More than 200 mid-market CEOs and industry experts are gathered at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to connect with each other and share ideas, resources and opportunities that can help them scale their businesses through strategic points of inflection and collaborate as a community to change the world. This is a relatively long article for me. In it you will find:


  1. Three ideas that changed the way I personally think about things.
  2. Key points from the convention’s interactive keynote and each of the breakout sessions. (This is where it gets long.)

Three ideas that changed the way I think about things.

Strategy. Your strategy has a shelf life that is ever shrinking. As Tony Miller put it, the environment chooses the mutations that are going to survive – not the other way around. And the mutations based on Artificial Intelligence, digital tools, and robotics/automation are disrupting every industry. Leverage a cognitively diverse team to re-look at your strategy on a far more frequent basis. If you don’t think you’re at a point of inflection, someone else, somewhere in the world will inflect your business for you. And you won’t like it.

Operations. While your strategy guides the possibility of topline growth and your operations and organization, it’s the effectiveness and efficiency of your operations in implementing that strategy that determine your actual topline and bottom line growth. Apply Peter Fader’s Customer Centricity framework for differential investment to love the top, manage the middle and lose the bottom not just for your customers, but for your collaborators and colleagues as well, driving alignment through your entire system and eco-system.

Organization. Your organization is the connective tissue between your strategy and operations. In the “Gig Economy” you need to think about organizing your eco-system and not just your company. Acquire, develop and encourage freelancers, partners, and alliances as well as employees. Get the resources you need at the right price and right terms whether that means people, healthcare, or capital.

Interactive Keynote


  • Joe Adams – RSM, Jay Dearborn – WEX
  • Tony Miller – Bind
  • Craig Circosta – Ballard Spahr

Generally applicable ideas:

General market trends: Digital, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics/automation, Technology, Workforce dynamics all adding up to accelerated efficiencies.

Social, cultural, demographic trends – Patients changing into consumers and getting out of the patient box.

Political, governmental, regulatory trends – NAFTA changes, Tariff changes, DPR, anit-trust changes – implications on supply chain

Economic trends – leading indicators of same store sales, credit delinquencies, travel suggest the expansion is going to continue for awhile

Leveraging IT to fuel innovation and growth – all about getting the scope right so you get value for money. Look at operational decisions (by operating managers), strategic decisions (by CEO), and existential decisions (by the board)

Mergers and Acquisitions – Busy and competitive market with high valuations. Need to make bids stand out. Sellers look for price, speed to close, certainty of close. The best in class organizations (like WEX) have combined M&A teams responsible for identifying candidates, closing deals and integrating acquisitions so there are no hand-offs.

Disruptions = Profits = Revenues – Expenses. Disruptions coming in changes to operating structures to dramatically reduce expenses and allow entry into new markets and completely new business models. (Think UBER versus taxicabs.) These are things the mid-market can do at speed.

Closing thoughts (from interactive key note):

  • Tony Miller – Bind: The environment selects the mutations that will survive. Not the other way around. Constantly compare yourself versus changes in the environment.
  • Joe Adams – RSM: Must intentionally monitor and adjust to environmental changes.
  • Jay Dearborn – WEX: Need to improve information access, seamless digestion and application
  • Craig Circosta – Ballard Spahr: The best collaborators will win.

Breakout sessions:

Strategic Planning

Steven Lang – Dancker, Michael Prager – D’Longhi, Paul Saccone – Able Services, Mark Bacon – Coffee Boosters

  • Always worth planning in advance, but
  • Useful to think in terms of 1 year planning and 3 year planning as the different time horizons allow different types of choices.
  • In any case, strategic planning is useless unless you follow through with disciplined execution and, in the mid-market, speed and agility are more important than being right.

Talent Management

Jeff Kiesel – Restaurant Technologies, Dan Fries – Sibson, Mike Barthlow – Cubic, Bert Hensley – Morgan Samuels

  • This is the #1 concern of mid-market CEOs. 70% of them cited some sort of talent acquisition, development, encouragement, planning or transitioning as their top concern.
  • A critical part of attracting the right talent is clarifying your organizational values and cultural norms so attract people that identify with them.
  • The #1 regret of experienced CEOs is not moving fast enough on people. B players never become A players. And, as Leonard Lauder said years ago, “There is no training plan for Senior Vice Presidents.”

