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September 2010
Restoring Lifeblood
By Ellison Clary

     Business improvement fervor that borders on religious is a hallmark of The Performance Group Ltd. The founder of the Charlotte advisory firm is Sam Frowine, whose passion for peak output engulfs his clients.

     Frowine and teammates work with entrepreneurs, owners and top executives to help them reach heights of business acumen they never dreamed of.

     “My deepest mission is about raising up great leaders on a platform of private enterprise to grow God’s kingdom,” says Frowine. He quickly adds a qualifier. “I practice my trade in a very secular way.”

     He does feel a call, though. It’s to help leaders of underperforming enterprises believe in a mission they can rally behind to create value. Alternatively, it can be to build wealth by making a company attractive enough to sell.

     “We align the enterprise with the ambition of the owner,” Frowine says. “We grow, adapt and develop companies. We bridge the gap between what is and what could be, and we do it very quickly, 90 days at a time.”

     In the first 30 days, The Performance Group professionals identify capital opportunities and, when that is right, they work on nine other points that are secondary, Frowine says.

     “We understand what the business owner really wants and how that person orients to the enterprise,” he says.

     A believer is Bill Miller, president and chief executive of Charlotte’s Tri/Meck Mechanical, Inc.

     “Actually, they helped me purchase my company,” he says.

     Miller has been with the commercial HVAC and plumbing contractor for 17 years. He was a vice president when the former owner died. Subsequently, Miller acquired a majority of the firm’s stock.

     “If it hadn’t been for The Performance Group, I probably wouldn’t have bought this company,” he says. “I just don’t know that everything could have gotten worked out without their expertise.”

     Miller has held on to his association with The Performance Group and credits the firm’s managing partner and co-founder Paul Bennett with keeping him grounded.

     And though his firm’s fortunes are closely tied to the seriously suffering construction industry, Miller’s optimistic about the future. The outlook of Frowine is a major reason.

     “Sam has continued to coach me,” he says. “I’m a graduate of North Carolina State with an engineering degree, so I’m a very linear thinker. And Sam brings a different side. He’s the professor, the flowery thinker.

     “He comes up with concepts maybe you and I wouldn’t have thought about,” Miller continues. “In my reality, one plus one equals two. But in his reality, one plus one could be eleven, because you’re putting two ones next to each other. He told me that, and I think that’s perfect in how you look at our relationship.”

 

Making Things Happen

     Indeed, Frowine is a former professor. “The common thread in all my studies,” he says, “is why does man do what he does?”

     Growing up in southern Ohio, he was interested in human behavior, even criminal behavior. After earning a bachelor’s at Ohio State University, he pursued a master’s in child psychology.

     His part-time employment included time at a child care center as well as in a maximum security prison as an assistant to the warden. He mingled with prisoners and studied their files. “I was intrigued,” he says, “by the amazing intellect applied in the wrong direction.”

     He moved on to the University of Cincinnati, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in learning theory, family systems and life-span development. He also took classes toward a doctorate in developmental psychology.

     When he completed that degree in 1980, he decided he wanted to start his own company because, rather than teach and be a theoretician, he wanted to “make things happen.”

     His Cincinnati firm was called Excelsior Enterprises and it delivered training programs developed by an entity in Minneapolis. These programs targeted mid-level managers.

     For Frowine, it was the beginning of understanding intellectual capital. But his firm’s performance was lackluster. He decided he didn’t want to be a consultant, either.

     About that time, the breakup of his first marriage resulted in the relocation of his two children over a hundred miles away. To help them connect with him between visits, Frowine gave each child a fishing tackle box filled with familiar items. The kids liked them a lot.

     So, when he met his second wife, the former Velda Benfield, who worked in training and development in Morganton, N.C., he moved to that mountain town and set about recreating that tackle box theme as a new product called the Connection Kit.

     He sold the idea to a department store chain and found a venture capitalist who invested $250,000 for development of the kits. They didn’t take off, so after two years, Frowine mothballed the last $20,000 and signed on with the Charlotte marketing firm that had helped him promote them.

     He became a senior strategist with that company because, he says, “I wanted to understand the discipline of marketing and strategy.”

     He started searching for a business with aspirations it couldn’t seem to achieve. He found the DID Corporation. Its owner was operating it as a high-end trade show display builder, but Frowine saw it differently—as a marketing company.

     He worked a deal with the owner. He paid $15,000 for the option to run DID for seven months.

     In five months, he’d turned a money-losing enterprise into a profitable concern.

 

Reaching Highest Performance

     “I was able to buy it out of the winnings of the business,” Frowine says. “Eight years later, I sold it for $3.5 million.”

     That was in 1994. He’d acquired a few other businesses along the way, but he knew he was on a path to something different.

