Running a business isn’t easy. Questions, challenges and unexpected roadblocks arise continually. In those frequent moments of frustration and confusion, businesses need a resource for guidance and even some friendly encouragement.
That’s where the Green Bay Packers Mentor-Protégé Program comes into play.
The program, which is in its ninth year and actively recruiting for its 10th, pairs established companies with emerging businesses to form beneficial bonds that help both businesses learn and thrive.
The program originally focused on women-, veteran- and minority-owned businesses, and it grew out of the workforce and targeted business goals for the Lambeau Field redevelopment project in the early 2000s. The construction project needed to include certain percentages of minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses and workers, but when the Packers noticed a shortfall in those workers and companies, the organization saw the opportunity for a community initiative to support them.
Since that time, the Mentor-Protégé Program has evolved to become more inclusive and help a variety of businesses in all industries scale up their operations.
Each cycle of the program lasts a full year, and the number of business matches can vary. “That’s because the board — which consists of consultants and board members — is focused on creating successful matches,” says Anna Steinfest, president and CEO of AFF Research LLC, which administers the program for the Packers. “They don’t want to set a number if we don’t have successful matches to meet it.”
Approaching its 10th cycle of matches, the program now operates like a well-oiled machine.
“This particular program has a very well-run, structured process and that’s a big advantage for a program like this,” says Joe Eggener, president and CEO of BE’S Refreshments, who’s served as a mentor with the program for several years and is working with his third protégé.
Participants who apply and are accepted into the program must meet numerous requirements. Pairs must meet face-to-face at least once per month, and protégés need to submit quarterly progress reports to the board. Matches also should attend bimonthly meetings (affectionately named “huddles”), where the entire group discusses challenges, successes and milestones.
“The protégés especially like that interaction, because they realize that they’re not alone on their journey,” Steinfest says.
That sense of community and level of connection is an obvious benefit of the program.
“The whole networking side of it is so important, especially in a small community like this,” says Brandon Rohde, a past protégé and the owner of LiveTimeLLC, a business that provides timing systems and media production for motorsports racing. Beyond that, both mentors and protégés have access to seminars and other resources.
Protégés walk away with some of the most tangible benefits in the form of guidance and wisdom they can implement within their own businesses.
“We started the program having no benefits for our employees,” Rohde says. “By the end, we had full health care, short-term and long-term disability, 401(k) accounts and all kinds of benefits. It didn’t cost nearly what I thought it was going to cost, and we ended up with happier employees and better employee longevity.”
However, this program isn’t all about serving the protégé. Mentors experience plenty too, which is why many return to the program again and again. Steinfest says some mentors have participated at least three times.
First, there’s the opportunity to do some good and pay it forward. “This was my chance to give back to the community a bit and to help and guide others who might need that,” Eggener says. “It’s a good way to make our community stronger from an economic standpoint.”
The Mentor-Protégé Program is thriving and working on a strategic plan to expand across the state.
“The viewpoint is that the Packers are a state team, so we should have an impact on the whole state,” Steinfest says.
The program has already had participants from Stevens Point, Lake Geneva and beyond and has expanded to a trial group in Milwaukee with six matches working there now.
Everyone involved — from participants to the administrators — knows the program is a valuable resource, and they’re excited about the opportunity to positively impact more businesses across the state.
“It’s one of those things that costs you nothing,” Rohde says. “Yet you’re going to meet people and learn so much about operating a business.”