership of regional leaders usually for work done in a prior decade that is fueling an economy today.  We encourage you to get involved in our region’s development plan supporting the great work of the Northwest Arkansas Council and it’s executive director, CEO Forum II member, Mike Malone!

More on federal debt problem and the category of finance when this report is further updated.  Please contact us at 479-466-2606 or tim@ceoforums.us if you have input or questions about any of the above.

To the 35 members of our CEO Forums, thank you for the opportunity to serve you.  We hope you find this information of value.

We welcome any and all constructive critique to this or any report put forth by the CEO Forum.

CEO Forum Approaches 40 Members – Three Complete CEO Forum Groups

We would like to thank the community of organizational leaders in Northwest Arkansas for your support as we approach membership of 40, our early 2011 goal!

The CEO Forum is a safe environment for leaders to process topics, issues and opportunities important to your success.

Every organizational leader worked hard to get to their current position.  Most of you excelled in your specialty all the way to the top.  Yet all of the skills developed to get to the top don’t always prepare us for how we succeed as the leader of an organization.

Each month, we are amazed at the range and complexity of issues that can come about in organizations.   Given the diversity of issues that come about, we wont always have knowledge or background that allows us to be prepared to effectively deal with a particular issue.

On top of managing against a critical issue is the challenge to develop your direction for your organization, your vision, your mission, your core values and your action steps to take your organization toward healthier success.

And it seems the best leaders are able to juggle all of the above while also leading in a way that “brings the best out in others.”  Wow, executing at all levels is indicative of an incredibly talented leader.

One can see why it is often said that it is “lonely at the top.”

Yet we learn along the way that you learn that you are not alone in dealing with one or two difficult issues every quarter, every year, every cycle and each of us are working hard to better define our strategic path forward.  And about the time we think we have it figured out, it is time to reinvent ourselves.

During the first quarter of 2011, among the CEO Forum membership, we are processing what we have learned from the prior decade and how we will lead differently in the decade to follow.

It’s a new world in this decade with dramatic changes to how we finance ourselves, holding on to our A Players in a difficult economy, figuring out how to increase our value proposition as measured by our customers while finding ways to have healthy free cash flow and profitability.

We will be adding a few more leaders to our CEO Forum membership  before closing our membership for a period so we can focus on serving the members.   If you would like to discuss how you invest in yourself, your leadership team and your company’s future, please contact Tim McFarland at 479-466-2606.

One of the reasons we believe the CEO Forum is so dynamic is that every new member adds richness and value beneficial to all members.

And thank you again to those who have already signed up.  The bulk of our time for the remainder of 2011 will be serving you and work with you to find ways for us to increase our value proposition to you.


As we reflect on the past decade and prepare for the next, what might we have learned from this unique decade that will make us a better leader? How will we intentionally and differently focus our time and resources as we lead / direct our respective organizations? How will we strategically drive our organization in the coming decade? What are the drivers for a successful 2011 and beyond? Have we fully comprehended what adjustments must be made moving forward? These are the questions we will be asking during this month’s CEO Forums.

The decade began with businesses posting revenue increases year after year reflecting strong percentage increases. Our customers also seemed to continue to prosper. Funding to finance our venture’s growth was relatively available as was consumer debt. The value of real estate also posted strong gains and in some markets leaped in value year over year. Even-easier financing became available to finance real estate purchases causing increasing speculation to take place. It certainly appeared to be an opportunity for many to build a relatively large organization and accumulate real estate assets. The degree of leverage had more to do with asset values and less to do with cash flow metrics. There was no buffer for a downturn for many. This period was abruptly interrupted by the Great Recession of 2008 and the painful two years that have followed.

The past 24 months have been a period for leaders that has been more reactionary than anything else. A leader’s mandate was pretty clear: 1. Try to establish at what level revenues had decreased and act to reduce costs to a point that the operation was more financially balanced and unfortunately, do it again if necessary. 2. Deal with the surprises within our cash flow cycles as an alarming number of our customers had difficulty or were unable to pay our accounts receivable balances 3. React to the problems caused by 1 and 2. What a challenging and demanding period for the leader of any organization! If you are still standing, congratulations!

