Community networking Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

How a business owner spends free time outside the office can be just as important as sales calls and conferences that take place during the workday. Networking opportunities provide an outlet for corporate leaders and employees to mingle with business peers, government officials, political figures and other local decision-makers.

“Networking is an ongoing commitment to your business,” says Craig Johnson, president and CEO of Franklin Bank, Southfield. “It is not a one-time deal. Networking must be part of your business plan, and you are not always going to see immediate results.”

Smart Business asked Johnson why involvement in a variety of networking organizations is beneficial for companies and how to make the most of these experiences.

What types of networking opportunities exist for business owners?

There are various community-oriented organizations that rely on the support and involvement of businesses. When business leaders step up to the plate and participate in a group like the chamber of commerce, the message they send is one of commitment to the region and its welfare. There are various types of networking organizations, and each provides a different opportunity to improve community relations, meet business peers or gain new clients and vendors. Each region has community organizations like a chamber of commerce, trade associations and small group networking clubs with diverse membership. Each attracts a different population of members, so ‘layering’ involvement by choosing a group that falls into each of these categories will expose business owners to the most opportunities. Trade associations are great venues for meeting industry peers and potential customers while networking clubs generally involve professionals in different disciplines, such as real estate, banking, accounting, etc.

Where should a business owner start?

First, business owners should define their goals, and these ought to be broad based. Because each type of networking organization focuses on different objectives and attracts different members, checking out different groups is a wise strategy. If the goal is to attract new clients, the most targeted way to do this is to network at industry events or attend trade shows. As a bank, we attend an annual conference for title companies, financial institutions, insurance companies and conduits. Our goal at this conference is specific: to gain new business. On the other hand, we are also involved in the chamber of commerce. Through this organization, I have developed relationships with executives in the community, many of whom may not need my services. However, over time, these friendships grow stronger and so does the likelihood that a fellow member will refer our bank to another friend or colleague. Like anything, the time and effort you dedicate to these community groups will determine the benefits gained from involvement.

Why should an owner encourage employees to network in the community, as well?

There is a lot of truth to the phrase ‘strength in numbers.’ When many employees from a company give their time to an organization, people begin to notice. This applies to volunteering for nonprofit causes, attending trade meetings, participating in civic groups and joining smaller networking clubs. In fact, several of our employees attend networking luncheons on a monthly basis where they trade referrals with professionals in different industries. We encourage everyone to reach out to the community.

Actually, we apply the same philosophy to community involvement as we do to how we call on prospective clients. For example, we do not assign a single associate to call on every real estate agent at a firm. Instead, many of our loan officers make individual calls to different real estate agents at the same firm. Real estate agents notice that our bank is prominent at their business. The real estate agents who don’t do business with us wonder whether they should follow the lead of their colleagues.

The same effect takes place when a company’s employees together decide to get involved in an organization. Before long, its members realize that this business is interested in what goes on outside corporate headquarters. Word-of-mouth is a powerful thing.

Where can business owners start if they want to tap into networking opportunities outside the office?

Chambers of commerce are great places to start. Generally, these groups arrange mixers, programs and meetings focused on many areas of interest. Another venue to explore is special-interest groups like Young Professionals in Finance or Young Entrepreneurs — similar organizations that target a specialty. The key is for business owners to choose groups that interest them. Because networking requires a commitment of time and regular meeting attendance, a sincere interest in the cause is essential. Set goals, define your interests and explore various community options.

CRAIG JOHNSON is president and CEO of Franklin Bank in Southfield. Reach him at clj@franklinbank.com or (248) 358-6459.