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Aileron: Helping Business Owners Focus on the Big Picture

Aileron: Helping Business Owners Focus on the Big Picture

Most people are familiar with the 80/20 rule. It applies across all areas of life. In the case of business leaders, 80/20 is often used to describe how they should be allocating their time—80% on big-picture, long-term strategy issues and 20% on day-to-day operational issues, or “firefighting.” While most business leaders would agree that this is the right balance, few seem to achieve it. The challenge comes in creating the time and space to contemplate the longer term. Yet the inability to plan for the long term is one of the primary reasons that family businesses do not survive across generations. Without a vision for the future, agreed upon across generations, and a plan for who will lead and how the business will get there, many businesses fail.
Aileron, a nonprofit organization, was created to confront these challenges and is about helping people think, learn, and focus on achieving their dreams through professional management of their organizations. It is a unique combination of a business training center and retreat. Aileron aspires to help successful business owners take their businesses through the next phase of growth by building capabilities in strategic planning, people development, succession planning, and leadership.
Headquartered in Dayton, Ohio, Aileron grew out of Iams University, the initiative that Iams Company’s former CEO Clay Mathile created to develop business, personal, and technical skills in Iams’ employees and distributors, who were family-owned businesses.
Concurrent with Iams University, Mathile launched a venture to provide independent business owners with the tools they needed to fuel the growth of their businesses. In November 1996, the first Strategic Planning Workshop was offered, using the facilities at Iams University. Since the inaugural workshop, the frequency and number of courses offered have steadily increased.
In 2003, Mathile hired Joni Fedders to build the Center for Entrepreneurial Education into an organization that would exist to help business owners for generations to come. It was decided that a new name would be key in the branding strategy, and Aileron was born. The Aileron Campus broke ground in August 2005, and staff moved into the campus in December 2007. At the time of the public opening of the 144-acre campus in April 2008, Aileron had worked with more than 1,000 privately held organizations.
Aileron provides learning in a variety of settings. The flagship program, the “Course for Presidents,” is a two-day interactive workshop for 15–20 company presidents to discuss implementing professional management into their organizations. It’s a methodical way of looking at a company, and it focuses on six key areas: leadership, strategy, culture, people, structure, and business controls. Increasing competence and reducing risk while simultaneously creating and sustaining a healthy enterprise is at the heart of a business owner’s role.
Beyond this program, a variety of workshops, speakers, and leader-to-leader activities offer executives the opportunity to network and learn from their peers. The President’s Circle meets 10 times per year with a trained facilitator. Other leader-to-leader programs are offered over the lunch hour and cover a broad array of topics. (For more information on program options and enrollment, go to
Fedders describes the educational model as a “practitioner approach.” Most instructors are current or former business owners. They discuss topics that are similar to those covered in many executive education programs, including strategic planning and leadership development. But the focus is on providing tools and techniques to support implementation of these standard concepts, including one-on-one consulting to help the leader work on his organization.
Aileron provides much more than an executive education curriculum. It provides the space and atmosphere to engage in thinking about the future. In addition to boardrooms and multipurpose rooms for strategic planning and other team meetings, presidents’ offices allow business owners attending programs to work on their businesses. The facility also provides spaces specifically designed for thinking. Fedders describes one unique feature, the dream room, as “a glass room with a big chair and clouds.” It is designed to get owners back to thinking about the big picture: Why do I own this? What do I want out of it? What happens when I’m not here? Fedders says, “Leaders need to work from the neck up, spending more time thinking than doing.” And Aileron offers them the space to do it. The campus has walking paths, terraces, and other places to get away or work with teams—in short, a retreat for business owners.
Considerable thought went into the space, down to the one-mile driveway. It is long and winding, encouraging entrants to slow down as they arrive. The facility represents a collaboration between the Aileron team and a New York–based architect with expertise in designing museums, education centers, and high-end residential space. “The facility was designed with the clients’ needs in mind as well as their personality traits, including risk taking, passion, and perseverance,” Fedders explains.
Founder Clay Mathile knows those characteristics well. Mathile made his fortune growing The Iams Company, a small regional pet food manufacturer, into a global brand with over $1B in revenues. When Mathile sold the brand to Procter & Gamble in its largest acquisition ever, he joined the ranks of the most successful entrepreneurs.
Mathile doesn’t have the background of a traditional entrepreneur. He began his career as an accountant at General Motors in 1962 and a year later joined Campbell Soup, where he served for seven years. His life changed when he met an entrepreneur named Paul Iams. Mr. Iams asked Mathile to come to Dayton in 1970 to become general manager of The Iams Company, a small regional pet food company with sales of about $500,000. Mathile became vice president of Iams in 1975 and CEO in 1980. By 1982 he had purchased the company. As CEO of The Iams Company, Mathile redefined the premium pet food industry. He built Iams from a regional dog food company to a global brand. He transformed an operation with fewer than 20 employees to a billion-dollar company. Mathile sold the pet food powerhouse to Procter & Gamble in 1999 and joined the elite list of entrepreneurs who have turned their dreams into financial success.
Aileron helps business owners plan and dream for the future. So what is Aileron’s dream? “To help strengthen communities by helping business owners lead and manage their companies, driving growth, innovation, and jobs,” Fedders says.



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