     “We know all businesses are moving toward a crossroads,” he explains. “They’re going to simplify, grow, reengineer and succeed; or sell or liquidate. “Most owners don’t see that crossroads in time that allows them to gain a wealth opportunity.”

     Frowine wanted to help them.

     He created The Performance Group, as well as two other entities under its umbrella. Bennett is president of Performance Capital Group, which concentrates on mergers and acquisitions, investment capital development, strategy and equity issues. There’s also The Institute for Business Owners, which specializes in intellectual capital, transforming it into books and other transferrable vehicles.

     Frowine has found, he says, that entrepreneurs are like roaches. They sometimes get stomped on, but they come right back.

     And unlike that ubiquitous insect, they are imminently teachable.

     “I’m driven by incenting people to reach the point of highest responsibility for the gifts they have,” he says.   “There’s nothing that grieves me more than to see an underperforming anything.”

     He feels compelled, he says, to take on a role of responsibility and leadership. So The Performance Group works with clients from a wide range of business sectors. And though they might operate anywhere in the United States, most are based within a 100 mile radius of Charlotte.

     He employs nine professionals. All are based in the firm’s University City office, although they often travel.

     “They understand a core premise,” he says of his associates, “that this is a platform that has a brand. We work with business owners to make them more successful. To do that, these people have to have the autonomy to know what value they bring.”

     Frowine has installed a pair of practice area leaders. One heads a team that works with businesses with $20 million or less in annual revenue, while the other handles those from $20 million to $1 billion.

     All work on the 90-day turn around model.

     How many clients does Frowine have? “Oodles,” he says with a smile. Most come through referrals or they latch on because they are doing business with a client of The Performance Group and like what they see.

     He doesn’t share financial details. “We’re here,” he says. “We’re financially healthy and very liquid.”

     At 58, he’s had a rich tapestry of experience. He’s written over 100 columns on business ownership for The Charlotte Business Journal, in addition to his owner coaching, business assessment, Executive Leadership Team formation, and Owner Advisory Board formation activities.

     Additonally, he’s the author of three books—Lifeblood: How Successful Business Owners Achieve Wealth; Blueprint for Building Great Enterprise; and Foundations for Great Enterprise and True Wealth.

 

Sam the Exorcist

     Acknowledging the difficult times, Frowine says it only fuels his passion enthusiasm for working with business owners: “Helping them achieve their goals is what drives me. Most of the time, that means meeting owners at a crossroad in the life of their business and helping them navigate that crossroad. In today’s economy, most of us are reshaping, re-engineering or otherwise reinventing ourselves and our companies. These times are challenging, but potentially full of opportunity for those of us with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

     Actually, the challenging times have been beneficial for Frowine. “The economy is affording me the chance to influence leaders all over the place,” he says. “There is a humility that has come in and a seeking that is going on. It’s a time rich in malleability.”

     But there is a darker side, too. “In America in the last 10 years,” he explains, “there are huge numbers of people that have pursued entrepreneurship and have made a living. But the vast majority of these enterprises, even in the pre-meltdown era, were poorly run as assets. They failed to allow the opportunity that could create legacy and sustaining value.

     “We’re living today with a deep threat because of that,” he adds. “Many are not prepared to adaptively think and build leaders around them.”

     Robert Norris can appreciate that. Norris is a founder of Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman, and leads the Charlotte office of the law firm that specializes in serving the needs of closely held businesses.

     “At times, I call Sam the exorcist,” Norris says, “because he’s the person we look to bring in when a business owner is just not seeing things as clearly as we would like and can’t see the other side of some conflict that he’s involved in. Sam is a psychologist by training, so he’s the person who is able to establish a relationship.”

    Further, Norris adds, Frowine helped Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman rework its strategic plan. Although that’s part of what the firm does for its clients, it was hard for the principals to step back and transform their own company.

     “Sam and The Performance Group led our process,” Norris says. “They were very effective in identifying the real issues.”

     It’s his biggest satisfaction, Frowine says, “to watch an owner with whom we have a relationship embrace the belief that they are called to a responsibility as a leader and that they are realizing they can break through to the next level.”

     These days, the Frowines live in Davidson. They have a 19-year-old daughter attending Elon University and a 17-year-old son who’s a high school senior with potential to play collegiate level basketball.

     Frowine sometimes speaks in the complicated cadences of an academic, but he seems completely comfortable in his role and with his company.

     “We’re in the business of transitioning assets to the next life stage,” he says. “One of the greatest wealth opportunities in America always has been when you can sell an asset at a point when someone will give you liquidity.”

     He professes passion for what he does, then describes it: “I love working with intentional, serious business owner-leaders. I appreciate when my owners prosper. What I love is when someone defines more for themselves than they did before.”

     

 

 

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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