Business referral network connects professionals with each other, community leaders
Emily Walter knows a thing or two about networking.
An executive broker and real estate agent with RE/MAX Elite, Walter said it takes 26 people to get a property from contract to closing. Because her industry relies heavily on having relationships with reliable service providers – pest control technicians, home inspectors, and loan officers, just to name a few – Walter understood that joining a formal referral group would help grow not only her business but theirs, too.
In late 2017, she became a member of Pipeline, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce’s lead generation and business network, and encouraged those she did business with to join her. Formerly referred to as Leads Groups, Pipeline consists of four groups that meet twice a month. Group membership ranges from 12 to 28 and follows a non-competing format, meaning only one person per industry or profession is allowed in each group.
Walter is a member and the chair of Toad Suck Nation, a 24-member Pipeline group that was one of the original Leads Groups. She said establishing trust and building rapport among group members is key.
“If you do it correctly, you are constantly asking yourself, ‘How can I help this person?’ If you’re in a Pipeline group and only want them to help you, you won’t get as much out of it.”
Osmar Garcia takes that same approach. As the co-founder and CEO of Garcia Wealth Management, his involvement in Pipeline’s 28-member Conway Progress group not only has helped him gain clients but also has connected him with business professionals he can introduce his clients to.
“Pipeline has allowed me to facilitate introductions I otherwise would not have been able to,” Garcia said. “I consider wealth management central to my clients’ financial well-being. I want to help them achieve their financial goals and refer people they can do business with, which in turn helps my fellow Pipeline members. It’s all about connection.”
Ed Linck, director of member engagement at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, manages Pipeline and helped transition the program from largely social to one that’s more structured and focused on business results. Prior to his role at the Conway Area Chamber, Linck had extensive experience with business referral groups as both a chamber member and a chamber employee. He was a member of the Rock Stars group at the Little Rock Regional Chamber before working for that chamber. When he moved to California and took a job with the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce, he applied what he learned in Little Rock and developed a lead generation program there.
Linck moved back to Arkansas in 2016 and began working for the Conway Area Chamber. Around the same time, North Carolina-based Business Network International – the world’s largest business networking and business referral organization – was gaining ground in Conway. Members of the Conway Area Chamber who had joined Leads Groups had begun making the switch to BNI.
“We can credit BNI for the transition of our Leads Groups to Pipeline,” Linck said. “We took what we had, saw what BNI was doing, and developed a program that drew upon our strengths as a connector of people in the Conway-area business community.
“When it comes to connection, being local is an advantage. And you can’t get more local than a chamber of commerce.”
The Local Advantage: Closer’s Coffee
Similar to BNI, the Chamber developed a program that emphasized attendance as well as the tracking of leads and the dollar amount of business closed. Unlike BNI, groups meet twice a month rather than weekly, and the annual $350 membership fee – even after tacking on the required Chamber membership – is less than the cost to join BNI.
The local advantage the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce brings is apparent when it comes to the Closer’s Coffee events. On the second Thursday of each month at 9 a.m., all Pipeline members are invited to attend an exclusive meeting focused on economic development in Conway. They have a group conversation with a local business or community leader over coffee, donuts, and fruit. Past speakers have included the mayor, county judge, and executives from the Conway Development Corporation and Conway Downtown Partnership.
In the wake of COVID-19, the Closer’s Coffee and Pipeline group meetings have gone virtual. Mayor Bart Castleberry provided updates to Pipeline members via Zoom video conferencing about the City of Conway’s response to the pandemic and the effects COVID-19 has had on the business community. A local attorney also spoke to the Pipeline groups about the Paycheck Protection Program through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“We try to bring in speakers relevant to that moment in time,” Linck said. “This members-only access to business and community leaders has been a welcome addition to Pipeline.”
Heather Caldwell, a franchise owner for HireQuest Direct, is part of Pipeline’s 15-member Business Builders group. As the owner of a staffing agency, she values staying informed on what’s happening in economic development and around the business community.
“If you’re doing business in Conway, why wouldn’t you want to be able to have a conversation with the people who are getting things done in Conway? If I have questions about any business or industry, I can just ask at the Closer’s Coffee.”
Ashley Newman, a mortgage originator with Centennial Bank, is a new member of Conway Progress and was previously part of the Business Builders group. She has been a member of Pipeline for more than five years and was named the Business Builders Pipeline Member of the Year in 2019. Newman said the monthly Closer’s Coffee has helped her cultivate relationships with Pipeline members outside of her group and keeps her informed about what’s happening in the city.
“Pipeline is the way to go if you’re trying to build your business or get established,” Newman said. “You get access to Chamber events and learn what’s going on by talking one-onone with the mayor, judges, economic development officers, and business leaders.”
Building Business. Building Community.
Kirk Netherton is the co-owner of Netherton Promotions Inc. and is a member of Toad Suck Nation. He has been part of the Conway Area Chamber’s business referral program for several years and advises anyone who wants to grow a business to join the Chamber and take advantage of the tools it offers. He even encouraged his Realtor, Emily Walter, to get involved.
“The Chamber has a great network, and Pipeline is a great tool. Word-of-mouth and referrals are proving to be the best form of advertising. There is also a feeling of togetherness and family that you get from these groups.”
Chase Williams is a personal lines producer at the Farris Agency and a member of Conway Progress. His work for an insurance agency relies heavily on referrals, so joining Pipeline more than a decade ago made perfect sense for his business.
“I’ve met a lot of people I wouldn’t have gotten to know and have written insurance accounts or provided insurance quotes for a majority of the people in my Pipeline group,” Williams said.
As of May 2020, the 79 members across the four Pipeline groups have exchanged 488 leads and received $5.4 million collectively in revenue. The Conway Area Chamber defines a lead as “a warm introduction of a group member’s products and/or services to a prospective client by another group member.” All leads are tracked and reported to the group.
Ed Linck said the most successful members tend to have high leads and high “one-on-ones,” which are informal meetings between two Pipeline members that are scheduled outside of the formal Pipeline meetings. No selling is allowed at the one-on-one meetings, and these encounters are also tracked and reported to the group.
“Someone who just shows up and waits for leads to drop in their lap likely won’t excel,” Linck said.
The leads and the amount of closed business tracked shows the value of building a strong professional network. Heather Caldwell said these relationships are paramount when it comes to being successful in business.
“We’re not here to score points; we’re here to make a difference. We’re more about building a relationship and supporting someone’s business. Those leads carry more weight.
“We’re a part of something and are working to make Conway bigger and even better. We’re not just working for ourselves. There’s a sense of community.”
Pipeline is accepting new members with a few exceptions for high-demand industries. More information about the program, including meeting times and group rosters, is available at conwaychamber.org/pipeline.