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the challenge

Western Manufacturing founder, president and CEO Lonny Thiessen on the shop floor of Western's Grande Prairie facility.Chris Beauchamp/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Lonny Thiessen needs advice about getting advice.

Mr. Thiessen is the president and chief executive officer of Western Manufacturing Ltd., the Grande Prairie, Alta.-based business he founded in 2008.

The company, which specializes in steel fabrication and manufacturing for the oilfields, is growing tremendously, generating $32.8-million in revenue in 2011, a figure Mr. Thiessen expects to break $60-million for 2012.

But "I'm [just] 26 years old," Mr. Thiessen says. "Within our management pool, just about everybody's under 40.

"It's a very energetic group, which is a lot of fun to work with. But there's just not a lot of that grey-haired experience that says, 'I've been here, done this, and this is how it works.'"

And so Mr. Thiessen is on the hunt for help. He wants to assemble an advisory board that might bring additional business experience to his young leadership team. But he doesn't know where and how to start.

He hopes an advisory board could help him answer "those big, important questions that we feel a little bit underqualified to make on our own" – possible acquisitions, expansions to product lines, and how to best structure the business as it grows.

Mr. Thiessen says his ideal advisory board would include three or four executives with a mix of financial, oilfield industry and growth experience.

"We want help from some people who have been there and done that before," says Mr. Thiessen, whose company has 25 staff on its payroll, and regularly employs another 250 to 300 through relationships with subcontractors."Maybe we can learn from their past experience and don't have to make all of our own mistakes."

Even though Mr. Thiessen knows the types of skills and experience he's looking for, he's not sure how to find and approach advisers.

As a young entrepreneur, he feels his professional network is limited.

Western's location also makes geography a challenge. "We're somewhat isolated up here," he says.

"Where do you look? How do you find these individuals? How do you remunerate them? How do you utilize them to get good value? We don't really know where to start, I guess."

The Challenge: How should the young founder put together a more seasoned advisory board?


Trevor Kent, general manager, Thermal Systems KWC Ltd., Calgary

Realize right off the top that you will never have enough time to get this done on your own. It will be the first project that you drop once you get busy or a crisis comes up. We have had our advisory board in place for almost two years, but I had tried to form it myself for over four. I was lucky enough to have the chair of my TEC Canada group take it on and, through his outside contacts, he was able to reach out to people with many different perspectives that I did not have access to.

If you don't have a business coach/adviser type, talk to your accountant, lawyer or insurance agent and see if they are in a position to offer assistance in finding the right people. Once you have the board set up, use it for everything you can think of. Have the table stakes of a president's report and financial review but push your board for help on any and all issues that may affect you. From reviewing a marketing plan to my current project of finding an operations manager, you, like I, will wish you had done it sooner.

Michelle McBane, investment director, MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund, Toronto

Start with your close network of contacts and ask around for individuals who may fit the bill. Use social networks, including LinkedIn and Twitter, to help identify thought leaders, and use industry associations and even your customers to help source likely candidates. Spend some time with them to ensure that the chemistry is right and they buy into your vision for the company. Look for people who will challenge you, and be confident enough to use their input to make your business better. Don't take criticisms personally.

A good way to use your advisers is to have quarterly sessions to discuss key strategic items. Look for people who will be agreeable to a phone call every once in a while. It's also a great practice to provide advisers with a monthly report prior to meeting in person, so you can have a more in-depth discussion.

Remuneration will depend on the commitment you're asking of them. If you have a stock-option plan in place, consider equity as part of this equation. You should also cover their travel expenses. If a potential candidate seems to be asking for more money than you believe they will provide in value, then they aren't the right fit – go on to the next person on your list.

Paul B. MacDonald, executive director, Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, Oakville, Ont.

There are a number of organizations that can help him find qualified directors, such as the Institute of Corporate Directors and the National Association of Corporation Directors. Additionally, there are associations of retired CEOs willing to consult with businesses on an economical or volunteer basis. Organizations like the Associated Senior Executives of Canada offer low-cost advisory board services.

Given the rapid growth stage his business is experiencing, there are several peer forums and groups that could help Mr. Thiessen tap into outside experience and advice, including Entrepreneurs' Organization, TEC Canada, and Young Presidents' Organization.…

No doubt there are also associations specific to his particular industry that can assist him and if he has not already done so, he should affiliate with his local board of trade, better business bureau, etc. to expand his network.


Reach out through your existing network

Outside professionals that you currently work with may have suitable candidates in their networks.

Connect with organizations

Several have programs designed to connect young entrepreneurs with more experienced business people.

Keep fit in mind

When interviewing potential board members, look for chemistry and buy-in to your company's vision.

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