Ingram Micro has created a peer networking program that will bring small and medium-sized business (SMB) solution providers together face to face and online to kibitz, share problems and devise business strategies.
To create SMB Alliance (SMBA) Peer Groups, Ingram Micro Inc. partnered with Heartland Tech Groups (HTG), a cooperative of companies that work in peer groups, led by solution provider Heartland Technology Solutions CEO Arlin Sorenson. Sorenson was a founding member of Ingram's VentureTech Network, a networking group for rural Ingram solution providers. VentureTech has gained its members strength in vendor bargaining and offers a forum to share best practices.
HTG will now facilitate the same type of networking for 3,000 members of Ingram's new alliance. Many of the SMBA member solution providers are led by executives who were technical or sales oriented, but as their companies grew, they found they lacked some business strategy expertise, Sorenson said.
"There is a huge need in the channel for basic business information," said Sorenson. "You can learn from other people things that work and things that don't work. Now you have a group of guys you can bounce ideas off of that are all focused on the same thing."
SMBA Peer Groups offers two options: One is to meet monthly through an online community, and the other is to meet face to face once a quarter in small 15-member groups.
"The design is that every 90 days they are together for two days. Each group sets its own agenda on topics that are most timely and pressing for those particular members," Sorenson said.
First on the agenda for 2009 will be how to manage a business "in a way that's sustainable" in a tough economy, he said. But there are other pressing issues that are already arising among other peer groups. For one, most solution providers are realizing they need to get into managed services in some capacity.
"They're learning to go from being product[-centric] to service-centric VARs," Sorenson said. In addition, companies are dealing with compensation models and a host of other human resource issues.
The SMBA Peer Groups will remain highly focused since membership requirements are stringent. "Every company has to set three goals they need to achieve by the next meeting. At the meeting they have to stand and defend how they did on these goals," Sorenson said. "Every member has to have a business plan, a personal leadership plan, a life plan and a business disaster recovery plan." Members can work on one plan per quarter.
From there, the peer groups will learn how to share their growth plans with their employees.
"A lot of times they have it in their heads but they don't have it on paper or [are unable to] share it with their employees," said Sorenson. "It's hard for people to get excited … or for them to invest in a company if they don't know what's going on."
The peer groups are also meant to launch more productive relationships with vendors. Vendors can sponsor groups, which means they pay for representation at meetings among other things. And that gives vendors a chance to meet potential partners in person and work out better deals.
"At the end of the day, it's just creating a healthier channel from a vendor perspective, and that's important," said Ryan Grant, Ingram Micro U.S. director of channel marketing.
In addition, Ingram is committed to passing along deals like Federal Express discounts geared to help solution providers in the group.
To join the SMB Peer Groups program, there is a $100 monthly fee and members must adhere to the operation code established among the groups. Regional meetings begin in January.