Alliance Profiled in ALIVE East Bay

August 01, 2009

Local Alliance of CEOs Provides Growth Opportunities

If there is one universal truth for CEOs, regardless of the size of their business, it's that life can be very lonely.  There are no peers on whom to lean within the company when making difficult decisions, and there can be lots of private agendas in play when asking for input from board membrs or subordinates.

Enter Alamo resident Paul Witkay and his Alliance of CEOs, based in Walnut Creek.  A CEO from before his formation of the Alliance in 1996, Witkay, 54, had been a top executive with global international companies and also ran a regional healthcare company.  His exposure to high-level CEO conferences in the early 90s provided the inspiration to form an organization where CEOs could come together to share ideas and experiences that would help their own companies battle through the issues of the day.

"Alliance of CEOs delivers real-life, interactive business cases in their behind-closed-doors group meetings," Witkay said.  "We offer complete confidentiality and the opportunity to work through tough issues in an environment of candor, respect, vision, purpose and brainstrorming.  Sometimes the greatest value occurs when a team of CEOs is helping a colleague, and someone offering the help is able to relate that situation to an issue in his or her own business.  There is an incredible level of knowledge and experience within our groups, and the direct and honest approach we insist upon almost always leads to new thinking and creative, effective results."

The Alliance has grown to more than 250 CEOs who run companies ranging in size from small, private companies to multibillion dollar global, public conglomerates.  "Diversity is a core value of the Alliance," Witkay said.  "The best-selling book, The Medici Effect, which discusses how breakthrough ideas are generated when diverse ideas, concepts and cultures intersect, is a model for our interactions."

Witkay also stresses that the Alliance is not for every CEO.  "I've met at least 2,500 CEOs since 1996, and I get to know them very well before they are invited to join," he said.  Getting to know them well entails a meeting that can last two hours where Witkay or one of the Alliance Regional Directors learns about the prospective member's personal history as well as the candidate's company status, his or her vision for the company, the company's value proposition and how the company presents itself in the marketplace.

From there, the candidate participates in a mini-brainstorming session so Witkay and his team can see how he or she thinks and decide if there is a fit.  "It's similar to putting together a jazz ensemble," Witkay explained.  "We're looking for diverse voices that will be able to listen to each other and together create beautiful music."

Witkay says members rarely leave after experiencing the Alliance, unless their company is sold or they leave their position.  "Although the average tenure for CEOs has declined to only three or four years, our Alliance members stay in the community for an average of five years and some have been with us 12 years.  We're really an organization of people who happen to run companies - not an organization of companies."

Once invited to join, members pay a $695 one-time enrollment fee and annual dues of either $7,000 or $10,000 depending upon the size of the company and the frequency of their group meetings.

A 30-year resident of the East Bay, Witkay believes it was fortuitous that he started the Alliance in the East Bay - "the most diverse economy in a small geographic area in the world," he said.

"Our initial members ran an incredibly diverse set of companies ranging from heavy industries such as steel, chemicals and paper to high-tech companies in biotech, semiconductors and software.  If we had started in Silicon Valley (a tremendous growth spot in 1996), we would not have attracted the diversity we enjoy in this area.  More than 90 percent of our companies would have been high-tech and the conversations would not have been as enriching."

"Now, as our reach has expanded throughout Northern California, we are adding many high-tech CEOs, but they complement the wide variety of manufacturing and service companies we already have onboard."

While the Alliance CEOs focus most of their attention on deeply strategic business issues, Witkay has learned that big things just seem to happen anytime CEOs gather together.  Therefore, as the Alliance community has grown, a wide variety of events have developed in addition to private group meetings.

"Our community activities enable our members to meet CEOs other than those in their particular groups.  Our social events allow members to get to know their fellow CEOs in a more relaxed environment and sometimes dramatic business events result from the serendipity of two CEOs simply getting to know one another."

According to Witkay, social connections from within the Alliance have on occasion led to eight-figure ventures between CEOs and capital firms.  Three dinners are planned before the end of the year, one each in San Francisco, San Jose and Orinda.

The core of the Alliance, though, is the group meetings.  "There is no substitute for sitting in a room with 8 to 10 very smart, saavy and experienced people as they work their way through a vexing problem.  It's like watching a Harvard Business Case come to life."

By Paul Hirsch