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Mike Tully, president and CEO of Aerial Services, is part of a CEO discussion group in the Cedar Valley through Advance Iowa that helps business leaders connect across industries on issues and concerns common to all of them.

CEDAR FALLS — No one is born a CEO.

Chief executive officers come to their positions in a variety of ways, but being the boss is something many mid-size business owners never envisioned. So, instead of a business college, they often went to the school of hard knocks and got their education on the fly.

Advance Iowa offers them an alternative — get their education from experts and learn along with peers facing similar struggles.

“(CEOs) become so focused on trying to take care of everyday issues that it’s hard for those owners to get a lot of other input. They may get input from employees or family members, but they want something else. So, what we’ve been able to do with Advance Iowa is put them into an environment where they can share ideas,” said Mark Hermann, a consultant and facilitator with Advance Iowa.

The program, headquartered at University of Northern Iowa’s Business and Community Services, is currently funded with state dollars to help provide consultation to Iowa businesses with 10 to 100 employees, which have an outsized role in job creation in the state.

“The state recognized that this size of company didn’t feel a lot of the love, frankly, and they needed to, because a lot of our smaller towns depend upon those types of sized firms for job creation,” said Dan Beenken, director of Advance Iowa.

The program started with some pilot funding from the state in about 2012, and worked with a couple dozen different companies. It soon proved its value, and received additional funding to enhance its offerings and grow the program.

Last year, it worked with 226 companies around the state in nine different industries. It reached into 40 Iowa counties last year and expects to grow into another 20 this year. It has seven consultants, most of whom, like Hermann, have previously owned a business and been through similar struggles.

The services range from succession planning to a financial scorecard to a CEO discussion group. Hermann is a facilitator for a group of about a dozen CEOs from a variety of industries that meets in Dubuque, and he’s in the process of forming one in the Quad Cities, where he is based.

“There’s not a lot of cost to do this. But there is some time, and I’ve done the math on it, and it’s about 2 percent of their time per month, but what they get back helps them save a whole lot more time than that,” Hermann said of the monthly meetings.

But don’t take his word for it.

Mike Tully, CEO and president of Cedar Falls-based Aerial Services Inc., can attest to the value of the CEO roundtable group.

“It does take a chunk out of your day, but it’s worth it. For me, it’s time well spent,” Tully said. “My only complaint is that I’m not able to go all the time because of travel or other commitments or whatever, and that kind of hurts, and I feel like I’m cheating myself when I can’t make it.”

Tully said the monthly, four-hour meetings are beneficial for several reasons, but most particularly to know other CEOs share similar concerns, issues and struggles, regardless of their industry.

“It’s reaffirming to have that kind of group around you that they can give you ideas, things they’ve tried and worked to address a particular issue that I hadn’t thought of yet, so that’s really valuable,” Tully said.

Along with that, Tully said it’s been helpful to have guest speakers and facilitators help work on solutions to a particular struggle the businesses are facing. The concerns can be anything from technological changes — a big issue for Aerial Services with drones, and the cost of digital camera equipment — to personnel issues to better marketing tools.

Though Tully is currently only utilizing Advance Iowa for its CEO discussion group, his business is the sort of ideal image of the companies the program serves.

With 45 employees, it’s been in Cedar Falls for 50 years. It’s on its third generation of employees — though not family owned — and Tully bought the company with three other partners in about 1999 to help keep the company local. He didn’t come in with experience running a business; he was simply an Aerial Services employee.

He freely admits it’s an ongoing learning process. And once again, thanks to Advance Iowa, he knows he is not alone in that.

“The biggest issue that I think these folks struggle with is the fact that … no one is born a CEO,” Hermann said. “You have to learn about all the things that are needed in order to run your company, and that is an ongoing process for the entire time you own that business, from day one to the day you leave or it closes.”

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