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Paying it Forward

by Monica Jones
photo by Brent Fleury


Here’s the concept: Gwen Wisler will help you, as long as you promise to help someone else. Wisler, a former president and CEO of Coleman, the $800 million Wichita, Kansas-based outdoor recreation company, moved to Asheville from the Chicago area in 2006 after saying sayonara to the rat race and 15 years on the executive track at a handful of large companies. Wisler, 48, has an accounting degree, and over the years in CFO and CEO gigs at companies like backpack manufacturer Eastpak and safety company First Alert, she became an expert in mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and debt financing. “What I’m really good at is helping other people make money,” says the Ohio native. Moving to Asheville, she was ready for a break, but she got bored after so many hikes and bike trips and wanted to find a way to both give back to the community and pass on a bit of her accumulated business wisdom.

She came up with an unusual model for a consulting business, which requires local business owners to do three hours of volunteer work for every hour she spends with them as a consultant. For example, when a North Asheville consignment-shop owner came to Wisler for six hours of help on an expansion strategy for her shop, she agreed to do approximately 18 hours of service at the Manna Food Bank and on the Mountains-to-Sea trail.

Why doesn’t Wisler just give away consulting services for free? “I want my services valued,” she says. “I like to get that commitment back from the business owner. I think they’re more likely to implement the suggestions I give them if they have to pay for them, rather than getting something for nothing.”

So far, her consulting company, Asheville Profits, which she formed earlier this year, has helped five clients who have put in around 80 hours of community service work at places like Meals on Wheels, and Quality Forward, which focuses on litter control and environmental cleanup. Wisler’s only stipulation is that the not-for-profit be local and secular, not a religious or political group. As for her business clients, they should not be startups and they should have some sort of business infrastructure—a few employees and a few vendors or suppliers, say. So far, she’s helped clients with lease negotiations, inventory control and staffing issues, as well as time management and delegation. “I’m not really a business coach, but I help with the broader side of things,” she says, noting that she talks with owners as well as employees, rather than just with the owners one-on-one. 

So, she gives away sophisticated business advice for free in a town full of mostly small- and medium-sized businesses…is her phone ringing off the hook? Surprisingly, it’s not, she says. “Part of it is that I need to get out there and introduce [the service]. When I talk to people about it, there’s sometimes a hesitation—they’re like, ‘What’s the hook?’” The hook, according to Wisler, is simply that she’s seen a lot of Asheville entrepreneurs who are passionate about their enterprises but who seem to struggle with the business side of things. “What I try to give them is a little traditional business discipline to go along with that passion,” she says. Which seems like a win-win situation all around.
Posted on Monday, September 22, 2008 at 11:05PM by Registered CommenterVerve-acious | Comments2 Comments | References3 References

References (3)

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  • Response
    Giving back this holiday season with some volunteer work? Here's an interesting idea from one former CEO who's doing it in her own way. I came across a story in the magazine Verve, which calls itself "Western North Carolina's smartest...
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    Before I bought this Jansport backpack, I bought a Timbuk2 Messenger bag, big mistake. The Jansport bag is not huge, but it is pretty big. It can fit my laptop, a 5 subject notebook, a 3 subject notebook, 3 folders, index cards, my drink bottle, keys, ipod, phone, and my laptop ...
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Reader Comments (2)

Wow! What a cool idea! Everyone benefits. First rate advice and a gift to the community. Amazing.
September 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKAH
what an inspiratiion, nice to see someone giving back without their own self-interest in mind
September 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKNY

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