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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 8, 2018 3 years ago

Membership-based group overcomes industry obstacles

How has an area business group maintained steady growth? By keeping its focus on what its members want — every day, with every event.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

It started over coffee.

Four businesspeople got together with the idea they wanted to support each other’s businesses, specifically in Lakewood Ranch.

The master-planned community, straddled between east Manatee County and north Sarasota County, was growing rapidly. More businesses were moving to the area and more people were moving into the community’s new homes.

That was 2005. Now the organization, the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, has grown to 600 member businesses and five staff members, including a president and CEO; communications and marketing manager; membership coordinator; membership development representative; and events and programs manager. In an era where chamber and related business groups have struggled to sustain membership growth, the LWRBA has grown sixfold in the last decade.  

That growth has been organic, Alliance President and CEO Heather Kasten says, and it's been accomplished through the group's laser focus on bringing value to members. “We keep our eye on the ball in terms of quality events and programming,” she says. “That speaks for itself.”

The Alliance is collaborative, she says, with members referring work to each other being a big calling card. “Everything points back to connecting people,” Kasten says. 

To help form those connections, the organization emphasizes face-to-face interactions. The Alliance hosts 150 meetings and events a year, from 400-person lunches to gatherings with 25 people.

Business educational events run the gamut, Kasten says, and include topics such as accounting, human relations, leadership and sales. “We’re small and nimble enough to focus on what are the needs of the businesses.”

Kasten also describes the organization as warm and welcoming. “There’s no pecking order or good ol’ boys system out here,” she say. That’s partially due to the relative newness of the community, she says, with the first neighborhood in Lakewood Ranch, developed by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, opening a little over two decades ago.

As new businesses continue to open in Lakewood Ranch, Alliance members spread the word about the organization. The majority of members have joined because of referrals from current members, Kasten says.

“We keep our eye on the ball in terms of quality events and programming. That speaks for itself.” — Heather Kasten, president and CEO, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance

That could change in the coming months. In March, the Alliance hired a dedicated membership development representative who will actively target potential new members. Annual dues for the Alliance are $295 for companies with one to 25 employees and $425 for companies with over 25 employees.

Kasten says membership dues are strategically priced lower than dues for the area chambers. Revenues for the Alliance, she says, have doubled in the last three or four years.

Today, half the Alliance’s member businesses have a physical location in Lakewood Ranch and the other half are spread around the area. Because of its footprint in Sarasota and Manatee, Kasten says, “We have an opportunity to be a leader in bringing the counties together.”

In the years ahead, the Alliance aims to bring in new members, but that’s not all. “The goal is new connections for membership,” Kasten says. “We’re not just solely focused on growth of membership but making sure what we do is relevant to businesses.”


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