Rule number one of CEO Club: Don’t mess with the creme brulee.
Tongues are wagging after last week’s Boston College Chief Executives’ Club luncheon, the monthly gathering of business A-listers at the Boston Harbor Hotel. It was the first of the fall season and the second without longtime executive director Peter Rollins, who retired in the spring.
Gone was the buffet — salmon, sirloin, fresh fruit, you name it — as was the exquisitely crafted creme brulee that finished off each meal. The new menu? A salad, a chicken leg entree, and chocolate mousse cake.
Even Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a CEO lunch regular, was overheard grumbling about the decision to ditch the all-you-can-eat setup. Sure, the buffet created long lines that clogged the entrance to the Wharf Room, but the lines sparked priceless opportunities to network. You could gauge consumer sentiment from BJ’s CEO Laura Sen; get stock market advice from Putnam Investments chief Robert Reynolds or Fidelity’s Peter Lynch; or talk football with Patriots owner Bob Kraft.
The buffet also offered flexibility for the nearly 300 attendees — allowing some to come early, others to show up late.
“They are CEOs. They go to 18 of these things a week with a plated meal,” observed event planning maven Dusty Rhodes, who is a club member.
Worried about a backlash, two Boston College officials got on a speakerphone with me to set the record straight.
“It was a test run to determine if that format would improve networking and flow throughout the room,” said Ed Hayward, spokesman number one. Plus, the speaker had to catch a flight, so a plated meal was faster. But the key question: Will the buffet return later this month when National Grid CEO Steve Holliday speaks?
And the deeply unsatisfying answer: “A decision has not been made,” Hayward said.
Hayward’s boss, Jack Dunn, then chimed in to explain the school is in the process of hiring a replacement for Rollins who “will be making a determination of format, the buffet, and other logistical matters.”
The CEO Club is the last bastion of the old Boston business world, back when companies were rooted here and people went out to long lunches. You can see why BC may want to mix it up, but tinkering with food is not the answer.
So how can you make the see-and-be-seen event even better? Recruit more CEOs from newer organizations in town. There are a bunch of them, from RunKeeper to HubSpot. Younger companies crave attention from veteran executives, and the vets get to tap into a dynamic new world of doing business.
Roll out reserved seating for all. Rollins devised a system of assigned tables for a quarter of attendees. On a whiteboard in his office, he shuffled people around like he was arranging seating at a wedding reception. It’s more work, but more connections will be made.
Rollins started the club in 1992. He was more master of ceremonies than executive director. He cracked the same corny jokes and made a point of recognizing distinguished attendees. That was missing Wednesday.
“It could quickly lose its luster if they are not careful,” said one BC alum whose law firm is a member. “People are busy. They will give it one or two more chances.”
Change is never easy, and the CEO club, like any organization in transition, is right to try something new, but don’t start with the creme brulee.
Follow her on Twitter @leung.