Meetings of the Minds
YPO Provides a Unique Forum for Business Leaders
Tyler Young was looking for what he called a “second opinion” — actually, several of them.
The president of East Longmeadow-based W.F. Young Inc., distributors of Absorbine Junior and a host of other health products for people and animals, Young, now 48, was considering an acquisition that would supplement the animal-care side of the operation.
He had his own thoughts about whether to proceed, but decided that before making a move of this magnitude he should first bounce the idea off fellow members of the Berkshire chapter of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO).
This is a nonprofit group of young business leaders — one must be under 45 when joining and can’t stay past 55, although they can join what amounts to a graduate organization — that currently boasts roughly 11,000 members and 25,000 alumni in more than 100 countries. For this exercise, though, Young was focused on feedback from the other 10 members of his ‘forum,’ one of several smaller groups within that Berkshire chapter that meet monthly.
These individuals essentially convinced him that this was one of those deals that would be good because it didn’t get done.
“They helped me look at the pros and cons, and the hidden issues that might trip you up during the negotiations,” Young said of his fellow forum members. “Having that second look, having that input, really helped.”
Elaborating, he said that lawyers and accountants tend to look at business deals purely from the standpoint of numbers and whether they work or not. YPOers, as they’re called, go beyond the math and look at the individual and whether the deal works for him or her. “Sometimes, you have to look at the whole person, where they are in their life, where’s the balance in their life, and how much appetite they have for change,” he said. “There are issues that become more personal than business that YPOers can supplement, because they get to know you on a very intimate and personal basis.”
Just about every member of the Berkshire chapter can relate a story similar to Young’s — and with issues that go well beyond the day-to-day operation of a business.
Peter Picknelly, 48, third-generation president of Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines, told BusinessWest that he turned to members of his forum for help in deciding whether to make a major acquisition of several bus lines a few years ago — he eventually went ahead with that deal and has no regrets. But he’s also used that group as a sounding board on many personal issues that collectively speak to the daunting challenge of balancing life and work.
“I think most people think of YPO as a strictly business organization,” he said. “And while there are great business aspects to it, and I absolutely believe I’m a better business person because of my association with it, just as importantly, I am absolutely a better father and a better husband as a result of my association with YPO.”
There are several elements to the YPO experience, including the forums, monthly chapter meetings, national and international conventions, retreats that often involve spouses and children, and something called the YPO Member Exchange, or M2Mx. This is a confidential, member-driven referral service that helps members tackle issues large and small, personal and professional.
“It’s just an unbelievable resource,” said Rocco Falcone, president of Rocky’s Ace Hardware and longtime YPO member, who said the forum has helped him grow his business — while also providing rewarding opportunities to enable others to do the same.
In this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at YPO and how it goes about meeting its mission — creating “better leaders through education and idea exchange.”
Follow the Leaders
Like most YPOers around the globe, members of the Berkshire chapter are well-traveled, and they can drop some names.
They’ve been to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) headquarters in Colorado to see how that operation monitors the airspace over the U.S. and Canada. They’ve also visited Lime Rock in Connecticut, where they were put behind the wheel of a race car for a few spins around the track at over 100 miles per hour. They’ve been to Mohegan Sun to see, among other things, how casinos track cheats across the country, to Baystate Medical Center to observe open heart surgery, and to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to learn about new research and techniques.
Meanwhile, at the chapter or network level, they’ve heard talks from Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Jack Welch, F. Lee Bailey, and even Dr. Ruth, who, recalls Picknelly, talked about “different things” in an address to members and their spouses.
Young told BusinessWest that YPO has unique access to military operations and installations, and that there have been many field trips over the years at which participants learned not only how equipment works, but also how the military functions organizationally, with the goal of taking some lessons back to the office or factory.
“We’ve been to Westover to do flight simulations,” he explained. “When we can, we drive tanks, shoot guns, go on aircraft carriers — anything that will take us behind the scenes to learn how something is managed.”
These junkets and speeches are made possible by YPO’s clout and connections (as well as the financial wherewithal of its members), and are just part of the way YPO goes about making members into better business people, and simply better people.
Much of this learning goes on at those forum meetings, said Picknelly, noting that he joined YPO 13 years ago, when he was only 35. He told BusinessWest that he joined for the same reason most do — the opportunity to tap into a wealth of knowledge possessed by people who speak the same language, figuratively speaking, and to get some support with matters on both sides of the work/life balance equation.
“The only mentor I ever had in my life was my dad,” he explained, referring to Peter L. Picknelly, who greatly expanded the bus company and later became involved in a number of real estate ventures, including the acquisition of Monarch Place. “But he was fairly one-dimensional — he was all business. I figured out early on in my career that I wasn’t my dad, and didn’t try to duplicate what he did; YPO helped me establish my own self and the balance I want to have. Being a good father and husband is as important to me as being a good, solid businessman.”
This is what Ray Hickok had in mind when he started YPO nearly 60 years ago.
Hickok was just 28 when he was given the reins of his family’s business, Hickok Belts, after the death of his father in 1945. At that time, there were few people that age leading companies of such size, and Hickok, upon meeting and talking with individuals in similar situations, recognized the need for an organization that would serve as a support network. He created the first YPO chapter in New York, with 20 members, in 1950.
