Former corporate sales and marketing leader Erik Beckler is using his continent-hopping, enterprisewide experience to help executives at small and midsize companies sharpen their strategic and leadership skills. His platform is the Afila Group, the monthly executive round table he founded two years ago.

The Afila Group’s round-table model is similar to that of Vistage’s CEO Roundtable but differs because Beckler’s focus is on commercial executives rather than CEOs and owners.

“There wasn’t anything out there dedicated to the strategic issues that sales, marketing and product executives face daily,” Beckler said. “For small and medium-sized business, there’s not a lot of people around the office to bounce ideas off of. They don’t always have the time to think strategically, to have a forum of like-minded people to address the opportunities and issues that they have.’’

Beckler’s long-held affinity for learning, teaching and coaching, fueled in part by participation in a round table run by Minnesota-based Executive Group, prompted him to launch Afila Group in January 2012.

‘Straightforward cat’

“I didn’t want to work for the man anymore,” Beckler, 46, said. “Working in that structure of how you’re always wondering and worrying about how you’re perceived. … I’m a pretty straightforward cat. I wanted to try some things on my own.”

He also was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and their sons, after traveling to 30 countries during one stretch with the Thomson Reuters Corp. legal publishing business in Eagan.

Beckler, who has a master’s in international management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, focused on product imports and exports during his 11-plus years at Thomson Reuters, including roles as manager of international sales, director of marketing and director of global legal products. Beckler also worked at hearing aid maker GN ReSound and technology outsourcing company Orbit Systems and taught as an adjunct professor of international financial management at Hamline University before striking out on his own.

“Having that breadth of experience gave me a unique ability to see things across a multifunctional and multi-segment way that lent me some credi­bility,’’ he said.

Afila Group, which Beckler said comes from the Spanish for “to hone, to sharpen,” offers members confidential monthly half-day round tables, individual coaching and educational resources. The company’s 2013 revenue was less than $200,000.

Beckler hopes to add enough newcomers by this summer to create a second group, each with eight to 12 members. Members typically are vice presidents or senior vice presidents of sales, marketing or product lines from companies with sales of $10 million to $300 million in any industry, with no competitors in the same group. Potential members should be confident but “know they don’t know it all and are open to insights from other folks.’’

Afila Group member Mark Stignani, now an intellectual property lawyer, hired Beckler at Thomson Reuters in 1997 and worked with him in international sales and marketing. Stignani said he likes the mix of backgrounds of group members, from marketing and operations to creative.

‘Big thoughts’

“Erik has always been a thinker of big thoughts,” Stignani said. “He has matured as an executive, his emotional intelligence has grown immeasurably and he always had a high IQ.’’

Afila Group member Kevin Ebben, owner of Move One Degree, an online marketing and strategy company in St. Paul, said the group has helped him figure out different avenues for launching ChiroConnect, an online tool for helping chiropractors connect with patients.

“This is a group of critical thinkers that brings different experiences together to tackle the challenges each one of us has,” Ebben said. “There are directors of sales and directors of marketing from biggest companies who can lend some ideas I wouldn’t have as an entrepreneur.”

The expert says: Brian Davis, CEO of Leadership Catalysts, said a key challenge for small and midsize business CEOs and owners is to develop the next level of leadership so that they can “elevate and delegate.”

“They need to find a way to help their key leaders think more strategically and to work ‘on the business’ in addition to working ‘in the business,’ ’’ Davis said. “They also need to broaden the perspective of their often ‘homegrown’ executives beyond how their company has always done things.”


Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is