Each person has just 30 seconds to pitch their company's merits, describe the kind of customer referral they want or grab the room's attention.
Personal trainer Alexandra Kusturiss chooses Option 3.
"Would you do this presentation in your bikini?" she asks the 45 members of her group, inciting a round of laughter.
Kusturiss made her point — her training regimen could pay off in a better body and higher confidence. Better yet, she made a lasting impression that could help win her one or two or three pieces of business. Or, in the lingo of her group, a TYFCB (Thank You For Closed Business) moment.
Welcome to the weekly morning meeting of BNI Collaborators, a.k.a. the South Tampa chapter of Business Network International.
There's typical networking — an after-hours social; perhaps a breakfast speech sponsored by an area chamber. For networking on steroids, however, think of BNI.
An international networking group founded 26 years ago, BNI has hit its stride in the Tampa Bay area in tandem with the Great Recession. Since December 2007, membership in the BNI West Central Florida franchise has increased 58 percent and revenue from referrals among members has more than doubled to $50 million.
Todd Allen, who runs a Brandon mortgage brokerage called Golden Rule Financial, said small-business owners like himself flocked to BNI because they were desperate for referrals during the recession.
"As the economy got weaker, BNI got stronger," said Allen, a six-year member of the organization. "It became a great platform for businesses to grow."
For Allen, BNI referrals have paid off to the tune of $80,000 to $100,0000 a year the past several years. It was enough money to sustain his mortgage brokerage — and keep him from laying off anyone in his staff of 10 — at a time many of his competitors in the shell-shocked real estate industry were closing shop.
An enticing payoff
BNI offers training and networking classes in 45 countries, but it's the chapters within the organization that are at its heart.
Tom Fleming acquired the BNI West Central Florida franchise in late 2002, starting with a single chapter of 13 members. His franchise now includes 40 chapters with more than 1,600 members. Fleming won't disclose total franchise costs or profitability, but he said he pays up to 50 BNI members to serve additional roles as directors and trainers.
The price for entry isn't cheap: $365 a year in dues, plus multiple training classes and a commitment to be active in a chapter and attend weekly meetings. Each member has to attend a 2 1/2-hour introductory training class and 10 hours of additional training annually at a cost of $40 for each 2 1/2-hour session. So after the first year, mandatory training and dues total $525, not including advanced training.
But the payoff can be enticing: Tampa Bay members averaged just under $30,000 apiece from BNI referrals last year, Fleming said. That includes direct referrals from fellow chapter members and indirect referrals, when another member arranges for a successful contact with someone else, say a neighbor or friend.
Each BNI group typically consists of about 40 to 60 members in different professions.
Among the stringent rules is that attendance is critical. If a member can't make a meeting, a substitute is supposed to attend.
With its highly regimented structure of pushing referrals, tracking referrals and tracking relationships, BNI isn't for everyone.
The organization has taken its share of knocks in cyberspace: Critics have said it requires cultlike devotion and there's pressure to buy from other members. Others say results can vary widely, depending on the particular chapter you happen to join and the strength of your chapter leaders.
But does it work?
Kenney Palmer, a Tampa computer salesman who counts on BNI contacts for up to 35 percent of his business, is a believer.
So is Tiffanie Kellog, the 32-year-old owner of an embroidery and screen printing business in Lutz called Thread Art.
"We've made hundreds of thousands of dollars because of our membership," Kellog said, calculating that BNI contacts have accounted for 70 to 90 percent of her business since she joined in 2005. Her company has provided embroidered shirts for office functions for fellow BNI members, shopping bags for expos, even logo-emblazoned towels, sunscreen and flip-flops for one company's beach party.
"I was spending 80 percent of my week cold-calling before I got into BNI," she said. "Within a year, I was able to stop cold-calling and I was making more money."
Fleming acknowledges that like any networking concept, results are dictated by what you put into it as well as finding a chapter that you're comfortable with. Prospects invited by a current member are allowed to visit any given chapter up to two times before deciding whether to join or visit a different chapter.
"Each chapter has a different culture to it," he said, depending on the mix of professions and personalities. Some are more boisterous and active in social gatherings outside the weekly meeting; some are more subdued.
The average group loses one or two members a month. To help ferret out fraud, every member is constantly reviewed for productivity and satisfied referrals.
When a new chapter begins, Fleming and other BNI trainers attend their weekly meetings for five months.
Eventually, it's up to the young chapter to keep growing referrals and recruiting new members itself.
"The speed of the group is the speed of the leader," Fleming said.
Down to business
Speed and organization is no problem for Bob McKnight as he oversees the latest meeting of BNI Collaborators at the Sons of Italy Lodge in South Tampa.
It's 7:45 a.m., time to set aside the Panera coffee and doughnuts and get rolling.
McKnight jokes that he's a little nervous filling in for chapter president Karyn Roeling, but you'd never know it. He keeps the 90-minute session moving on schedule — from the 30-second pitches by each member to networking tips to a talk by this week's featured presenter/member, architect Mike Muroff.
BNI Collaborators has enough diversity in its ranks to run its own town: There's a financial planner, caterer, electrician, massage therapist, Web designer, cabinetmaker, accountant, landscaper, auto repair mechanic and home inspector, among dozens of other professions.
Though only one person per professional speciality is accepted in each chapter, there can be multiple specialists within a profession. McKnight, for instance, sells individual life insurance while Roeling focuses on property and casualty policies.
Toward the end of the session, members pass around a box, inserting slips of paper that document success stories: white slips represent referrals; blue slips represent one-on-one meetings between a member and a prospect; and the cherished green slips acknowledge a Thank You For Closed Business moment.
Todd Maddex, who repairs computers for small businesses, has no lack of referrals. Maddex's first-year goal was to make enough money to cover his BNI membership and training costs. "I did that around tenfold," he said.
Now finishing up his second year, Maddex is on track to make five times as much as he did his first year.
"I've learned how to sell myself and my services better because of BNI," he said.
In most chapters, members typically make between $20,000 and $30,000 through referrals after three years, according to Fleming.
But to Kellog, the value of BNI goes beyond the dollars.
Being in the organization has helped her grow personally, becoming more adept at public speaking and even confident enough to start a charity beyond her embroidery business.
"BNI has helped more than just my business life," she said. "Some of my best friends are people (from the group) that I see outside the chapter."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]