Business Lessons: A Group of Business Owners Share Their Success Stories
Aileron founder Clay Mathile says entrepreneurs perform the most noble acts in a free society by putting their capital at risk to create jobs for others. The organization’s mission is to help those people realize their vision by developing a plan.
Aileron will spend this year preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2016. Although it is an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the achievements of what began as the Center Entrepreneurial Education, president Joni Fedders is focused on the changes that will define the next 20 years and beyond.
“We started very program oriented,” Fedders says. “Come to a course, we would give you an advisor, and for a couple of hours afterward you could talk. That was way back at the beginning.”
The beginning of Aileron was an idea in the mind of Clay Mathile, who built the Iams pet food company from a small family business in Dayton into an international giant before selling it to Procter & Gamble in 1999 for $2.3 billion.
Mathile credited the concept of professional management for his success and set out to share what he had learned. That led to programs in the cafeteria of Iams where the DOC model was developed. That consists of three fundamentals: Direction, Operation, Control, and six disciplines grouped underneath – Leadership, Strategy, People Development, Business Structure, Performance Management and Culture.
The center offered programs related to those topics, including the flagship Course for Presidents that was introduced in 2001. In 2003, Fedders was hired as the first full-time employee, charged with building an organization that would help entrepreneurs for generations to come. In 2005, the name was changed to Aileron, which is the part of an airplane’s wing that helps guide the craft. That same year, ground was broken on the company’s architecturally magnificent campus in southern Miami County, just north of I-70, which opened in 2008.
That is an impressive list of accomplishments, certainly something to be proud of. But what truly excites Fedders and others members of the staff and the nonprofit organization’s clients are the possibilities.
“We have been operating off of this very high-level (DOC) model and it really resonates with people,” Fedders says. “(But) we needed to learn how to become a learning and development organization: how do you transfer all of this knowledge that we are exposed to through our business owners about what’s working, what’s not working.”
One of the beauties of Aileron’s mission is its interactivity. Clients who sign up for programs bring as much to the table as they learn from the sessions.
The organization has tapped into that real-world knowledge for new programs such as Tool Talks. A small group (no more than 10) meets for a short time (no more than 90 minutes) on a single topic that falls under the umbrella of the six disciplines. A peer presenter (client or staff member) shares a tool (technique or solution), then the group adds its input during a wide-ranging discussion.
Tool Talks and other sessions like it are moving away from what Scott George calls, “the sage on the stage to a guide on the side. It’s not about having that thought leader or one person who knows everything just imparting their wisdom.”
George joined Aileron 2½ years ago as director of research and product development.
“As I pulled in here, I looked across our product line and there are a lot of services that are one-on-one, delivered by our business advisors to an individual owner or organization,” he says. “We had a few that I would say were more scalable for multiple organizations that could be delivered by multiple people, but not a lot.”
George, like Fedders, is a former Iams employee who was familiar with Aileron before he joined. His background is in learning and development, so he’s involved in building the competency model that helps measure each client’s needs and match those to programs and services offered, plus an expanded delivery system for those resources.
“We’ve spent four years developing a competency model (to measure a client’s effectiveness),” Fedders says. “The second part of that is how do we use technology to enable that sharing of peer conversations or searching resources or being able to identify where you are (in the program) or whatever it takes to become a much more multi-faceted provider.
“We want to become part of people’s work week. This shouldn’t be just a mountaintop experience where you come for a day a year. It should be, ‘I need this tool,’ or ‘I’m struggling with this.’ I hope you can go on a forum and find how other people are doing it or get another idea from another business owner.”
The professional management concept is based on the fact that business owners have common problems no matter their line of work. After Seth Angle bought out his partners to become the sole owner of Force Design in Covington, Ohio, he knew he needed to learn about running a business. He was an engineer.
“During the president’s course, you take an assessment,” Angle says. “We completely flunked that. We didn’t have a vision, a mission or any of that. So for me, it was starting clear back and asking, ‘Why are we doing what we’re doing? What do I want out of it? Why is this important to me?’ ”
The answers to those questions are also likely to be common to any business owner, but Angle’s assessment was tailored to his company. As George and his team drill deeper into each client’s competency, he can make the solutions more specific.
“We can get really scientific about these inter-relationships,” he says. “You might have these four issues and I can work on this one that only impacts one of them, or I can work on this one that impacts three of them.
“This will be easier to see as we get data to see what people work on and how they improve. But just completing a program won’t raise their level of competence; now (they) have the knowledge and (they) have to put it into practice.”
This is the key to the system. Aileron can provide the map for business owners to implement professional management. Its track record shows companies that are able to utilize its techniques will be more successful. But it’s the clients who have to do the heavy lifting on a daily basis.
“(Running a business) is overwhelming,” Fedders says. “I think when a lot of people come in here, the DOC model gives them a structure to say, ‘OK, this helps me get an understanding of what all the pieces are, and I can focus in one area and start to build that part of it.
“All of these people are used to working hard. As Clay used to say, ‘An entrepreneur is somebody who is willing to work 16 hours a day to avoid working 8 hours a day for somebody else.’ ”
As technology connected people across long distances, it was inevitable that Aileron’s message would travel beyond the Miami Valley. And while local clients describe visits to the campus in almost mystical terms, the organization’s reach has expanded across the country.
Reaching those people is a priority.
“Right now, 40% of our clients are from around the country,” Fedders says. “Our business advisors are very tech savvy so they can do Uber calls or Skype calls or conference calls. We’re serving them; sometimes they come here for meetings, sometimes we go there.
“Before this campus existed, we operated for 10 years in a (basement cafeteria) and had the same emotion. The campus … gave us credibility in a bigger marketplace. Dayton people got it, but other people discovered, ‘These people are serious.’ I think online technology can enhance that and how we roll it out can enhance it.”
It can be a fool’s errand to predict the future. But it’s likely that there will always be people willing to bet that they have a good idea for a business. And it’s a lock that the folks at Aileron will be there to help them succeed.