Over the years, YPO has evolved — the forum, as an established component of the organization, was created in 1975 — and expanded into a national and international entity now boasting 300 chapters worldwide. Last year, YPO merged with its graduate association, the World Presidents Organization (WPO), to become the world’s largest global network of business leaders.
Membership guidelines make this a fairly exclusive group. Beyond the age restrictions, members must lead companies with at least 50 full-time employees and $8 million in annual revenues (financial institutions must have annual assets of at least $160 million). And while the name says Young Presidents, other titles are acceptable — ‘chairman,’ ‘CEO,’ ‘publisher,’ ‘managing director,’ and ‘managing partner’ will do — as long as the person in question is in charge.
This combination of rank, young age, and significant business size (at least for this chapter’s geographic coverage area) certainly limits the field of candidates for membership, said Picknelly, who believes that most everyone in the Greater Springfield area who would qualify is either a member or has made a conscious decision not to become one.
But there are some others from within the wide coverage area — which includes Western New Hampshire, all of Vermont, Western Mass., and parts of Eastern New York — who could join.
And they should, said Larry Eagan, 47 president of Collins Electric in Chicopee, because there is a good amount of truth to that old adage about it being lonely at the top.
YPO makes it less so, he told BusinessWest, by providing some collective knowledge and insight that simply can’t be found anywhere else.
“It can be lonely being the president or chairman of a company if you have some issues you can’t talk about with employees, or family, especially if it’s a family business, or just your lawyer and accountant,” said Eagan, who joined YPO at age 44 after realizing he was in a ‘now or never’ situation with regard to membership and would likely regret ‘never.’ “YPO provides a way for people to open up and talk about pressures and issues when they really have no one else to turn to.
“Then, you find out that other people are facing these same issues, and that’s comforting,” he continued. “You say, ‘OK, I’m not alone with some of my frustrations.’”
Picknelly agreed, noting that consultants are expensive, and often provide advice that suits them and their contracts, but not the company, while lawyers and accountants are driven mostly by numbers. “There’s a place for those people,” he said. “But with YPOers … they’ve been in the trenches, they’ve done it, and that’s how they can provide solid advice.”
Such advice often comes during the forums, at which members will discuss matters involving work and life — everything from mergers and acquisitions to dealing with teenagers — and then hear a formal presentation from a member who has been coached in advance to make sure that the program in question is relevant and worthy of the group’s time and energy. Sometimes, the presentation takes the form of Young’s overview of his potential acquisition and request for advice and whether and how to proceed, but other times it can be an informative program on subjects ranging from weight loss to caring for an aging parent to career choices for members’ children.
Falcone described his forum group (the same as Picknelly’s) as a “personal board of directors,” while Young said it was a place to talk about “anything that keeps you up at night.”
Such references show how effective the sessions are at providing insight for businesses decisions, but also “getting to the person,” as Young put it.
“There are a lot of business associations and industry groups that get together and talk strictly business,” he explained. “We spend a lot of time getting to the personal side of someone, meaning their family and their personal life issues, so we know the total life balance of an individual when they’re facing an issue, and we come at it from a couple of different angles, so it’s not just nuts and bolts on the business side.”
Al Kasper, 51, current president of the Berkshire chapter, is part of a minority among YPO members — those who are not part of family businesses, but are instead ‘hired guns,’ which in his case is in appropriate term because he’s president and COO of Westfield-based Savage Arms Corp., a maker of sporting rifles, among other products.
He said his situation is different from that of other members (usually business owners) because he’s accountable to a superior, which means that he doesn’t have the same freedom to come and go (to YPO events, for example) as they do. He also believes he’s under perhaps more pressure to grow the business, because it’s not his business.
“There’s a different dynamic — I have a boss, and I have to answer to him,” he explained, adding that YPO and his forum group have helped him better handle his relationship with his boss and, in the process, move the company forward. “I didn’t know anything about YPO when I first joined — and I wish I had known a few years earlier.”
Falcone said that another key element of YPO is the networking opportunities it presents. Through the meetings, conventions, retreats, and especially the exchange, members can tap into the collective knowledge and clout of the entire organization.
“The resources and the contacts you can have are phenomenal,” he explained. “If you reach out to another YPOer, 99% of the time they’re going to return your phone call in a day. If you have a challenge, an issue, or just want to make a contact, there are people you can turn to.”
This is made possible by something called the ‘inventory of skills,’ that each individual fills out when they become a member. A database lists the skills and special interests of each member, along with contact information.
Over the years, Falcone has been of assistance to individuals on matters concerning retail, franchising, and other matters, and he credits the exchange with helping him secure Benjamin Moore paints for some of his stores. “I got in touch with a guy who’s president of a company that makes color chips, including some for Ben Moore. He put me in touch with some people at the company and helped get the ball rolling. We don’t have it all our stores, but we managed to get it in some.”
Overall, Falcone said his YPO experience has made him a better manager, by helping him find balance and, as the saying goes, “work on his business, not in his business.”
Knowledge is Power
Picknelly said the true value of YPO can perhaps best be seen in the attendance records for his forum.
Over the past 13 years, he’s missed one session due to the birth of a child, and another member missed one due to the death of his father. “These are 11 guys who are really busy people, but they show up every month, because they always take something away from these meetings,” he said.
Young agreed, and stressed again that the group’s work goes well beyond business and profits.
“This is not a private club where we sit around and talk about how to make more money,” he explained. “We’re broadening ourselves beyond the scope of our business; we’re building our family and our community.”
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]