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Gathering ‘round the table


It’s just after 8 a.m. at Polk County Bank in Johnston. Seated in folding chairs pulled up to the lobby’s fireplace, a couple dozen small business owners take turns shooting questions at Connie Lawrance, who has just finished telling them how her company is developing new markets for its goat cheese and milk products in Iowa.

Welcome to the monthly meeting of the Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable, an informal forum for small business owners to share ideas and network. Formed two years ago by local marketing consultants Chuck and Joanne Kuster and Polk County Bank President Bob Miller, the bank-hosted events have proved to be a popular tool for entrepreneurs.

Typically, attendance averages about 25 people, though some topics have attracted more than 50, said Joanne Kuster, co-owner of Kuster Ltd.

“It’s about 50 percent returning, 50 percent new,” she said. “People come because they’re interested in the topic, because it fits into their schedule that day. Entrepreneurs are a very flexible crowd.”

Participants also get ready access to Miller and the rest of his institution’s business bankers in a “non-threatening environment” where they won’t get a high-pressure sales pitch, Miller said.

“We like doing business with small business people,” said Miller, who is a third- generation banker. “Dealing with a community bank gives them a chance to have more of a relationship, whereas sometimes with bigger organizations they get frustrated in having to reinvent that relationship with new people too often.”

The Kusters, who provide marketing services to Polk County Bank, suggested launching the free programs in 2003 to commemorate the institution’s centennial.

“Joanne and I have been involved in the entrepreneurial realm for a number of years,” Chuck Kuster said. “So it was a natural idea when we sat down to talk about how Polk County Bank could really differentiate itself. We knew there were a lot of entrepreneurs who were looking for a chance to do some networking and learning among themselves.”

Many of the topics that have been covered at the Roundtable events, from Web site design to income tax updates, were suggested by business owners at the initial meeting, Kuster said. Experience in conducting the meetings has led them to adopt an informal, conversational format, he said.

“We found the more informal sit-downs by the fireplace work well,” he said. “People are more willing to come in and share (as presenters), rather than feeling they have to spend a half-day preparing. And I just think it’s more interactive when it’s less formal.”

Among the first-time participants at the Jan. 28 meeting was Alan Anderson, who a year and a half ago opened Humitech of Iowa, a franchisee of Texas-based Humitech International Group Inc. that sells humidity-control systems.

“I came really for both networking and learning,” said Anderson, who heard about the meeting through a friend who also operates a small business. “It sounded like the speaker would fit right along with my business, and that there would be some people there I ought to meet.”

From a presenter’s perspective, getting exposure to interested local business owners is valuable, said Lawrance, whose Northern Prairie Chevre LLC, a farm-based cheese business located north of Woodward, is in its fifth year of operation.

“You need to take advantage of every opportunity,” Lawrance said. “You never know who you’re meeting. Sharing information, I think that’s one of the more valuable tools. We started out networking with Practical Farmers of Iowa, networking with them and learning about different marketing opportunities. That’s how we really got started — networking with people.”

Rather than having its regular morning meeting this month, the Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable will have a special Business Makeover event on Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. at the Hyperion Field Club, 7390 N.W. Beaver Drive, Johnston.

The Entrepreneurs’ Roundtable normally meets the last Friday of each month, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at Polk County Bank, 5601 Merle Hay Road. Those interested in attending any meeting should RSVP by calling Carolyn Jones at 278-6300.


The Iowa Small Business Development Centers are looking for a few chief executives who are serious about expanding their companies.

In what’s designed to be a pilot for a statewide program, the Iowa SBDC plans to assemble a group of 10 to 12 CEOs from Central Iowa companies to participate in a CEO roundtable. The peer networking group, which will begin this spring, will be offered through a cooperative agreement with the Edward Lowe Foundation, a Michigan-based non-profit organization that assists established established entrepreneurial companies and organizations that serve them.

“The research shows that CEOs want to talk to other CEOs,” said Lars Peterson, associate state director of the Iowa SBDC. “We’re basing more and more of our offerings around companies that want to grow, and this is one way that we’re doing that.”

Companies with revenues between $750,000 and $50 million are eligible to apply for the series of 10 monthly half-day sessions, which will be facilitated by Peterson and Iowa SBDC State Director John Ryan. Fees for the initial course have not been finalized, but will probably be between $350 and $500 per person, he said.

“We feel very confident there is a market, but people need to see how it works and then it expands from there,” Peterson said.

For more information, contact Peterson at the Iowa SBDC state administrative headquarters in Ames at (515) 440-1626.

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