Shopping local and supporting area businesses is the sole focus of one community group. For nearly 20 years, the Marion Business Builders Chapter of Business Networking International (BNI) has worked to support others and refer customers to local members they know, like, and trust. Investing time in weekly meetings has paid off huge dividends for our community. This local chapter has passed more than $10.7 million in business to other Marion companies since it started.
Shane Hostetler with Family Values Magazine joined the chapter during its first year.
“I was just getting started as a business professional and I remember thinking, ‘If all of these great companies are associated with this group, then I would be foolish not to join.’ Almost 20 years later some of our best relationships and long-term clients have come from the Marion chapter of BNI,” Hostetler said. “We have utilized the members for personal and business needs and have built trusting relationships that transcend business.”
Jean Obenour with Custom Professional Accounting has been a member of BNI for 16 years. She finds the word-of-mouth advertising has been incredibly important to her company.
“The direct referrals are one of the best forms of advertising. Having the other members as friends and colleagues makes it a great tool to recommend a new business to them on a regular basis,” Obenour said. “BNI helps us learn about each business and the long-time connections and friendships are priceless benefits. Seeing the return of the investment over $10,000 each year with new and returning business makes this a valued seat at the table.”
Obenour finds supporting other local companies is important, not just for her bottom line, but for Marion.
Carl Wade has been a member of the Marion chapter of BNI for more than a decade. He joined as the owner of Carl Graphics. When he sold his business, the new owner, Sarah Lehnhart, continued the membership. Wade still attends as a representative of Family Values Magazine.
“When I owned Carl Graphics, there was never a question as to whether the benefits outweighed the dues. With BNI, like many other things, you get out of it what you put in!” Wade said.
Members come from different areas of the community: business to non-profit to education. Each member focuses on one specific area so they do not compete for the same customers. For example, Melinda Johnson from Affinity Insurance helps those signing up for Medicare or other health insurance. Scott Ebert from the Douce Agency assists those looking for a business or personal insurance.
The Marion Public Library promotes local events such as the upcoming African American Read-In for Black History Month. It also spreads the word about free services, from my first library card and free books mailed to children to deliveries for home-bound seniors.
Each week, members share a highlight of the type of referral they are looking for. One member shares an in-depth look at their company and what makes it stand out.
Every member of the chapter is vetted and background checked. If there are any complaints, they must be addressed promptly or the business is removed from the chapter.
“I enjoy getting to know local companies and nonprofits serving Marion. I feel confident recommending chapter members to my family, colleagues, and friends. I know these chapter members will provide quality products and services and treat them well,” said Wendy Weichenthal with Marion Technical College.
BNI helps new businesses just starting out, too. Jill Chitwood joined in 2018 when Sights Unseen Travel Agency was new. “This group of amazing small businesses and individuals have helped strengthen the awareness of our travel business within Marion and surrounding areas,” Chitwood said. “Just in the first year, our sales doubled.”
The chapter’s 16 members supported each other through the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the chapter passed more than a quarter of a million dollars in business to other members.
Meetings are currently in-person at Marion Technical College with social distancing, as well as on Zoom. The group is hosting a Visitors Day on March 2 at 7:30 a.m. For more information, contact Chapter President Jill Chitwood at (740) 262-6891, visit the Marion Business Builders chapter of BNI on Facebook, or go to bni.com.