Over the course of the pandemic, local businesses struggled to stay afloat, pivoting to online sales and services where possible and relying on government loans and grants. Many shop local initiatives were launched, in order to help local entrepreneurs get through the storm.
Many local business groups met online to discuss strategies and creative ways to continue providing goods and services for their clients. One of those groups was the Business Networking International (BNI) Elite Bradford Chapter, a referral-based networking group with 270,000 members worldwide.
Throughout the pandemic, BNI's leadership teams across the world went through extensive training to help their members adapt to online meetings and access tools and resources for businesses.
The Bradford group of 23 members recently started meeting in person again and is looking to welcome more.
"We are currently looking to support other businesses in the community, particularly ones that have been affected by COVID," said member Leah Epstein-Armstrong of eLifestyle, who has been a member for the past five years. "We are a group of local business owners that are committed to helping each other."
President of the Bradford chapter, Carl Levy of Connect Insurance Inc., says he originally joined the group 10 years ago so he could have a local presence, meet local entrepreneurs and grow his business through qualified referrals. During the pandemic, he says it was his only way to network and pass referrals.
"Most of our members grew their businesses through the pandemic," he said.
"We are always looking to add ‘complimentary’ businesses – ones that can bring and receive referrals to/from our members," said Levy. "We only allow one person per profession so that we can fully support our members."
What Epstein-Armstrong has found the most valuable of her time with the group is the friendships she's made and business connections.
"I often feel like all I have to do is snap my fingers and magically something appears from someone at BNI to help both my business and personal life," she said.
At first, she was hesitant about joining, but after sitting in for one of her fellow trainers, she was hooked.
"It was such a valuable use of my time that I continued to this day," she said.
During the pandemic, she said the group helped to create some normalcy in her life, knowing there were other entrepreneurs going through what she was.
"We also were able to gain a number of referrals that we might not have received had we not been in the group," she said.
Bradford member and entrepreneur Stephan Lafreniere of Schooley Mitchell consulting firm, says the group has replaced his peer network which he was used to in when working in a corporate setting.
"As an entrepreneur and the only employee, this peer group has become a source of ideation, mentorship, coaching, and general support – all of which is beyond the intended value of growing our businesses through referrals," he said.
Lafreniere joined the group in February 2022, shortly after he bought the Schooley Mitchell franchise.
"While not having a pre-COVID perspective it’s easy to believe that this group helped to provide a weekly dose of positive support," he said.
There is an annual fee to be part of our group – approximately $700 per year – but Levy says the average member receives over $50,000 in referrals per year. The fee also includes an extensive library of learning tools, presentations and courses.
To learn more about the BNI Bradford chapter, visit their website here.