Business group offers networking opportunities

Jeanette Kendall and Christina Smith

Area business owners and employees looking for a new way to expand their business might consider joining the local Business Networking International Group. 

Chapter president Brian Rule said the group started meeting in March.

“BNI is a referral organization with local chapters throughout the United States, with only one representative from each industry,” Rule said.

“I represent residential insurance, which means there cannot be another residential insurance agent in our chapter.”

Rule said members ask each other for referrals based on something they want to do, either on their own or with their company.

While doing their business, Rule said members try to get referrals for other members.

Although only six members are needed to start a new BNI chapter, Rule said the local group now has about 21 members.

“I’ve been familiar with BNI for a long time,” Rule said. “It allows a chance to get to network with other business people in the area.”

During the first year, Rule said all of the members pay a start-up fee, along with their membership fee. After that, members only pay an annual membership fee, Rule said.

“Someone does not have to live in East Peoria to join our chapter,” Rule said. “In fact, most of the members work in the Peoria area but we also have some members from outside Peoria like Henry and Trivoli.”

Rule said someone interested in joinging the group can visit a meeting twice as a guest. 

“If they wish to join,  they fill out an application that includes what their job is and how they can contribute to the group,” Rule said.  

Applications are turned in with a check for membership dues and an initiation fee.

Since this is the group’s first year, Rule said all members pay $330 for a year’s membership and an additional $100 to get the group started.

After the first year, members only pay the $330 annual membership fee.

Rule said the membership committee reviews all applications before a new member is inducted into the group.

 “Our group always meets at 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. and will be meeting at the Keller Williams office for at least the next 6 months,” Rule said.

“It’s been helpful for me in real estate,” Rule said, adding the group seems to also be helpful for other active members.

Debra Isbell, owner of A Catered Affair, said she joined the group when it was first getting started.

“I really enjoy the people,” Isbell said. “We all seem to fit really well and work well together.”

Since joining the group, Isbell said she has received a few jobs directly from individuals or companies that needed a caterer for an event.

“I think it also helps that someone has your name out there,” Isbell said.

“I think it’s good for all of us.”

Isbell said going to the meeting helps members stay energized about marketing their business.

Similar to Rule, Kristina Shannan of Rally Appraisal in Peoria, said she knew about BNI before joining the East Peoria group in April.

“I was in a BNI group in the Quad Cities and was referred to Jeff Ensinger, who is the executive director for this area, to find a new group to join,” Shannan said.

Shannan said she decided to join the East Peoria group because she was new to the area and wanted to meet people from the area.

“I have received several referrals which have provided new business for me,” Shannan said.

“I’ve also been able to get quite a bit of information through others in the group that I need for my job.”

The biggest benefit is meeting new people and through them, meeting other people, Shannan said.

“I would definitely recommend other business owners or employees join a BNI group,” Shannan said. “It has certainly helped that the people in our group share common interests and our professions branch off to other professions represented in the group.”

“I feel like I’ve really been welcomed there by everyone in the group,” Shannan said.

BNI chapters

Jeff Ensinger, executive director of BNI, said he manages the various chapters from Interstate 80 to Effingham. There are four chapters in Peoria, six in Bloomington, six in Springfield, four in Champaign and one in Decatur.

But, Ensinger said BNI is not a Peoria or East Peoria chapter because members are from all over the place.

Meetings, he said are very structured.

“It’s no willy-nilly. There are no wallflowers,” Ensinger said, adding that each chapter has a president, vice-president and treasurer.

Potential BNI members are screened from an application they fill out.

At the meetings, which are in the morning or afternoon, depending on what chapter someone is in; time is spent on education and business referrals.

“Every week someone gets to talk about one specific product they offer for 10 minutes,” Ensinger said.

Ensinger said BNI members do a lot of “one on one” visits to each other’s businesses.

“If I help you, you’re going to help me back,” he said.

A success story

Ensinger has his own BNI success story.

Eight years ago, Ensinger was selling insurance. His method of selling was mostly to call people at home to try to sell his product.

That all changed after he joined BNI. In BNI, Ensinger began meeting people and getting referrals. Ensinger got enough referrals that he changed the way he conducted his business. In fact, he went into business for himself.

“It kind of gave me the courage to go out on my own,” Ensinger said about BNI.

“Now I don’t make any of those calls. Instead of pounding on doors and trying to sell something, it’s about getting referrals … it takes some of the pressure off.”

However, there is still pressure within the BNI group to come through with referrals. Ensinger said because people see each other weekly, they are not “out of sight, out of mind,” and people can follow up on potential business prospects.

Although, in the past four years, every piece of business Ensinger, has written has been from a referral, he said it still takes work.

“It’s still networking. The magic word there is work. It’s a lot better than calling people at 7 o’ clock at night interrupting their dinner.”

Through BNI, Ensinger said he has met 2,000 people he otherwise would not have met.

If a member is approved for BNI, he or she goes through a four-hour training session. They also receive a new members kit, which has the business cards of chapter members inside.

“Most new members come from other members,” Ensinger said. “We use (BNI) for one-stop shopping because we buy everything through our chapters.”

BNI also has books, specifically written for the organization, which members can purchase to help educate themselves. Some of the titles are “Masters of Networking,” “Business by Referral,” and “Three Minutes to Success.”

Most all BNI groups contain what Ensinger calls “the big 5” occupations. They are: home realtor, home mortgager, auto home insurance, financial service representative, and a chiropractor.

“When I have those five, I can usually start a chapter,” Ensinger said.

Occupations that are more rare to find, Ensinger said, are travel agents, cell phone wireless representatives, CPAs and family attorneys.

Ensinger said the BNI group that formed in March and was meeting in East Peoria until two weeks ago, outgrew its location at the Hampton Inn where they met for free.

“BNI is like a gold fish. It’s only going to get as big as the room and the parking,” Ensinger said.

For more information about BNI, call Ensinger at 453-2463, or visit