Industry Watch

Sally Mainquist (right) chatting with visitors at a client appreciation event last year

A host of opportunities

For Certes Financial Pros, it pays (in the long run) to host networking groups and events

By Maura Keller

Sally Mainquist is an avid networker. That's not a surprise considering she heads a staffing agency. But she doesn't just attend networking events  she hosts them. Her firm, Certes Financial Pros, has for years organized networking groups and events where financial executives  who may or may not be clients  can make new contacts, advance their careers, and even find emotional support.

Mainquist's company expends a lot of time, energy, and money on the networking events it hosts, but it's set them up to benefit attendees first and foremost. The way Mainquist sees it, if her company also benefits somewhere down the line, that's great. If not, that's fine, too.

Below, a look at how Mainquist runs her Golden Valley–based firm's two main networking platforms: FEWnet, designed for female financial executives, and NeXtworking, with a focus on younger professionals.

A ‘must attend' event

The first event Mainquist started was FEWnet (or the Financial Executive Women Network), set up in 2001 as a response to a need she saw in the finance and accounting industry. "I had several female clients working in downtown St. Paul that wanted to network to gain best practices and simply support one another in the finance and accounting world," she says. "So I gathered eight women working in St. Paul and started a small group."

It was so well received that Mainquist began expanding it across the Twin Cities. Today, the group has grown to nearly 2,000 women in top management positions in accounting and finance. "What began as a way to support each other in the quest to ‘have it all'  happy home life and successful career life  has grown to a group of women who use FEWnet to expand their professional network, keep updated on industry trends and news, gain best practices, and in many cases form close friendships," Mainquist says. In addition, members may partake in larger social events and educational sessions. They can also receive a quarterly newsletter, Just Dessert, which contains FEWnet and industry news.

As a founding member of FEWnet, Suzanne Lang, senior director of finance and sales compensation at Thomson Reuters, appreciates the opportunity to build a connection with other professionals and keep up with happenings in the community: "Over the years, our group has bonded and has become a support function for each other  not only professionally, but we have carried that through with personal life situations as well."

Linda Peterson, a finance manager involved in global intercompany and profitability analysis at Medtronic, says FEWnet is ideal for people who want to interact with those they may not otherwise meet, and get some inspiration for their professional and personal life. "In our busy lives, we have to pick and choose how to spend our time, and this is always a ‘must attend' for me," she says.

The younger set

Following its success with FEWnet, Certes also spotted a need for young financial professionals to learn how to better network. In 2006 the company formed NeXtworking for accounting and finance professionals with less than 10 years of experience. It provides an opportunity for members to practice conversational skills. "Our NeXtworking community helps nearly 2,000 young financial professionals build their network, learn from career mentors and local finance leaders, and enjoy fun events at fabulous local venues," says Mainquist.

Members must hold a bachelor's degree in accounting or finance and be engaged in, or be about to be engaged in, a career in accounting or corporate finance. About 20 percent of members have an MBA, and 35 percent are active CPAs.

When setting up the group, Mainquist wasn't shy about asking for help. Erik Takkunen, manager of external financial reporting at Target, was part of the original NeXtworking steering committee that in 2005 began devising ideas for group activities. "During our planning meetings, we brainstormed such things as what demographics should be on the invite list and what type of events could be held," Takkunen recalls. "Those early planning sessions led to the events that still exist today, including wine tasting, team trivia, and simple social happy hours."

Kevin Leja, retail services controller at Best Buy, attended NeXtworking events for four years and was part of the group's planning committee for about three. He stopped attending when he was near the 10-year point of his career. "I never needed to approach the events with the mindset of ‘I must build my network' because it happened naturally with how you were randomly placed into a smaller group and allowed to simply enjoy yourself while meeting new people," he recalls.

A graceful host

While these groups and events are beneficial to attendees, they've also had a profound impact on Certes's business. "Have we garnered more business as a result of our groups? Absolutely," Mainquist says. "We have been able to cement some deep friendships through these groups that permeate our entire business." But Brandon Norberg, a financial analyst at Wayzata Investment Partners and long-time NeXtworking participant, says that not once did he or anyone he knows feel pressured by a Certes rep to listen to a job offer. "They, as a company, were consistently above-board, knowing that in the long run people will come to them for help," he says. "This kind of dedication to the long-term view is hard to find within their industry."

Over the years, Mainquist has developed a number of strategies for hosting events. Her team sends early invitations and reminders, for instance, and always picks "fun yet convenient" venues. They also present interesting speakers who address timely topics, informed panelists for the educational sessions, and local industry leaders who offer sage career advice.

The company charges no membership fees. Larger NeXtworking events range in cost from $10,000 to $40,000, which is paid for entirely by Certes and its sister divisions. For Mainquist, the time and money spent are clearly worth it. "The best way to build a business is through personal relationships and a strong referral network," she says. As her firm demonstrates, hosting events is a way to offer  and do  just that.