Executive Onboarding

John Lawler – PrimeGenesis

  • One of the most important parts of executive onboarding is speeding the time to a cohesive leadership team.
  • New executives reporting to CEOs must get aligned upfront with the board and CEO on goals, situation, leadership approach and shared vision.
  • Always better to get a head start before the start, manage the message, set direction and build the team and then sustain momentum and deliver results.

Performance and Cultural Alignment

Mark Follows, Andrew Rush, Jacques Gauthier – all from Carpedia

  • Must create alignment through the organization from the C-suite through leadership through the front line, building accountability through empowerment and transparency.
  • Make winning visible by cutting and focusing KPIs. No one can pay attention to 40 key performance indicators. Focus on 8 and get everyone to speak the same language.
  • Measure performance on two levels: what’s getting done (KPIs) and how people are communicating.

Growth Markets

Jose Llontop – Giant Cement, Tom McGinty – US Commerce Department, Dewardric McNeal – Longview Global, Antwaun Griffin – Penn & Broad Partners

  • Growth markets/international business is an important source of growth for the middle market – and an important risk as every business either competes with international business and/or sources some of its components internationally.
  • All sorts of risks internationally including political, economic, cultural, market, industry. The biggest risk is blind spots – things you don’t know you don’t know. Need to mitigate, manage or eliminate those risks as you can.
  • Help exists. The US Government and Department of Commerce have all sorts of ways to help US companies. Other countries’ embassies are willing to help you go the other way.

Dealing with Big Data to build competitive advantage.

Jimmie Lenz – Financial Risk Group, Jeff Greenhouse – Discovery

  • Data by itself doesn’t add any value to the organization: You have to know what to do with it. Must lead from the top, using data to help secure the right resources in the right roles and inform strategic/operational processes and decisions.
  • Go from data to knowledge to insights to actions against defined business problems, ideally using big data to lead business/cultural initiatives.
  • Start with a business vision. Move to a common plan. Connect that to data initiatives and goals.

Tax Policy

Brian Kirkell – RSM

  • Pay attention to state taxes – generally about 50% of your overall tax liability
  • Pay attention to Wayfair/state taxes – You’re now responsible for collecting and paying sales tax wherever your products are purchased.
  • Need process review to understand risks, create a permanent role to track and remit sales tax, invest in the right technology, invoices, contracts, sales processes

Innovation: Make, buy, partner to build your pipeline

Don Mathis – Comcast NBC Universal, Ollen Douglass – Motely Fool Ventures, Steve Zarrilli – University City Science Center)

  • Build before you buy: Build trusted-based relationships ahead of acquisitions .
  • Allow companies to come to you, rather than scope out single prospect by single prospect.
  • Partner before acquisition. There is a higher success rate when the relationship begins as a Partnership rather than an Acquisition as the element of trust remains constant.

Cyber Security and Protecting Your Trade Secrets

Daimon Geopfert – RSM, Russell Beck – Beck Reed Riden, Ben Stone – FBI, Jim Vaughn – iDiscovery Solutions

  • Be afraid. Be very afraid. Stolen trade secrets amount to $200-500 billion each year.
  • Growing issues with hackers – who have organized profitable businesses in this – and Millennials who are on line with everything.
  • Key risk points include customer lists, customer data and strategic settings.

Access to Capital for the Mid-Market

Adam Breslawsky – Oberon Securities, Peter Reiter – RFE, Bill Haddad – Venable

  • Capital needs include liquidity, working capital, capital expenditures, expansion, acquisitions, management or leverage buy outs, estate planning
  • Sources (from keeping most control to giving up control) include regional banks, national banks, business development corporations, funds, family offices, private equity, public markets
  • Types of capital (from lower cost to higher cost) include accounts receivable financing, revolvers, commercial paper, CapEx lines, term loans, mezzanine, redeemable preferred stock, convertible preferred stock, common equity, public markets
  • Prepare in advance: clarifying your goals, uses of funds, sources of funds and build relationships before you need money.
  • Timing matters. Funding is fickle for less liquid middle-market companies. Build an adjustable runway now with flexible credit lines and costs
  • Two-way transparency is better. Let funders know you. Do a real due diligence on your investors or lenders.