As we reflect on this period and the year ahead of us, we offer to you as an initial draft, three recommendations. We will process these topics within our CEO Forums this month among the 35 CEO’s or Organizational Leaders that participate and from the members’ input, offer an updated version of these recommendations.

It is time to move forward differently as we lead in 2011. These are our recommendations.

1. Lead your organization in a way that is less about the negativity of the Great Recession and is more about how we plan to respond to the new realities of today and together advance the organization forward positively building for the opportunities to advance even further in the years that follow. At this point in the cycle, leaders must carry the burden of the negativity and not allow it to leak unduly into your organization. Yes, we must establish reality and have the understanding that our organizations may not be able to extend pay raises or bonuses as was once more common. And we can consider from their perspective, what we can do to help give their efforts and contributions more meaning. A genuine thank you can go a long way. We can even adjust to this downturn by asking for our co-worker’s input and suggestions on how we process our work better or differently given the new realities of the day. A leader must cushion his team from too much negativity and create a new environment that fits today’s new realities and leads your organization forward in positive ways. It may be a year where the financial gains are modest yet it may also be one of the best performances of your organization ever. As our mentor, Jim Myers, founder of the CEO Forum would say, “stay in the game, it will all come to you!”

2. Reassess who is your target market customer based on their overall financial strength, strength of their business model and their ability to grow. There continues to be a separation between the stronger customers and the rest of your market. The extended period of economic growth represented in the late 90′s and early 2000′s allowed many of us to forgo the time and effort to assess risk among customers and prospects before we took on exposure via extending credit or absorbing the time between purchase or services rendered and payment of the same. This may be a completely new exercise for younger leaders and will become an important new learned skill from this point forward.

3. Work closely with your best customers to make sure you know how they measure the value proposition of your product or service and inquire as to ways that you can increase your value proposition. Based on your best customers’ input, take actions that will increase your value proposition as viewed by them. By increasing your value proposition, you become more competitive in the marketplace and have reduced risk of losing your best customers. At the same time, instead of working with your lower quadrant customer base and risking loss on payment of accounts receivable, you can consider pursuing more boldly new business from that portion of the target market that you do not have as a customer and might have otherwise not been attainable. Parallel to this exercise is one of striving to simplify your “product or service offering” and discontinuing any offering that does not drive a higher value proposition as viewed by your target customers. Often in good times, we expand products and services that complicate our business and don’t produce financial results. Since we likely aren’t scaling them up, we should aggressively consider eliminating them. We then are able to devote time and resources needed to increase our value proposition relative to our core products or services.

May we visit this time next year where you have completed a solid strength building year and your experience of leading during the Great Recession begins to reflect its value of making you a better leader. May your organization be better prepared to respond to the challenges and opportunities that this world of economic uncertainty is sure to present.

As our mentor shared during our initial years of leadership and during a major economic downturn, “Until we have observed a leader operate against adversity, we know not what kind of leader he or she is or can be.”

And to you, we wish a Happy and Prosperous 2011!

If we can be of assistance to you, please contact us at tim@grayrockadvisory.com.

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Checklist: The 20 Most Important Questions In Business

This checklist prepared by forbes.com in a PowerPoint presentation “holds water” as well as any we have seen.  It would be a healthy exercise for any CEO or C- Suite team to evaluate your small to medium size business against each of these 20 Most Important Questions in Business.  The exercise would serve to confirm for you what areas deserve your near term attention and what areas need to be improved upon within your long-range strategic plan.  We hope you find the exercise enlightening and helpful.

You will find the checklist here.

Keeper – Jim Walcott – Sponsored by Northwest Arkansas Business Journal

In the first year of CEO Forum I, Jim Walcott offered this guideline when discussing an optimal role of a board of director, “Head in, fingers out.”

While from time to time, the board of directors may direct other parties to get there fingers into a specific area and report back to the board of directors, categorically, the members of the CEO Forum felt Jim’s guideline was quite valuable.  Accordingly, we are including it here as a Keeper for others to find and consider.

Thanks Jim Walcott!

Jim is CEO of Weldon, Williams & Lick, Fort Smith, AR.