Call him an executive therapist.

Ashburn resident David Belden works for TEC, an international network of chief executive officers and business owners who do no networking at all. Instead, the members meet in small groups of about 16 once a month to discuss issues ranging from whether to hire a chief technology officer to how to cope with running a business while a son or daughter is battling a drug problem.

Belden, 52, is a TEC chair, or leader, for a group of small-business owners and chief executives. Recently, he also became head of a group of executives who work for larger companies with $4 million to $275 million in revenue. The members of his groups come from Northern Virginia, Washington and Southern Maryland.

The sessions, as well as the individual coaching sessions that Belden gives members, can be intense. "This is a long-term engagement where people are working on their own company," Belden said. "They're not hiring someone to come in and fix it."

Loudoun Extra asked him about his work.

Q. Are TEC sessions similar to therapy support groups?

A. They are similar to support groups. I had a member, for example, who discovered after eight years that her partner was embezzling. She was absolutely destroyed by it and was actually going to give the company up. The woman was the technical arm and the man who was her partner was doing all the marketing, all the administration and all of the business development for the company. She had no business training whatsoever, so . . . she felt that she had no way of running the company.

What the TEC group did was support her and help her get her finances in order--she of course had to fire her accountant because he and the other partner had been in collusion. She had to find a new accountant, and we helped her do a strategic plan and a lot of [the help we gave] of course had to do with moral support. She is doing extremely well now. She's a real success story.

How are you qualified to coach all of these people?

Well, I have 32 years of business experience myself. I've been a CEO and have run companies successfully. I spent most of my life abroad--30 years doing business in Europe and Asia. The last 12 years of my career I was moving from country to country, either to start new operations or restructure existing operations.

How did you first find out about TEC?

I came to the United States--I had been living in Copenhagen--in 1996 to restructure the North American operations for a Swiss company. As often happens during restructuring, I fired my predecessor. The day after he left, he received an invitation from TEC [it stands for The Executive Committee] confirming that they had reserved a place for him at an informational meeting at the Tower Club [in Vienna].

The only reason I went to the event is I'd heard about the Tower Club, and I wanted to see it. People had told me it was a nice business club and a good place to meet people.

But [when I got there] the whole idea appealed to me. I really needed an independent forum because I was [working] with a group of people and hadn't been there long enough to know who I could trust and who I couldn't trust, and I had a [head] office in Geneva that had no idea whatsoever about the difficulty of doing business in the U.S. In Europe you don't sue each other, you don't have racial discrimination and sexual harassment suits, that sort of thing, [to worry about]. We had a lot of [discrimination] problems that I needed advice on. . . . Fortunately, no lawsuits developed.

How did you clean up the charged environment at the company?

The sexual harassment had been overt and accepted by the management. I had a staff of 100 people, and the average age was 26. And people were of course partying together and going to happy hour together. It had been generally accepted that there would be a lot of rumors and a lot of gossip, and that was prevalent within the management team.

One of the first things I did was to let people know that spreading rumors about staff--especially less senior staff--was grounds for termination. I fired one of the managers publicly for spreading rumors about a receptionist. My predecessor had eight vice presidents, and within six months all of them were gone, and then I promoted from within. I found people who were very good and then trained them.

How does listening to people's problems affect you?

I enjoy it. I had been a member of TEC for about a year when I came home from a meeting one day and was telling my wife, Hanna, about this wonderful meeting we had . . . how powerful the discussions had been, and she said, "You know, David, you really should consider becoming a TEC chair some day. . . . You'd love that."

The very next day, I had a meeting with my TEC chair, and he was saying what a great meeting we had and that he really liked my contributions and that I ought to consider becoming a chair some day.

So, a couple of years later, when I finished restructuring the Swiss company here and I was deciding what I was going to do, this opportunity with TEC was there.

What are some of the more common problems your CEOs are grappling with?