Competitive Advantage Through Customer Centricity

Peter Fader – Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

  • There is no average customer. Love the customer diversity
  • Customer Lifetime Value. If you really know customer Lifetime Value then you will run your business much much better .
  • Common sense. Pay less for your customers than they will return over their lifetimes.
  • You need to tag and track individual customers so you can visualize cohorts and understand customer relationships, your associated expenses and their recency, frequency and spend. Then double down on your most valuable customers, loving the top, managing the middle and losing the bottom.

Performance and Cultural Alignment: The Key to Greater Profitability and Predictability

Mark Follows, Andrew Rush, Jacques Gauthier – all from Carpedia

  • The degree of alignment predicts results
  • Only 3 in 10 people can be functional managers
  • Lots of disconnects across values and between stated values and actual behaviors
  • Planning and reporting systems need to be visible and in sync / aligned
  • Alignment across numbers / targets values and behaviors is the goal.
  • Need to acknowledge alignment is fleeting
  • Active management of planning and reporting systems helps align behaviors.
  • Greatest challenge for alignment is in the middle (we are generally okay at the top and okay at the very front lines)
  • We need a system to identify changes and build into our middle management / forecasting processes and a commitment to managing it.

Effective Boards: Recruitment and Management

Paul Berkowitz – Greenberg Traurig

The job of the board is to maximize value for all shareholders.

  • Start with a strategy, locate your skill gaps, and then seek board members with those skills. Look at board members on companies that have done analogous strategies on what you are looking to do
  • You have a responsibility to help board members fulfill their duties by:
  1. Educating them on their responsibilities
  2. Setting the agenda in order to control the process
  3. Helping them understand the business in order to plan strategically
  • Keep your board informed. Use material updates to keep the board informed and approach with a consulting and testing method, then follow on the idea with selling.

Leveraging Diversity: Key to Mid-Market Growth

Kathryn Ritchie – KR Strategy, Nolan Atkinson – City of Philadelphia

Diversity is not a goal. It’s a tool for better results. Must include a diverse set of people to stay relevant to employees and customers. Cognitively diverse teams come up with better and answers and solutions to complex problems.

  • Watch Your Biases. Want to make sure our unconscious biases do not get in the way of hiring, promoting, retaining the best candidates.
  • Build in Diversity at Each Step. Set collaborative goals and monitor, measure and talk about how to achieve the goal of diversity frequently. Talk about it in terms of execution instead of aspirational.
  • Diversity needs to be led from the top, try for diversity at all levels of the organization, do not take “no” for an answer when it comes to diversity, overcoming company, industry and societal barriers.

Healthcare’s New Reality: Balancing Company/ Personal Needs

Doug Robinson – Bind, Jim Mead – Pinnacle Care, Cesar Carvalho – Gympass, Barry Rose – Cumberland Public School District

Statistics Show: Employee health impacts businesses.

  • An inactive employee causes $1,300 more a year than an active employee
  • 40% of patients have the wrong diagnosis or are on the wrong treatment path for that illness.

Our Conclusions:

  • We can’t keep doing what we are doing; the committee has come back to with the following suggestions:
  1. BIND as a way to self-insure.
  2. Gympass to keep people healthy – offer ½ price gym membership for employees and their families. Can cancel the gym membership at any times. 36,000 gyms in 14 countries. Can be used to attract and retain talent
  3. Pinnacle to handle serious and complex cases. – Service that offers health care advisor for wealthy investors for those that have complex and serious illness. Health care advocate for the patient.

Partners: Leveraging Academia to Drive Profits and Talent

Barbara Hewitt – University of Pennsylvania, Bill Rhodes – Ballard Spahr, Jake Schwarz – General Assembly, Karina Sotnik – University City Science Center

  • Source Talent by doing more: Attending career fairs, mentoring and hiring students from select universities. Leverage community colleges. Don’t forget about community colleges where certificates are offered for specific skill sets wanted.
  • Develop school and faculty relationships to fix the disconnect between companies with needs and higher education to (re)define curriculum causes issues in hiring students.
  • Talent acquisition is not always the best option where training for specific skill sets desired is available. Estimate cost of churn issues and figure if it’s better to recruit or train. External contract to build and supply.

Social Impact: Enlightened Self-Interest to Drive Growth

Peter Frumkin – University of Pennsylvania, Luis Guardia – Global Impact, Sherryl Kuhlman – The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Luvleen Sidju – Bank Mobile

  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Matters; What was optional is now a business requisite. Social impact is becoming part of business strategy and management. CSR questions are showing up in RFPs and is important to talent recruitment and retention. CSR can tie employees to mission and vision.
  • Businesses need well-articulated and communicated organizational vision of corporate responsibility success.
  • Types of CSR: (An upcoming study shows that sustainability and progressive HR practices engage more people, than philanthropy and ethical supply practices.)

