You may never have heard of her, but Joan McCarthy nevertheless might just have a pretty good fix on you. As a business owner, she's more Howard's End than Wall Street. She makes her living not by pitching her services over lunch but by arranging the breakfast or lunch meeting itself, taking the last available seat at board meetings or monthly public events. You might, in fact, notice her only when she accepts your money at the door or unobtrusively switches off an air-conditioner that threatens to drown out the speaker.
Hers is the ultimate behind-the-scenes presence, and yet Joan McCarthy has come to be something of a walking nerve center for much of Cleveland's business and entrepreneurial community. Through her company, MJM Services, she and a staff of five administer the back-office functions of no fewer than 29 nonprofit professional and alumni groups. They include local chapters of arguably the country's three top business schools-Harvard, Wharton and Stanford-as well as general graduates of Princeton, Harvard and Yale. Her clients also include groups composed of fund-raising execs, venture capitalists and insurance agents-with a couple of medical specialists' groups thrown in.
From that central position, her operation functions as an unofficial scheduling clearinghouse for events and speakers, as well as the guardian of a vast database of movers and shakers in business and the professions.
MJM maintains membership mailing lists, publishes meeting notices and tends to the physical arrangements of board meetings and public events. It pays bills and balances the books for client organizations. It recommends appropriate speakers and meeting sites. "We keep track-of people, money, addresses and reservations," McCarthy says.
But her biggest value-added service, she says, is her ability to offer client organizations consistent membership service from one slate of volunteer officers to the next. Leaders, in turn, "are more willing to take on an officer role, because they know they won't be burdened by putting stickers on envelopes once a month."
Her plunge into association management began 15 years ago with the Harvard Business School Club, whose local chapter bills itself as one of the largest in the world. Clubs in Boston and New York have more members, says Morganthaler Venture partner Bob Pavey, a longtime board member, "but they [Harvard] tell us that we have the highest penetration of MBAs of any club in the world." McCarthy was an accountant working on the support staff of an insurance agency in 1983 when a friend mentioned the club's administrator was retiring. Rather than recommend a replacement, she took the assignment herself, part-time at first.
By 1987, with the Princeton Club and the Association for Corporate Growth having joined her fold, she opened an office downtown. She didn't even have a computer at first, and grew only by referral. It didn't hurt that she shared office space with a well-connected Cleveland business lion, Bob Ginn. To this day, the retired former chairman of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., still a fixture at the Union Club well into his 70s, plugs McCarthy's operation every chance he gets. "We affectionately refer to him as our marketing arm, because he's always encouraging people to work with us," she says.
In retrospect, her timing was excellent. The wave of corporate downsizing that began in the 1980s left many business and professional volunteers with fewer staff at their primary office to handle outside tasks, thus helping create her niche. "I'm not sure the market was really there prior to 1987," she says. "Prior to that, the kinds of things we do were handed off by the officers to their secretaries."
But some also suspect that McCarthy is a cannier businessperson than her reserved nature might suggest. Her friend Kevin O'Donnell, the retired chairman of Sifco Industries, and a Harvard Business School graduate, needles her when he bumps into her one evening at dinner. "I think she attended all those meetings of the Harvard Business School and stole all their ideas," he says.
John Dick, a principal in Primus Venture Partners and the new president of the H.B.S. Club of Northeastern Ohio, readily concedes that "without Joan, we'd die. She's been organizing Harvard Business School Club events and doing our accounting forever. She attends all the events and knows all the traditions. And as guys like me pass through [the leadership ranks], I lean heavily on her. She's kind of a treasure-trove of what's going on, not only in Northeast Ohio, but nationally. And she's a big help, whether it's trying to get ahold of a CEO or a venture capitalist. She knows them all."
The single, 50ish McCarthy indeed knows an astounding number of people. She is not someone with whom to casually match wits in a game of do-you-know...? That's a function of the breadth of her client base and, she maintains, a hallmark of her large westside-Irish family. She also reads everything she can get her hands on to keep up with job changes and relocations. "We rarely go into a situation where we don't know someone," she says.
But her discipline has also helped her flourish. Rather than responding to every potential client interested in outsourcing its back-office support function, she's remained exceptionally choosy about the organizations she'll accept as clients and the types of tasks she'll perform. "We don't do trade associations-only professional associations and alumni groups," she says. She turns down one-time events in favor of long-term contracts, thereby avoiding constant rebidding. And she doesn't do parties. "Please don't portray us as being party-planners," she pleads. "There are people who think we cater." While she gets the occasional inquiry about planning the wedding of a client's daughter, she diplomatically declines. "I'll be glad to sit down for a half-hour and give somebody some suggestions. But I'm not in the wedding-planning or party-planning business," she says.
Her staff is organized along account-executive lines, with each retaining prime responsibility for about a half-dozen clients. McCarthy keeps primary watch over Harvard and Wharton School alums, the Ohio Venture Association, the Association for Corporate Growth and Town Hall series. During peak seasons, generally early April to mid-May and early October through Thanksgiving, her staff might be planning and overseeing as many as 17 or 18 events each week. "You have to be good with people, detail-oriented and fairly unflappable."
She estimates the combined membership of her clients between 50,000 and 70,000, though with plenty of overlap-people who hold a graduate degree from one institution and an undergrad diploma from another, and who also belong to a couple of professional groups. Her wariness on the telephone suggests that she understands only too well how valuable these lists might be to salespeople (including members of a client, the Northern Ohio Direct Marketing Association). She remains on high alert, ever-vigilant for cunning poachers eager to cadge a gold-plated list. "I guard them with my life. I have a sixth sense about that kind of thing," she says.
Her computer system is arranged so as to avoid mixing the various membership lists, and she will release none without written authorization from the president of the organization. "That's not their rule, it's mine," she says. "From an integrity standpoint, there can't be even the appearance of impropriety, or my reputation is gone."
Like all successful owners, McCarthy keeps a sharp eye on cash flow-only in her case, it's more that of her clients than her own. She recently fielded a call from someone who's a member of several of her client organizations. I've got a thousand dollars of bills for membership sitting here, he told her in mock horror.
"I said, 'start writing checks.'"