Networking with a higher purpose

0211thrive

New North’s T.H.R.I.V.E. chapters foster business people helping other business people

Story by Cheryl Hentz

We’ve all experienced something like this: We hear about a local restaurant closing its doors and yet, in many cases we’ve never dined there, or worse yet in some instances, we’ve never even heard of it.



That’s exactly what often happened to Sarah A. Schneider, business development specialist with Schenck Business Solutions in Appleton. As she’d learn that another locally-owned restaurant was closing, she’d always feel a little guilty that she’d never been there and, because of that, believed she was – at least in part – a reason for its failure.

“So I gathered four friends together who I knew were very well networked and bounced the idea off them that we would pick a new, locally-owned restaurant every week on the same day, and we would go there for lunch and invite as many people as we knew who could come, in the spirit of supporting the local business owner,” she said.

And thus, in March 2007, was born T.H.R.I.V.E. – an acronym for “Together Helping Restaurants Improve Valuable Exposure.”

THRIVE’s mission is simply to “help locally-owned businesses in Wisconsin Thrive.

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It’s been a win-win for both the business professionals meeting each week and for the restaurants because when you have a group of business people meeting together and networking, business gets done; while at the same time the restaurants benefit from hosting the luncheons through an increase of sales and free advertising from the increased exposure.

“It was never intended to be about us. It was always intended to be about the (restaurant) owner,” said Schneider. “But besides the business being helped, there was an additional benefit being gained through the networking that occurred as a result of everyone showing up to help the business succeed.”

Building a book of business

New business can develop as a result of THRIVE gatherings, said Jim Marks, owner of Fox Cities Sign in Appleton.

“I have met a lot of new people and I have gotten new business off these people I have met,” said Marks. “In fact, I have gotten three really good customers this past year alone just from people coming to a THRIVE lunch and passing their cards around.”

Clint Compton, business development manager for Budget Blinds, has also attained a number of new clients, either directly or indirectly, through THRIVE networking. And while he said it’s great to see people you know as well as meet new business professionals and make those connections, he enjoys having the opportunity to experience restaurants he probably never would have thought of going to otherwise.

“In a lot of cases you’ve maybe never heard of them, or they’re at the other end of town, or like so many people, you may just be stuck in a routine,” he said. “You know, typically, once someone starts going to a few places, those are the ones they keep going back to. But this gives you a chance to break out of that habit.”

In addition to some of the New North’s “best kept secrets” being supported by local business professionals and the networking occurring among lunch attendees, the THRIVE concept itself is now thriving.

Not only are there more people inquiring about and showing up at many of the weekly lunches, but since the inception of the Appleton group nearly four years ago, THRIVE chapters have also started in Oshkosh, Green Bay/De Pere, Fond du Lac and Wausau. Business communities in other states are also finding them through social media and contacting Schneider for information on how to start similar networks in their neighborhoods.

Laid back approach

Its very “structure,” if you will, is believed to be a big reason for its success. THRIVE events have no formal program and remain simple so that participants can come and go as they please. Nor are there any formal membership or attendance requirements. You don’t even need an invitation to attend and no attendees need to make a speech. They just hand out business cards to others as they see fit.

There are no dues or membership fees to “join,” or other hidden strings. There are no expectations and the organization doesn’t have staff, formal bylaws, exclusivity clauses, obligations or a formal board of directors. All one has to do is show up for lunch and support the restaurant. And if an attendee can’t stay long, they might order something to go and visit with others while their meal is prepared. The only expense is the cost of a meal, said Schneider.

“Some people just show up for the networking, and that’s great too,” she said.

There’s no hard requirement for the restaurants either. No special menu is required as the group orders off the menu, nor do they have to rearrange tables to accommodate a large group. The restaurant just has to be able to accommodate perhaps as many as 45 people trickling in between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for lunch, seating them at tables close to one another, and providing individual checks for each person.

Branching out

Rick Steeber, the member development associate with the De Pere Area Chamber of Commerce, attended some of the Fox Cities chapter lunches, but couldn’t always make the event. So he decided to help start a chapter in Green Bay and De Pere. That way, too, he thought, their group could give the same kind of exposure to area restaurants that weren’t perhaps as well known.

“It’s more of a relationship-building networking kind of thing than anything else. It’s not like a BNI or chamber group. I’m not putting those down, but they do require certain things, which we don’t in THRIVE,” he said.

“We just meet with people we know and many we don’t know, have lunch, and chat with each other. It’s an easier way to meet people and kind of build up a little rapport without having to listen to speeches and so forth at every meeting or whatever.”

Krista Williams, a relocation consultant for Schroeder Moving Systems, Inc. in Appleton and an organizer of the Fond du Lac chapter of THRIVE agreed, indicating it’s not just about connecting with each other, but helping others connect with each other, too.

“It’s real common for a business owner to come to THRIVE and say ‘Hey, I’m having an issue with such and such,’ or ‘Do you guys know how to handle such and such,’ whatever it may be, and this gives them a place to bounce ideas off people,” Williams said. “And we either try to give them a solution or give them a connection in the community who can maybe help them.”

Schneider hopes THRIVE serves as that kind of resource for the restaurants, too.

“I’d like to think that the restaurant owners themselves would look to us as a resource for their own business needs 
because of our support of them,” she said, adding that the development of new relationships and opportunities to connect with people is important. “And that kind of awareness, that kind of exposure and visibility is, I think, invaluable to our respective employers.”

Amy Dunbar, accounts manager for Little Chute-based Airfire Mobile and one of the organizers of the Green Bay/De Pere chapter, acknowledged she isn’t sure her business itself has grown yet as a result of her involvement in THRIVE, but is excited to be a part of the organization.

“I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping the community, which impacts me directly because the more my community thrives, the more I thrive,” she said.

Information regarding when and where each chapter meets can be found online at www.thrivelunch.com. Additional promotion of THRIVE events is shared through Evites, Linked In and other social media sites, as well as by word of mouth.

“It really has sort of taken on a personality of its own,” Schneider said. “People tell people, and whenever you have a good thing that doesn’t have any strings attached to it, it catches on.”

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at cheryl.hentz@gmail.com.