Our groups are integrated by age and gender and other criteria, but we have a lot of members who are about 50 years old, and the biggest crisis for people at this age is wondering, "Is this all there is?"

People reach a certain level of economic success, of business success, of social success, and they take a break and look at themselves and say, "My life is at least half over, is there going to be something more exciting, or have I done everything that's exciting?"

One way that this issue surfaces is when people are talking about their succession plans or their exit strategy for their businesses. A lot of times they say, "I'm going to sell my business."

The questions we were discussing for a long time were where people wanted to be when they sold the company and how much they wanted to sell it for and whether or not they would have enough money to retire on. But it occurred to me in the middle of a meeting that I had been asking the wrong questions. If this is your one chance at selling the company and becoming independently wealthy, you certainly have to be sure that what is going to happen after is something you want to happen . . . that your company and your organization that you worked so hard to build is no longer important to you.

None of the people in my group have sold their companies. Several have reconsidered. Several . . . have postponed the decision until they are certain what they want their connection to the company to be after they sell. One man in my group had sold a company and stayed on as president and was very unhappy with it. He is sort of the poster boy of, you know, this is not the best thing to do, and if you're going to do it, either sell your company and walk away from it . . . or make sure you really want . . . to function as an employee.

What are some of the other personal issues that come up?

I think for a lot of us, certainly for myself, we have actually been reluctant successes. We got--I got--into business not because I wanted to be a businessman but because I needed to make some money. As it turned out, I was good at it. I had wanted to be a poet when I was young. It was the 1960s; I think everyone wanted to be a poet.

I still have hopes. I just got so busy being in business--and especially in the last 15 years--every time I finish one job, there has been another really large business challenge. My wife and I moved 10 times in seven years to six different countries. For some reason, she stuck with me. We've been married 30 years, so I guess something's working, but the intensity of the work has just really consumed me.

How do you select members for TEC?

What we are looking for are people who are interested in growth, both personally and professionally, and they have to be willing to open up about their need for growth. . . . This is one place where people can be completely honest, and the other members have no hesitancies when it comes to [giving advice].

For example, there was a person who came to our group and told us he was going to sell the low-tech end of the company that his father had started and use the money to develop the high-tech end. This member was very confused about how he was going to do it, and he was telling us, "I don't know how much I'll get for it, but I'd take a quarter of a million dollars."

So we started questioning him. A quarter of a million dollars didn't seem like a lot of money for a business that had been there 25 years. It turned out he hadn't had the company valuated, he had no idea what it was worth and felt it was a low-tech business that was going to go out of style in a few years anyway.

So we gave him some homework. By the next meeting . . . he had to have the company valuated professionally, and he had to . . . meditate about his relationship with his father, because his father was still in the company. Also, a brother was in the company, so he really had to think about his relationship with his family and how that was influencing his decision.

He came back the next month, and, as far as the valuation was concerned, just putting out the request for it had generated an offer for the low-tech end of the company for $874,000. He would have left over $600,000 on the table from reacting emotionally. . . .

He decided not to sell that part of the company and started to review his relationship with his father. Over the next several months, he kept reporting back to the group about how things had changed. He actually ended up using a lot of the high technology he developed in the side of the business his father had started, and it became a really profitable business. He really grew to love it, simply by learning more about it and about why his father had started the business.

What had his relationship with his father been like?

Very contentious. It's difficult in a family business where the son has taken over and wants to prove he can do it and that he is better at it than his father was, especially when the father is still in the company but is no longer chief executive or even chairman.

Do you have children?

We have a son, Mark, 27. He is in the Army. . . . My father was an old socialist and a civil liberties attorney and all that sort of thing, and to my father the worst thing in the world was a businessman--the root of all evil. So I went off and rebelled by becoming a successful businessman. I was never in the service, spent all of my time in Europe and Asia, and my son comes back from [Europe] and joins the American Army. He is doing well; he really enjoys it. Whatever makes him happy makes me happy, even though it's not what I would have chosen.