Innovative Masters Forum, a victim of changing business practices, shuts down after 23 years

The executive speaking industry “is dying as an external business,” says Tom Miller, explaining why he and co-founder Jim Ericson announced Wednesday that they are shutting down the Masters Forum, a fixture in the Twin Cities business community for the past 23 years.

“Attendance at our programs has steadily declined over the past several years, they said in a prepared release. “It has come to the point where we simply don’t have the financial resources to continue, and have no choice but to cease operations immediately.”

Miller, reached at his lake place up north, recounted for me some of the forum’s history and highlights:

He and Ericson launched the Masters Forum in 1987. Colleagues at Pillsbury, they came together to start a training company where they would resell content from other providers.

For seven years, they brought in Steven Covey before he shot to the top with his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.” They ran the Covey Leadership Center of Minnesota and separately ran the Masters Forum. Covey bought the two entrepreneurs out in 1994 and began distributing his training and products directly. But no matter, the Masters Forum was doing well.

“Our peak year was 1995,” when the audience reached 600 subscribers, Miller said. The bursting of the tech bubble slowed the business, and after 9/11, it stalled. In 2002, attendance dropped by half and has been dwindling every since.

Miller points to several factors for the drop, noting the major impact of online training and content on the executive seminar business.

He cited Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, who can command $65,000 per engagement, as an example. “Without much trouble, you can get one of his speeches online for nothing.”

In addition, they had to compete against such events as TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival that are “more about the experience” and provide much of their content online.

 Miller also noted changing expectations. The trend of companies to “do more with fewer people puts extreme pressure on time … People are not willing to take a half-day… to sit in a lecture hall.”

He takes pride in the difference the Masters Forum made with Twin Cities business executives over the years. He recalls when Christensen spoke here several years ago, well before his signature book, “Innovator’s Dilemma,” was well known. “I remember at a break, a senior executive at a major corporation here said: ‘If this guy is right, everything we’re doing with our new initiatives is dead wrong.’ ”

At another forum, Dr George Friedman, founder and CEO of STRATFOR, a global intelligence and strategy firm, was speaking about factors affecting the global economy. Miller remembers Brad Anderson, Best Buy CEO at the time, stepped out of the presentation and called his office to invite Friedman to speak to company executives, describing him as “the best speaker he’d ever heard.”

The bottom line: “We’re proud of what we were able to do… I wish we could do it longer, but we faced the stark reality that we couldn’t sustain it,” he said.

While he has no current plans, he expects to spend some time promoting a book he recently co-wrote,  “See New Now,” which is a series of short stories based on Masters Forum presentations.

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