If basing a consulting practice largely on a quote attributed to an early 20th century Supreme Court justice seems like a stretch, that’s exactly what the Prouty Project, a strategic planning firm based in Eden Prairie, intended.

The quote is from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

The idea of thinking differently is “a big part of who we are and what we do,” according to Prouty Project CEO Mike Felmlee. “We’re not interested in vanilla, everyday stuff.”

Chairman and founder Jeff Prouty launched the consultancy in 1987 after seven years in Minneapolis and New York City with what is now PricewatershouseCooper. It came a few years after he had spotted the Holmes quote.

“I just felt like that’s the quote that’s going to drive the way I’m going to build this business and live my life,” Prouty said.

In the spirit of stretching clients’ minds, Prouty Project relies on a variety of creative elements: movement, music, video and humor. It incorporates shared activities such as daylong service projects, sessions at a round table in a round room known as the Creative Think Tank, and others aboard the “floating meeting space” known as Think Tank II, docked on Lake Minnetonka.

Felmlee said Prouty’s idea is to combine creativity and business acumen with an experimental flavor to make a difference for clients.

The company’s client relationships go back five to 10 years, and in one case to the firm’s founding. In addition to strategic planning consulting, the firm also offers organization-development services to help clients execute their plans and board-development services for directors and advisory board members. Clients range from small entrepreneurial ventures to global corporations and include public, private and nonprofit organizations. Among the firm’s local clients are Donaldson Co., C.H. Robinson, General Mills, Nash Finch, CommonBond Communities, Minnesota High Tech Association and United Way.

The firm favors steady growth so its senior-level consultants can work directly with clients. “If we could increase our revenues 15 percent a year, we are very, very happy,” Felmlee said.

Revenue at the firm, which has 11 employees, was $2 million in 2012. Prouty Project cut salaries to avoid recession-related layoffs, introduced incentives for clients to bring in new business, and is now scrambling to keep up with expanding work for existing clients and new ones.

A newer approach to the stretching concept involves bringing in “red teams” of leaders from other industries or the community to offer feedback on a client’s strategic plan. Felmlee said the experience has been popular with clients and with outsiders who have taken part.

What clients don’t receive, Felmlee said, is a strategic plan stuffed into a three-ring binder. Instead, they get a “one-pager,” spelling out in a few hundred words the mission, vision, goals, strategies and tactics. The framework addresses the areas Felmlee said are critical to a comprehensive strategy: markets, products and services, people and finances.

Prouty Project begins with “a clean sheet of paper,” Felmlee said. The goal is to help clients find a solution by raising questions.

“The knowledge is in the room with the people who are running the business,” Felmlee said. “We try to bring that out as best we can.”

Dalyn Dye, CEO of Illinois-based Hoogwegt U.S. Inc., a dairy commodities trading company with 60-plus employees and $800 million in domestic operations, said he has used Prouty Project three times over 10 years.

“What I really appreciate is they come alongside you and work you through a process of coming to answers on your own,” Dye said. “They stimulate and challenge your thinking, they keep pulling and pushing without giving you the answer.”

Anton Vincent, president of the Frozen Frontier frozen-foods division of General Mills, said the Prouty Project has helped with leadership, vision and strategy in divisions where he has worked over eight years.

“Jeff and his team have helped draw that out of us,” Vincent said. “It’s always resident but you need someone to draw it out of you. What Jeff does is not unique but how he does it is.”

The expert says: Jack Militello, management professor and director of the health care MBA program at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, is an acquaintance of Jeff Prouty who said he has found the Prouty Project to be engaging and generous, offering an “open-ended, almost anthropological consulting model.

“They can be open and free form but you have to be smart, you have to have good intuitive skills and good analytical skills to turn that into insight,” Militello said.


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.