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Run fast not scared: ten association executives talk about tackling change.

FOR THE NEAR-CENTURY-OLD EMPLOYER ASSOCIATION GROUP, WASHINGTON, D.C., things have changed dramatically since the time that it claimed Henry Ford as an active member of its Detroit group. Now a network of 63 regional not-for-profit associations, EAG represents more than 70,000 employers, and since 1907 has been affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C. Along the way, EAG has transitioned from the mission of assisting the emerging manufacturing community in responding to the rise of unions--to its current role of providing 24/7 access to sophisticated human resource services. In addition, the network has expanded its reach beyond the manufacturing and service communities to employers in education, health care, municipalities, and the nonprofit community. The EAG associations now provide numerous HR training and consulting services, as well as a wide variety of compensation surveys, to the employer community--many members of which are engaged in manufacturing. During the past c entury, the association and its leadership have participated in and adapted to tremendous changes that reflect not only the issues affecting employers but those affecting the greater association community.

While adjusting to the evolution of employer-employee relations and ever-increasing regulation of today's workplace, EAG's leaders have also faced the more general challenges to most associations: burgeoning competition (from HR consultants, professional employer organizations, the insurance industry, financial institutions, and distance-learning companies for starters), increasing member needs, the growing trend of partnering, and the upgrading of staff skills.

Association executives from EAG, far from running scared, have faced their challenges head on, initiating creative programs specifically designed to increase the value of membership. Their activities are useful lessons for many organizations that face similar challenges. Here we've compiled their ideas into a roundtable format, with each executive responding to questions relevant to his or her organization. (See sidebar, "Roundtable Roster," for the list of panelists and their affiliations.)

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How do you anticipate your members' needs?

Dahlman: While we are a 100-year-old group, we have evolved rapidly, particularly in the last five years. We believe-- and I believe for my own association as well--that our core competitive advantage as associations is in taking all the new tools and sources of information and applying them individually to determine and fill our members' needs.

Redohl: At AAIM Management Association, we revisited the traditional methods we used for determining our member's needs and came to the conclusion that people were just riot joining associations or attending meetings at the rate that they used t--and those who do join are starting to retire. So, we decided that if the members were not coming to us, we would go to them to determine their needs. We now have seven membership development staff--an unprecedented number-- who visit our members in person to really learn what their needs are and to share with them how other members with similar needs are benefiting from AAIM services. We don't expect an immediate payoff, but we believe the payoff will occur. This is a relationship business and that's our competitive advantage.

Gibson: We opened association membership to all types of employers--public, private, and service--because they all share the same people needs. We also changed our name from Employers' Association of Illinois to simply Employers' Association to throw off the shackles of territorial restrictions. This not only better represents the diversity of our current membership, but better positions us for membership development in neighboring states.

White: We decided to limit the focus of the Washington Employers Association to the sole area of human resources services. We stipulated that our services were for members only and that we wanted the association to be the single, most cost-effective source of HR services for the employer community. We see a lot of fads in the HR business. Our members expect us to extract the crucial elements of those fads and make that information available to them in a timely manner.

Pille: Learning breeds loyalty, and people love to learn and to become better at what they do. We are in a great position with our members to help them do that. And we do that by teaching, advising, and being their partner. By filling that need, not only do we teach them, but through that process we learn from them as well.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Using market research, what innovative services have you developed?

Pontillo: Our answer to costly workshops at Harvard, the Wharton School of Finance, and other major universities is the Executive Management Institute, a comprehensive, weeklong course for corporate CEOs, senior executives, and middle managers. The course guides participants in testing and honing decision-making abilities via business simulation challenges and interactive discussion. Since we've instituted the program, our members now rate our training program much higher.

Manny: We've made Internet-based training an exclusive member benefit at Employers Association of Florida. Two years ago, we set out to offer high-quality Internet-based human resource training courses to our members. Originally, we hoped to establish the program as a new source of nondues revenue, and we discovered from member feedback that the service was well received. The number of members using the service, however, was not reaching its potential level, so we adopted a new strategy and offered the program as a member benefit--free of charge. In six months, more than 50 members flocked to the program and it has become one of our leading member retention programs.

Redohi: AAIM Management Association now offers Lean Manufacturing, an instructional program to minimize manufacturing processes' cycle time and increase productivity. With everyone in the manufacturing and service sectors looking to fix their variable costs, Lean Manufacturing aids greatly in that effort.

Cain: Mountain States Employers Council's Organizational Development Certificate Program runs a full year, with classes limited to 20 HR senior executives. Launched in 2000 as the brainchild of our management development group, Organizational Development resulted from member demands to "train at a higher and higher level." Our 2,500-member association trains more than 30,000 people annually and offers one of the broadest arrays of seminars and classes in the nation. In 2001, MSEC grossed about $3.5 million from training.

Pontillo: We recently opened the first new credit union in Erie in 15 years. Although credit unions are usually based around one company or professional society, ours is open to every employer, regardless of the industry it serves. By combining forces, we were able to launch a full-service credit union from day one. The credit union is particularly popular with smaller employers, many of whom could never hope to offer their small staff access to their own credit union.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: How have you increased the visibility of your organization?

