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Discovering the Multiplier Effect of YEO

Keith M. Alper, Co-founder, Executive Producer and CEO, Creative Producers Group

Who says advertising doesn't pay?

Certainly not Keith Alper, co-founder, executive producer and CEO of Creative Producers Group in St. Louis, whose life was forever changed in 1992 by an ad he came across in Inc. Magazine for the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) "Birthing of Giants" program.

The three-year program accepts approximately 60 entrepreneurs who meet YEO membership criteria – business professionals under age 40 who are the owners, co-founders or controlling shareholders of companies with annual sales over $1 million – and brings them together once a year for a week of learning and networking. The year Alper applied, the group was meeting at MIT.

"I didn't get into the class at first," he recalls. "Then a guy called and said they had a cancellation. Being surrounded by people who had the same problems and passions was an unbelievable experience. By the end of the week, I was on a high."

Alper's enthusiasm was noted by the YEO executive director, who invited him to join the organization. Founded in 1987, YEO had grown to about 300 members in a handful of chapters.

"There's only one problem," the executive director told Alper. "There is no YEO chapter in St. Louis, so you'll become the founding president."

YEO Hypergrowth

Alper was put in touch with Arthur Scharf, a graduating member of the 55-year old St. Louis chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO) who was also interested in giving back and helping start a YEO chapter. YPO is similar to YEO but for presidents of larger companies under the age of 49.

Together, Scharf and Alper recruited a board of directors. Alper focused on attracting members while Scharf developed programs. By the end of the first year, the chapter exceeded 40 members. Within 18 months, it was the largest chapter in the YEO network.

Alper's success in St. Louis landed him on the board of YEO International in 1994. The following year, he went to his first YEO International Conference in Lake Tahoe. At the time, YEO had about 30 chapters, close to a thousand members and about eight staff people. Alper thought the conference could be improved and wrote an eight-page letter to the president explaining how. The president responded by asking Alper to help.

For the next three years, Alper and his staff at Creative Producers Group produced the conference. He and others like him in the trenches spent literally hundreds of thousands of their own funds, both at the chapter and international level, to build infrastructure, travel to meetings, and support projects.

Alper's dedication to YEO International led to his election as international president in 1998-99, a time commitment roughly equivalent to a full-time job, according to Matt Mladenka, senior manager of business development for YEO International.

"During Keith's tenure, we laid a lot of the groundwork for YEO's recent hypergrowth," said Mladenka. "Keith sought outside funding and created systems that have been copied by other chapters. We've tripled in size in the last five years."

Of all that he's done for YEO, Alper says he's most proud of his work internationally. Alper was president when representatives from the Kauffman Foundation attended a YEO conference. Impressed with the organization’s mission and accomplishments, Kauffman awarded a large grant, which Alper says was key in enabling the organization to grow to 5,000 members and become self-sustaining.

Alper guesses his business may have grown faster if not for the time he’s given to YEO. Nevertheless, he's emphatic that the return on his investment has been well worth it. So much so that he's now looking forward to serving as chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of YPO in 2005-06.

A Million Times More Back

Alper's passion for entrepreneurship has inspired him to give back in other ways. After all, he says, he doesn't play golf. For his alma mater, Southern Illinois University, he's served as a board member of the School of Business Advisory Board, as chair of the School of Communications Advisory Board, and as a member of the eMBA Advisory Board. He's a past president and chairman of the St. Louis Ad Club.

Now a board member of St. Louis Enterprise Centers, a local business incubator, he mentors a woman who owns a printing business. In addition to occasional guest speaking at high schools, colleges and universities, he's often sought out by the media for expert commentary on entrepreneurship and small business.

Another of Alper's current interests is the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards sponsored by St. Louis University, which recognize students running their own businesses. Alper sits on the advisory board for the awards and serves as a regional judge. He attributes his enthusiasm for the awards to the fact that he himself started a business while still in school.

A self-proclaimed "AV nerd" who finagled the administrators at his high school to allow him to run the school's theatre and television station, Alper and his partner, Steve Friedman, began getting paid for creating slide shows at age 18 while working in the entertainment department of the Six Flags amusement park. Six Flags in other cities soon asked them to produce similar videos.

"One day a 1099 showed up at the door," says Alper, "and we realized, wow, we're in business."

Alper held several positions in the entertainment industry over the years while continuing to produce videos. He and Friedman incorporated in 1985 and "got serious" in 1987.

Today, Creative Producers Group is a marketing and communications company that produces strategic events, meetings, video and Internet solutions nationally and internationally. The company has 50 employees and does about $10 to 12 million in business annually for Fortune 500 companies like BMW, Wal-Mart, H&R Block, Coke, Ernst & Young, and American Airlines.

In addition to contributing employee time and company resources to entrepreneurship, Creative Producers Group also gives back to the community through in-kind donations, matching gifts, and the employment of interns interested in careers in communications.

Still, for Alper, nothing gives more satisfaction than giving back to entrepreneurship.

"I've gotten a million times more back than what I put in from the people I've met and the experiences I've been able to have," he says.

"I go back to my old YEO chapter and feel like a proud father. Look at how YEO is changing lives, not only for members, but their employees and families. I’m involved with a lot of other charities, but there you can only do so much. With YEO, the multiplier effect is enormous."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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