MANATEE -- A group of men sit around a table for an all-day business meeting. Even though most of them are from different companies, they're not there to buy or sell anything. They're learning how to better run their businesses, from each other and from the word of God as written in the Bible.
This scene is repeated around the country hundreds of times each week among the members of C12 Group, a franchise Christian coaching and peer advisory organization that got its start in Manatee County more than two decades ago. Group members apply Christian ethics to how they do business and exchange advice with other business owners and executives on everything from profit sharing to the best way to fire an employee.
Peer-to-peer business groups are nothing new, nor are those with a Christian bent. But C12's local roots and its continued growth in the area make it a prevalent business management tool, as well as an underpinning of faith for dozens of local business owners and executives. Manatee and Sarasota counties are
home to three groups co-owned by father-and-son franchisees Don Light and Don Light, Jr.
Bill King, owner of King's Wholesale Florist in Bradenton, has been a C12 member since founder Buck Jacobs started his first two groups in Bradenton and Sarasota in 1992. King said applying the wisdom contained in the Bible to the flower business made him a better businessman and a more faithful Christian.
Growing up, he said, church and Christianity didn't make a lot of sense to him. That changed when he started attending a Fellowship of Companies for Christ International group Jacobs ran before starting C12.
"It was a bunch of great stories, but I didn't see how they related to life," King said. "I started going to learn more about how to run a company in a godly way."
That "godly" style of business management is just one of the principals guiding monthly C12 meetings. Don Light, Jr., who facilitates two groups through his franchise, said C12 gives members much more than that. Like similar organizations in the secular space, such as Vistage, C12 is a venue where executives have a chance to take "one day to work on the business, rather than in the business."
Jacobs, who remains chairman of the Greensboro, N.C.-based C12, said he started his organization with a basic principal he used in his previous business ventures.
"How would we make decisions if Jesus was the CEO and chairman of the board?" he said.
At each C12 meeting, a group member gives a presentation about his or her business after the group facilitator opens with a prayer and invocation. Unsolicited business advice goes back and forth across the table throughout the all-day meetings. That advice is not without basis: With many members attending the same group for years or decades, C12ers get to know each others' lives and businesses really well.
"It's not uncommon for a guy to look across at a guy giving a presentation and his business is great but his marriage is a mess," Light said.
C12 is a for-profit venture. Members pay $600 to $1,000 a month in dues, depending on the sizes of their companies. Light said the group's learning materials and format are best suited to companies with at least five or 10 employees and earning more than $1 million a year. The ideal group size is 12 members, but some chapters will take up to 16 where it proves practical. C12 is open to both men and women, though, Light says, the vast majority of members are men.
The groups meet at regular locations, including The Founders Club in Sarasota and the River House Reef & Grill in Palmetto. Across the nation, C12 has about 1,700 members in about 50 metropolitan areas. C12 facilitators like Light also meet with C12 members outside of meetings in private business consulting sessions.
Jacobs, who still has occasional contact with his original, local groups, said the basic C12 formula is still relevant after more than two decades.
"Bradenton and Sarasota have hardly been changed since the beginning," he said.
The mission of the group is to "bring the kingdom of God into the marketplace" and to help members strive for business excellence. The group also encourages members to see their businesses as ministries in which they use Christian principals to guide how they treat customers, employees and vendors every day. It's an ethic that has drawn a number of local companies, including CORE Construction, Bruce Williams Homes, Newby Management, Ocala Family Physicians and Hide-a-Way Storage Services.
Steve Wilson, owner of Hide-a-Way, came to the group after going through a "born-again" Christian experience. Now the owner of a 12-location, 44-employee mini-storage business, the 72-year-old Wilson said his decades with the group have brought him business advice when he needed it most. A few years ago as the Great Recession took hold, Wilson said he planned to continue doing business as usual even as his revenues dropped from $12 million a year to $10 million.
It took the advice of another group member to get him to see that waiting it out could mean the end of his company.
"If you spend a day with men doing the same thing you're doing, you get incredible insight into your particular situation," Wilson said.
King likens the peer-to-peer skill building to what is written in Proverbs 27:17 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible: "Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another."
Many spend more time with fellow C12 members outside of the monthly meetings. Tim Newby, president of Palmetto-based Newby Management, said he considers other members of the group to be friends. From time to time, he'll go to lunch with a fellow C12er for the fellowship and to put their heads together on a business challenge.
Newby's company is one of the largest managers of manufactured home parks in the United States. Taking a faithful approach to building the business has brought Newby success and constantly reminds him to do his work in a considerate manner.
"Profits are a lagging indicator of how well we take care of our customers and our team members," he said.
Light said C12 continues to grow in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.
Since his father purchased Jacobs' Bradenton group, two more have been established. With continued interest, Light believes more groups may start up under the local franchise.
More information about C12 is available at c12group.com.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.