The first rule of the High-Growth CEO Forum is, you do not talk about anything that happens in the forum. You will hear about personnel problems, cash crunches, and board member conflicts, but everything stays in the room. The group gets together once a quarter, usually at a hotel boardroom in the Boston area.
And you only get into the room if the other CEOs unanimously vote to let you into the group. Who doesn’t get in? Generally, people with “too much ego, and too little willingness to take feedback,” explains Gail Goodman, the former CEO of Constant Contact, the Waltham e-mail marketing company.
This week, CEOs leaving a group — President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council — made headlines. The High-Growth CEO Forum is the antithesis of that: an extremely low-profile and tightly-knit conclave of chief executives that has been meeting since 1998, and has included the leaders of some of the biggest local tech successes of the past two decades, including companies like HubSpot, iRobot, Mimecast, LogMeIn, Constant Contact, E Ink, and Demandware.
The two women who run it, Katherine Catlin and Bouzha Cookman, say that when you tally the initial public offerings and acquisitions that participants in the forum have been involved with, the sum now surpasses $8 billion. Still, it remains “a hidden secret of the New England tech economy,” according to Tod Loofbourrow, CEO of the Boston video advertising startup ViralGains.
The group got its start in the late 1990s after Catlin, an author and strategy consultant, realized she was hearing the same question over and over from some of the chief executives she worked with: What do other CEOs do in this situation? She responded by getting a group of them together.
“We asked the original members, ‘How do you want the meeting to run?’ It was a democratic process. People wanted to talk about growth, hard issues, and best practices,” Catlin says, not their families or their tennis games. With the rule about complete confidentiality, she adds, “the level of trust to talk about quite difficult issues instantly appeared.” That includes issues like, how do you deal with a co-founder who simply isn’t pulling his weight anymore?
There are three different forums — two in Boston, and one in Chicago — and each one has fewer than 10 members. Meetings take place over one or two days each quarter, and while attendance isn’t mandatory, the group’s culture encourages everyone to carve out time to be there. It costs between $15,000 and $25,000 annually to participate; the sliding scale is based on the company’s revenue.
At every meeting, each of the participants gets an hour on the agenda to discuss a specific challenge that — in Cookman’s words — is “keeping them up at night.” There also are updates on what has happened at each company since the last meeting.
“Being a CEO is an extremely lonely job,” says Russ Wilcox, the former head of Billerica-based E Ink, a maker of a paper-like display technology used in devices like the Amazon Kindle. “Nobody cries for you, but the truth is, it’s quite stressful. This was a group you could talk about anything with, compare notes with, and get some moral support.” Wilcox says that E Ink had $16 million in revenues when he entered the forum, and two years later, that number had risen to $160 million.
“Joining the forum was a key part of achieving that growth and adapting to that growth,” he says. “It’s like the board of directors you wish you had – a group of people who just have a pure desire to be helpful to you.” One challenge he brought to the group: whether to bring manufacturing of the company’s display back to the US from Asia. (They did.)
As that D.C.-based CEO group was crumbling this week, the High-Growth CEO Forum was meeting at the Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge. Loofbourrow was there, on his second go-round with the group. (Members typically leave after they sell a company, as he did in 2008 with Authoria, which made human resources software.) The challenge he was discussing was about how much more capital his current company, ViralGains, should raise. “There’s a trade-off between raising too much, too little, and just the right amount,” Loofbourrow says.
Bettina Hein, the CEO of Pixability, describes the forum meetings as “sometimes a bit like group therapy for CEOs. You find you’re not alone in having to solve a particular problem.” And, Hein adds, “There’s no posturing necessary. You don’t need to show the valiant strength that everybody expects from you at all times.” Her company, which helps companies manage video advertising, was included this week on the Inc. 500 list of the country’s fastest-growing firms.
No one has ever been kicked out of the forum for violating the confidentiality rule, but some people don’t get admitted after they come to a trial meeting. Being able to accept feedback is important. But the group also seeks power hitters, rather than leaders content to eke out a single, says Michael Monteiro, a current forum member. “With one guy [who didn’t get in], it was pretty clear that he wasn’t really interested in growing his business,” Monteiro says. “It just felt like he was happy having a ‘lifestyle business’ ” — one that provided a perfectly satisfactory income, but wasn’t going to be worth jillions of dollars. Monteiro is CEO of Buildium, a Boston company with 200 employees that makes software for property managers.
Like Ivy League universities, the question about the High-Growth CEO Forum is whether the organizers simply screen new members well, or whether participation in the group actually helps make them great. Correlation or causation?
“I’m going to say it’s not causation, but the incremental course corrections probably account for some piece of the company’s success,” says Art Papas, the CEO of Bullhorn, a Boston maker of software for employee recruiting. “Maybe it helps you accelerate your growth — instead of growing at 20 percent, you’re growing at 30 percent.”
Cookman says she would argue that selection is half, and the other half is that the guidance and advice supplied by fellow forum members helps “accelerate their company’s trajectory and increase their odds of success.”
The track record, over almost 20 years, has been pretty good for participants — and for the region’s innovation economy.
Describing his time in the forum, Wilcox, now a venture capitalist, says, “There was a spirit there that we were building substantial meaningful companies, and everybody’s encouraging each other to aim higher.”Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.