(1) Philanthropy

(2) Environmental sustainability

(3) Ethical supply practices

(4) Progressive HR practices

(5) Increasingly fair wages.

How to Get Started:

  • Start by doing better in your own business
  • Give your consumers CSR experiences with your company. Keep your customers and employees engaged and interested through experiences- ocean clean ups, service opportunities, etc.
  • Be clear about values and link them to your CSR actions. Document what company does to live out your values.
  • Revisit nomenclature. Revisit your mission statement, manage the strategic CSR message you are sending out. De-silo thinking around CSR and reimagine org chart and titles accordingly.

Personal Branding: Managing Your Own Brand

Evan McGowan-Watson – Brand Yourself

1 billion names are Googled every day. Nearly half of U.S. adults look someone up before deciding to do business

  • CREATE a foundation for your personal brand- yourself.
  • OPTIMIZE what is out there.
  • UPDATE your platforms.

How to Create a Personal Brand as a CEO:

  • Build a High-Quality Website & Professional Profile. At least create a personal website— make sure to have a central hub that isn’t directly related to your company.


    • Your website is your digital portfolio that grows with you.
    • CEO’s are more than just their company – they are often figureheads for many things- showcase all aspects of yourself as a leader.
    • Make sure it is authentic and up to date. Shy away from posting anything controversial.
    • Find what your audience is reading and where they come from. Identify who you want to appeal to.
  • Internal and External Press: Create good content and get into good publications (Forbes, Wall Street Journal, etc).
  • Pitch thought pieces not corporate reports. Put together something in your voice and style of an editor you want to get published with and send it to them, and you’ll get published.
  • Get on the right social networks and stay active. LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Facebook.
  • Optimize your stress & profiles to rank well in search engines for your name. Spread content to audiences and targeting, not advertising actual company.

Government Relations: Access to resources for the Mid-Market

Paul Decker – Mathematica Policy Research, Van Freeman – District of Columbia Department of Employment Services, Thomas Lewis – Louis Berger U.S., Carl Kilko – State of Pennsylvania.

  • Be proactive to discover what resources are out there and how to get at them. They are long-term commitments.
  • Start local then expand. Move from local, moving to state, and then federal from there.
  • At the state-level, tap into Workforce Investment Boards. They will steer training providers to deliver what you need.
  • Mentor-Protégé Programs (Large companies with small companies) (Comes along with Set-A-Sides)
  • Next Gen industry partnerships (CEO-led, at state level).
  • Learn about opportunities before RFP especially at state level.
  • Hire, online, consultants, law firms
  • Consider starting with existing contracts and dollars and being a sub-contractor
  • International Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) is available in all states

The Path to Digital Transformation

Lawrence Cole – Google, Soula Chronopoulos – Ellicom, Yesh Subramanian – Mphasis, Bill Kracunas – RSM

  • CEO’s need to move faster on digital transformation than they have before but make sure you are doing it to drive business results.
  • Define what digital is – it is the CEO’s job, and get the company excited about the firm’s future, everyone’s responsibility to carry digital mission forward, are business line leaders able to transform digital vision.

Three dimensions to address anticipated risk:

  • Look at segment or microsegment very closely
  • Look at the entire value chain and find areas to add benefit
  • Build into business model (how people engage with you and what you give and get).

Going Public: The Road to IPO

Carolyn Saacke – New York Stock Exchange

  • Know that the IPO will become a full-time job and make sure you have a CFO in public experience that has been through the process before.
  • Start early; talk to as many people that have been through it before -on the advisory side and on the public side- both CFO’s who have and haven’t done it
  • Don’t be afraid to ask ALL and ANY questions. You want to be confident and secure in the process.

Impacts of Going Public and Having an IPO

  • More than capital – promotes you, good for employee morale, forms discipline. If you can’t measure it, board can’t approve it.
  • The benefits outweigh the expenses. Expenses are a big deterrent to small companies who have less that $1 billion in revenue.
  • Go public when the market is good – don’t make a short deadline. Most companies have a three-year investment deadline.
  • IPO is all about timing.
  • No advantage to listing on the NYSE vs NASDAQ