They came armed with business cards, brochures and bottles of water to sip between sales pitches designed to last 90 seconds or less. They sat in rows of folding chairs and leaned forward -- nose to nose with strangers who suddenly were the unwavering focus of their attention.

"There's not enough time to be shy," said Kristi Weikel, a Ramsey lawyer holding a stack of business cards three inches thick. "This should be fun. It's like a spin on speed dating."

Then the first whistle blew and this corporate-world version of musical chairs began. But instead of dates, the participants were looking for long-term relationships. Business relationships.

Let the speed networking begin.

Three dozen business representatives, brought together by the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, gathered in a Courtyards of Andover conference room this week to sell themselves, their companies and their hopes of long-lasting partnerships -- but only for little more than a minute each.

"You take out a brochure, do a fast, basic pitch and try to figure out what would interest them -- all in the first few seconds," said Pam Fick, an account representative for mail-system expert Pitney Bowes, of St. Cloud. "And then you move on and do it again."

And again. And again.

Talk for 90 seconds. Listen for 90 seconds while sipping water. Speak, sell, stop, sip, sweat out another 90 seconds. Then move on.

At least they were supposed to move on. One row of participants was to remain seated while the other was instructed to move down one seat, to the right. But occasionally, when Chamber President Peter Turok blew his whistle to get folks out of their chairs, nobody moved until Turok shouted, "Up! Move to the right."

Skip the introductions

The men outnumbered the women two-to-one. A half-dozen wore ties, a few wore jeans, but there were no uniforms.

"That's too bad," said Tami Flygare, Chamber administrative assistant. "You wear a uniform that says 'Bob's Auto Shop' and you can skip introductions and save time."

What do you say in such a short period of time? And how do you repeat it 15 times and remain enthusiastic?

Renee Sande, coordinator of the Anoka County Transportation Management Organization, said she would tell others to visit her website. Jeff Baker, representing American Family Insurance of Andover, said he hoped to avoid "dry mouth."

Passion - and compassion

"You have to have passion for what you do and you have to show compassion, that when times are minimal, you want to support other area businesses," said Barbie Waknitz, of Sam's Club in Fridley. "If you like what you're doing, others know it. You shine."

The Anoka Area Chamber hopes to hold four of these speed networking events this year, said Susan Huston, Chamber chairperson and government affairs director for QCTV Community Television in Anoka, Andover, Champlin and Ramsey.

For first-timers and veteran business shmoozers alike, the message was the same. Nobody came to Andover to turn 90 seconds into 15 minutes of fame.

"I want to build long-lasting relationships," said Phil Berg, a young Champlin chiropractor and a speed networking rookie who seemed as stress-free as anyone moving from one folding chair to the next.

Jody Kimball, an administrative liaison for the Minnesota Renaissance School, a small nonsectarian Montessori school in Anoka, called the event "a learning experience." But Terry Lovaas, QCTV community affairs director, said it was more than just a carefully crafted sound bite.

"It really does work," he said. "You get stuff from them and they get stuff from you. It's a valuable experience."

And, like in speed dating, if things aren't working out, you move on.

Said Chamber board member Anne Newhouse, publisher of the Town Planner calendar in Anoka County: "If you can't get it said in a minute and a half, you're taking too long."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419