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The Interview: Mike Weiner of Network Referral Group

After cold-calling as many as 25,000 businesses in his 12 years as a copier salesman, Mike Weiner had the notion that there had to be a better way to build a business.

Out of that idea, Network Referral Group was born.

The business networking organization has since created a niche in educating and helping paid members develop their business through marketing, creating leads and building relationships.

Weiner began the company as a part-time venture in January 2001 and went full time the following year.

When Weiner held his first networking summit 10 years ago, 23 people attended. This month, he held his 88th summit at the Pikesville Hilton and more than 700 people participated.

The organization now consists of 400 members who pay $400 for a one-year membership. They hold weekly networking meetings through 21 groups spread across the state, and also hold "boot camp" educational sessions and annual summits that are open to the public. The next boot camp, which is free and open to the public, is set for May 18 at the Drama Learning Center on Red Branch Road in Columbia.

NGR has groups in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's, Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties.

Weiner recently sat down to talk with The Baltimore Sun to share his thoughts on NRG.

Can you explain what NRG does?

Instead of going out cold-calling, it's all about what I call the leveraged referral. So basically we come together, help each other out and grow the business. I say I'm the Cal Ripken of networking. I love what Cal did with the Orioles, and if people are consistent and persistent and they do it and don't worry about the results, eventually everything kind of kicks in.

They can visit one of our 21 groups … as long as there's no one else in their industry [in the group]. So they have the ability to come to the meetings, to the boot camps and come to our summits. We open Pandora's Box for them once they are in.

Did this work for you while you were running NRG and still working in sales?

Yes, it worked really well. I think today because of the information society we're in … it's who you know. I was able to get to places that other people in the industry couldn't get to because I had access there. I think that's the biggest word of NRG, access. We provide access to companies for our members. And that's something a lot of people just don't know how to get to. We've got that down to a science.

How has it grown?

I think it's important for the members to recognize that … we're not splintered in a lot of different places. It's all locally based. I'm a local guy, graduated Pikesville [High School] in '82, Towson University in '86, so if someone has issues, they can pick up the phone and call.

What are some of NGR's highlights?

NGR won a small-business award in 2006 through the state of Maryland, nominated by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce for the Home-Based Business Champion of the Year. It included a big awards ceremony … and I was honored along with other SBA award winners in front of about 1,400 people. That's when we kind of got on the map.

Describe the state of the small-business owner.

I think the state of [the] small-business owner has multiple personalities to it. ... And while they come to NRG with a huge vision of what they want to do, they may not have the sales, the marketing [or] the networking skills. That's one of the things that NRG goes beyond to help these business owners with networking skills. These things are not taught in college. We had a new construction company, and 18 months in, we helped them do $1.8 million in business. We had a Realtor exhibit at a couple trade shows in 2006 and 2007 and generated $52,000. It's there, but you have to work. I think you have to work harder than ever.

Do many of your members stay on for several years?

The folks who are not in NRG for the long term are the ones generally that are thinking about themselves. They just don't last. Whether it's in networking or a traditional corporate setting, they are found out.

People operate differently when they are out there to help other people. [NRG is] an extended business family.

Why would you tell someone to come out to a NRG meeting?

I usually say come out, take a look and see if it's a good fit on both sides. In smaller weekly [group] meetings, it's 60 minutes, and you see nine to 20 people. At the group meeting, the goal is for the members to work together and generate power partners or referral sources, so it's almost like creating triangular relationships with three [related] industries. For the most part everyone walks out with leads on the spot. It's focusing on each one in the group.

Is the organization growing?

The main thing we're focusing on right now is growing groups so they are all around 15-20 members. Then potentially doing more things with motivational training. So we not only educate people on how to get referrals but how to make the proper call — exactly what to say. When all is said and done in sales, without the appointment, you're nowhere. You've got to get the appointment.

What occupations or industries are represented?

I think the hottest industry is [information technology] by far, and I think that's because a lot of people are opening up their own small and home-based businesses. We're also seeing business brokers, [those in the] mortgage industry, Realtors and technology companies.

Are businesses getting the encouragement they need?

I think most of them are coming to the meetings in need of more self-confidence. I think if the resources are out there, they aren't tapping into it. I don't think NRG has a corner on all the great ideas, but I think what NRG does is packages it together, where for $400 or a little over $1 a day, you come in, get referrals, get motivated … get the business relationships you need, and ultimately we want to add more of that educational resource.

How does networking help?

I look at networking as it's really about branding yourself so everyone knows who you are so when there is a referral… we can all help each other out. It's a one-stop shop. It's covering everyone's back and helping each other.

Is it harder to run NRG in a bad or good economy? What's your outlook on the economy?

People need networking more in this economy but sometimes they forget basic business principles. I think what's happening are people who have rested on their laurels before are realizing they have to go out and hustle. I think in a good economy you can kind of coast through, but in a bad economy you better tone up your sales skills and know how to network. I think people are getting used to working hard again, and because they are, good things are eventually going to happen.

See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun

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