In a back room at , there is money being made.
A couple dozen local business owners are sitting in a square configuration, eyes attentive to whomever is speaking. Lunch is being served, but this is hardly a mid-day break to chat with friends. This is the Odenton/Fort Meade chapter of BNI International, a group that seeks to connect local business owners with each other to boost their visibility and sales.
The group's goal is to pack as much activity as possible in 90 minutes. There is an agenda with a strict time line. Side conversations among members are strongly discouraged.
"It's very structured," said incoming chapter president Greg Mazzella, who owns a local private investigations business.
Members spend much of the meeting giving 60-second presentations about their business and, more importantly, asking for referrals from fellow members. On a recent Tuesday, David Lamora, owner of Integrated Healing Arts, said he was looking to partner with a yoga instructor. Janet Gorman of the Convenant Cottage store in Gambrills said she was seeking people in need of custom gift baskets.
"We can make anything from one to 100," she told the group.
The chapter has elected leaders with specific roles. Even somewhat mundane tasks, such as ensuring members stay within their allotted time, are assigned and taken seriously.
After forming in 2010, the Odenton/Fort Meade BNI chapter accounted for $2.4 million in new business, and was named BNI rookie chapter of the year. The chapter now has 25 members and is looking to expand. It is part of a growing network of chapters in this area, with Crofton being the most recent addition.
Members pay $100 to join, then $365 annually. There's also a $12 charge each week to cover lunch and other chapter expenses. To many members, it's well worth the expense.
"I had just started a business and didn’t have a lot of capital," said Mazzella, who left his job as a state trooper. "I was looking for the best way to advertise … I had to be smart with my money."
To Mazzella, the key to the group's success is its serious approach to referrals. Members are constantly asked to help others get in touch with customers or potential business partners, but are pushed to offer referrals that have a good chance to generate actual revenue.
"It’s not a situation where you just say ‘hey, this might be good for you. Call this person,’" Mazzella said. "We only give to each other referrals where it’s ‘I’ve already contacted someone, they’re interested in your services and they’re waiting for you to call.’”
BNI differs from some business networking groups, in that each chapter is only permitted to have one person representing a specific profession. If a certain profession is taken, potential members are directed to other local chapters where a spot might be available.
The Odenton/Fort Meade chapter is currently seeking an photographer and wedding planner, as well as several trades including an electrician.
The BNI Odenon/Fort Meade chapter meets each Tuesday at Perry's Restaurant from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.