When a local business owner died, his wife picked up the reins"”only to see the business falter. For two years, Terri Ralston tried to run A.S. Computers in Milford as her husband would have. Just as the business was hitting bottom, she met Laurie Althaus, a business coach who specializes in small- and medium- size companies.

"Can you help me?" she asked Althaus.

 

Ralston is now enrolled in a group coaching class. She has changed the structure of the business. More importantly, Ralston understands that the business is not her husband's anymore. It's hers. She has to do things that work for her and decide how she wants her business to grow.

 

"Where were you two years ago?" Ralston asked Althaus.

 

The answer: She was making changes to her own career. Althaus had owned a small retail business for 17 years; she had worked in the corporate world (Millstone Coffee and Cintas Corporation) for 10 years. She wanted something different. But what?

"I didn't want to stay in the corporate world," Althaus says. In her heart, she knew she was an entrepreneur.

 

In steps Action Coach (formerly Action International), a business coaching firm with associates working around the globe. Action Coach executives contacted Althaus' resume, with her entrepreneurial and corporate experience, posted on monster.com. "As soon as they told me about coaching, a lightbulb went off," she recalls. "I had heard about executive coaching, but not of coaching for small businesses."

 

This was summer 2005. By October she had signed a contract and went to Las Vegas for 10 days of training. Since then, she has completed 200 more hours of training as a business coach.

 

Althaus now aids owners of small- and medium-sized businesses to build their enterprises through her "tool kit." She helps entrepreneurs design effective marketing plans, implement strategies that convert prospects to customers, and create teams of employees committed to quality. She carries out her work through individual and group coaching, business seminars and "profit" clubs, where members function as boards of advisors for each other.

 

"I love coaching. I love how all of the programs we offer allow business owners to participate in some manner," she says. "And as a coach, I am a business owner. I help other businesses grow. I make an income and I make a difference. It's fun."

All Action coaches support each other in their work, but Althaus works in an exclusive partnership with Chris Edwall, a fellow Cincinnati-based Action coach. The two collaborate in offering seminars and profit clubs. Their partnership has created a community of business owners.

 

"Together we have a nice mix of business owners that we serve," Althaus explains. "They each bring different perspectives and learn from each other. There's a high benefit in that."

 

Althaus also developed a relationship with Business Network International (BNI), whose members provide referrals to other members through small group meetings. Althaus is talking to BNI about conducting profit clubs for its members.

BNI originally saw the profit clubs as competition. But the two organizations have a different focus, Althaus notes, and have come to an agreement on a national level that they will work together.

 

The demand for business coaching and consulting keeps growing. Dan Woodring came to coaching from the utility industry, where he worked in various management positions: "engineering, customer service, marketing." Toward the end of a 30-year career, he became a trainer.

 

"I loved it so much," he says. "I wanted to keep doing it." So, in 1995 he established Performance Plus Technologies, an organizational consulting firm.

"But I found that what most businesses need is coaching," adds Woodring, who bought into a local Six Disciplines leadership center, which specializes in business-process coaching. He's now the center's director of business coaching. His title points to the difference between him and Althaus, who works with individual business owners. Woodring works with the business organizations.

How does coaching differ from consulting?

 

"Consultants say 'here's what you need to d'™," Woodring explains. "A coach brings in a systematic process with options for execution, but the decisions are made by the business."

 

Woodring follows a six-step process: deciding what is important, setting goals that lead, aligning business systems, working the plan, innovating purposefully, then stepping back before repeating the process.

 

"Coaching helps take you to the next level," he says. "Coaching helps you be accountable." Woodring should know. He has his own life coach he meets with regularly.

 

When Althaus looks back on her days as an entrepreneur, does she wish she would have had a coach to help her?

 

"Oh my, if coaching was around when I was in business, it would have made a big difference," she admits. "That doesn't mean I want to go back, but I would have had more choices."

 

Althaus owned the Lytle Food Shop at the corner of Fourth and Broadway. She didn't sell the business; she closed it. "I was totally burned out. I stayed too long. I wasn't thinking strategically, so when I left I had nothing to sell."

 

And where does Terri Ralston go from here? With coaching support, she discovered options she didn't know existed. "This is first time I felt that someone was there for me."