The Journal Gazette
Saturday, December 19, 2015 10:03 pm

Mentoring owners into graceful exits

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Countless organizations offer wannabe entrepreneurs advice on how to launch a business.

Gordon Bell takes a different tack.

The local consultant instead advises established business owners on how to make a graceful exit.

Clients have included Patricia Miller and Barbara Baekgaard, who took Vera Bradley Inc. public in October 2010.

By selling shares, the handbag company’s founders transformed some of their equity into cash. That, in turn, allowed for easier estate planning and for Miller to subsequently retire from daily operations.

Bell, founder and CEO of The Midland Group, offers clients an objective view. He also brings a rare level of training. The Exit Planning Institute this fall named Bell a certified exit planning adviser and a master mentor to its other advisers. 

Only four other people worldwide have the master mentor designation, which is based on their professional experience, their work as exit planners and meeting other criteria. 

The Lakewood, Ohio-based institute includes about 500 professional adviser members from eight countries.

Scott Snider, the Exit Planning Institute’s vice president, talks to Bell every week. He described Bell as knowledgeable and innovative.

"You just feel like that’s where you’re supposed to be at that moment," Bell said of passing his wisdom on to other business owners.

Bell doesn’t measure his success strictly in business terms, however. To paraphrase Jacob Marley’s ghost in "A Christmas Carol,"  Bell believes the welfare of others is also his business.

Building a solid foundation

Bell earned Purdue University degrees in industrial engineering and food science. He entered the restaurant world as a young busboy at The Farmer’s Daughter, a Chicago restaurant. 

"That really prompted my interest in food service," he said. "I couldn’t believe the professionalism that I saw."

As a side note, Bell also couldn’t believe how pretty one of the waitresses was. They’ve been together for 49 years and are happily married with two sons.

Bell’s resume includes five stints in the CEO’s chair, including at Lincoln Food Service, which manufactured pizza ovens. He led the management team in a buyout from corporate owner Alcoa when he was just 29. 

The local operation has since been sold to Manitowoc Foodservice, which moved jobs out of Fort Wayne in early 2013.

Bell’s early leadership experience led him to join Young Presidents’ Organization, an international peer network of business leaders younger than 50.

Meetings bring together company presidents in non-competing industries to share challenges and advice.

His own experience coupled with those stories from others has created a vast reservoir from which he pulls advice. 

But not every situation has been pleasant. Bell has had employees crushed to death on the factory floor and endured strikes and major losses of customer orders.

"I think that’s where you get your best learning, in the valleys," he said.

Over the past four decades, Bell has owned several companies and amassed nine patents on food service industry equipment. 

What other people might consider the culmination of their grandest career goals, he has designated as the first half of his professional life.

Sharing hisbusiness insights

While in his late 50s, Bell decided to work within a two-hour radius of home and do more mentoring. 

"I always wanted to be a teacher," he said during a recent interview.

In late 2007, Midland Private Equity Partners, a division of The Midland Group, announced an alliance with Citi Venture Capital, a New York private equity firm under the Citi corporate umbrella. 

The partnership gave northeast Indiana businesses greater access to $500 million in private equity capital funds and Bell an opportunity to advise business leaders close to home. 

In exchange for a controlling interest, Bell and other investors provided mature manufacturing and distribution companies the money to grow or to regain their footing after temporary setbacks. 

During the three- to seven-year investment, Bell guided managers.

In all, Bell has completed more than 40 buy-side and sell-side transactions in diverse markets, led and assisted in numerous global expansions and written hundreds of strategic plans. 

Yet he continues to seek new ideas. While reading "$10 Trillion Opportunity – Designing Successful Exit Strategies for Middle Market Business Owners," Bell found a new challenge.

Authors Peter G. Christman and Richard E. Jackim explain that 4.5 million baby boomers are aging and will transfer ownership of $10 trillion in business equity to heirs, employees and others over the next several years.

Bell saw opportunity to help those owners make the transition smooth. He coaches clients weekly by phone and monthly in person how to add value and reduce risk.

"You know their tempo" from the frequent check-ins, Bell said. "You know their heartburns. You know their heartaches. You know their joys."

As clients encounter a need he can’t meet, Bell is able to refer them to someone he trusts for the necessary legal, accounting, operations or other consulting work. Bell is also able to sit down with a business owner’s heirs and objectively explain the ownership transfer.

Snider, of the Exit Planning Institute, said Bell’s diverse background helps him guide clients, which includes other certified exit planners.

Only five – or the top 1 percent – were chosen for the master mentor distinction. Bell helps guide the professional consultants who guide others. 

Bell, who also mentors Snider, is a straight-shooter.

"I may not like what he says," Snider said, "but I know he’s not going to sugarcoat it."  

Busy pursuing the Lord’s work

Bell’s compassion isn’t far below the surface, however.

Bell frequently visits area hospitals, praying with patients at the request of his church’s members. 

His pastor, the Rev. Rick Hawks, said Bell makes pastoral care visits one or two days a week and repeats visits to those with chronic conditions.

The Chapel attracts about 2,500 attendees on a typical Sunday. That number tops 5,000 during the holidays. Three paid staff members also regularly visit the sick, Hawks said.

Bell established a ministry for the unemployed during the depths of the Great Recession, coaching about 70 people during a seminar at the church.

"He helped people in between jobs get themselves ready for the marketplace," Hawks said.

Bell has also organized and conducted a series of lessons for middle school students, trying to make them less vulnerable to bullying. He teaches them that a leader is someone who can influence and inspire others – actions they are each capable of.

"They’ve got to build self-esteem," Bell said. "Their ego is shattered so quickly."

Hawks said it’s unique for a Chapel member to be so involved in varied ministries. But then, Bell is unique.

"Gordon is enthusiasm in person," Hawks said. "You’re not going to be discouraged after talking to Gordon."

In his spare time … as if there’s much of that … Bell has been writing his first book, which he plans to release in the middle of next year. It focuses on business, life and faith.

He’s even created two versions of his 10 leadership principles, one that includes Bible ­verses and one that doesn’t.

The man who grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and once spent a year buying and selling companies in India doesn’t believe in judging others.

"My love," he said, "is helping people." 


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