Parker: Pro bono community service is key to the Industrial Management Council's visibility, credibility, and bottom-line success. I now spend a significant portion of my time on community service projects, most of them to improve public education in the Rochester area, particularly to benefit less fortunate children. IMC also provides leadership in area workforce development. Five IMC staffers work full-time on education and workforce projects that include 1) supporting a public school teachers' summer intern program, in which teachers work at member companies with mentors on specific projects, apply their knowledge in the classroom, and report back to the association about its impact on students; 2) tracking city public school students in the 8th through 11th grades and encouraging them to enter a special curriculum of mathematics, science, and technology; and 3) partnering in the Rochester Business Education Alliance, along with business and government, to place city high schoolers in a school-to-work init iative. A Certificate of Employability is awarded with high school diplomas to those completing the program, thus opening doors with area employers.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What process do you use to choose joint-venture partners?

Hart: At Employers Resource Association, we focus on due diligence. However, in choosing strategic partners for joint ventures, it's clear that many companies want to partner with us to take advantage of our close member relations and our human resources expertise. When evaluating the pros and cons of prospective partners, we've developed a comprehensive list of questions that we'd like answers to before we proceed with serious negotiations. (See sidebar, "Quizzing for Quality Services and Strategic Partners," for the complete list.) We now have put together a partnership with EAG network member AAIM in St. Louis [Redohl's group], in which AAIM now conducts all reference checking for our members. Members receive excellent work and AAIM garners some $100,000 a year in revenue.

Pontillo: Our association has long provided a significant value-added service for members: inexpensive group health care coverage. We offer a wide choice of plans from four different insurance companies. This benefit, for which the association receives no premium money or other financial gain from the insurers, covers more than 60,000 employees and dependents at some 5,200 member-companies. Total premiums now run about $210 million annually.

Parker: IMC Rochester has two key partnerships. Career Development Services, a career consulting firm, operates the association's extensive outplacement services, and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, under the aegis of a 501(c)(3) organization, Rochester Resource Alliance, administers and disburses $16 million annually in federal funds under the Workforce Investment Act. The money goes to counsel unskilled workers through various providers such as the Urban League, rehabilitation centers, and others.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What do you advise for raising the caliber and productivity of staff?

White: Investing time and money in hiring and training association employees will pay off. I try to hire empire builders; I look for individuals who have a passion for owning a service and for serving the members. One of our staff members, for example, manages the association's workers' compensation program. He lives and breathes workers' compensation. He took over our existing workers' compensation program, which is limited by state law to very specific types of employers, and developed a risk-management program that is now available to all members.

Hart: We accomplished a staff turnaround by terminating services of all consultants and slowly building a professional staff. I got board approval to invest $100,000 in salaries for new staff so that we could hire professionals who would force the business to grow. I've preached quality and professionalism to every staff member--with no room for exceptions.

In summary, employer association executives are confident about the future--that their associations can meet and best the challenges of expanded competition from new venues, particularly the dot-com world. Although some say the Internet is not a big threat to their associations, they agree that employer associations must stay ahead of the technology curve," as Pontillo puts it. "We should embrace the technology as just another mechanism to help deliver our services faster, better, and cheaper than anyone else." Pontillo's attitude was recently affirmed by nationally recognized management consultant, futurist, and best-selling author Karl Albrecht of San Diego: "Only fools worship tools. Ultimately, all of the digital gadgets--computers, printers, scanners, copiers, faxes, networks, cell phones, personal digital assistants--are just devices. They are a means to accomplish certain ends. If we can't figure out what we want from them, we certainly can't distinguish the means from the ends" (Training & Development, February 2001).

RELATED ARTICLE: Quizzing for Quality Services and Strategic Partners

After being approached by numerous suppliers and vendors wishing to become strategic partners with Employers Resource Association, Inc., Cincinnati, President Bill Hart developed a list of questions to ask potential joint-venture partners--and his own staff--before moving forward.

* Why are we considering this product or service?

* Is there a member demand for this product or service?

* Is this product or service consistent with our mission?

* Can or should we support it with association staff?

* Who else provides this product or service to our members?

* Will this vendor provide a better product or service than others?

* Will this offering alienate any current member?

* Why have we chosen this particular vendor?

* Is the chosen vendor an association member?

* Can this vendor provide the level of quality we demand?

* Will the vendor take full responsibility for member satisfaction?

* What vendor representative will be responsible to our members?

* What vendor representative will sign the contract for services?

* Will this partnership create any hardship for our staff?

* How will we measure success or failure of this partnership?

* Are we getting a fair return for endorsing this vendor?

* What happens if this vendor goes out of business?

Roundtable Roster

Ten association executives of the Employer Association Group, a network of 63 regional nonprofit associations, answer questions about facing challenges and remaining relevant to members. Participants include:

Nancy Cain, executive vice president, Mountain States Employers Council, Inc., Denver

Bill Dahlman, president and CEO, Employers Group, Los Angeles

John Gibson, president and CEO, Employers' Association, Peoria, Illinois

Bill Hart, president, Employers Resource Association, Inc., Cincinnati

Rita Manny, president, Employers Association of Florida, Longwood

Sandy Parker, president, The IMC, Rochester, New York

Mary Pille, CAE, executive vice president, Employers' Association, Peoria, Illinois

Ralph Pontillo, CAE, president, Manufacturers Association of Northwest Pennsylvania, Erie

H.R. (Mick) Redohl, president, AAIM Management Association, St. Louis

Dan White, president, Washington Employers Association, Seattle

Argyll Campbell is the former executive director and Mark Stuart is current executive director of the Employer Association Group, Washington, D.C. E-mail: mstuart@nam.org.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Stuart, Mark
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
Words:2210
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