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Two-mission man.

TWO-MISSION MAN

GENE FONDREN LOOKS INSIDE AND OUT FOR STRONG ALLIANCES.

You'd expect a former member of the Texas House of Representatives to have a penchant for the political. And Gene N. Fondren, CAE, 19-year president of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association (TADA), Austin, and ASAE's new chairman of the board, readily admits it's sometimes hard to turn his attention away from that quixotic field. "The bottom line is it's absolutely essential to every member that ASAE have a strong, high-visibility government relations program," he contends. "I also recognize that not everyone agrees with that. I want to do something about that, but I don't want to be perceived as a government relations chairman," Fondren insists.

Playing out the tension of competing demands--turning pressure into motivation and action--is a primary management skill, whether we're managing our own time or that of a staff. Fondren's dual mission is to appreciate and balance what seems "absolutely essential" and what everybody agrees on.

Government relations versus everything else

In a heavily regulated industry, TADA has a noticeable government relations presence. Fondren worries that the intensive demands of government relations activity may dominate and take more attention than other association functions. "It is very difficult, sometimes impossible" to pay as much attention to non-GR issues as other staff would like, he says. But his first tenet of management is: Have a cohesive staff.

"Take a staff of 3 or 30 or 300. Even though every individual is competent and enthusiastic about his or her job, you can't really succeed unless each one also appreciates and understands and relates with other members of the staff," he maintains. "Then it is up to the CEO to deal evenhandedly with tasks and issues and activities."

At ASAE, however, "We have yet to convince the vast majority of membership of the importance of government relations," Fondren believes. "The government relations program was virtually nonexistent just a few years ago, simply because there hadn't been a significant reason to focus on it. I recall at our annual meeting in St. Louis a few years ago, more than half the people there thought political action committees were pretty much a bad thing. Considering that mind-set and the short time we have really focused on government relations, we have done very well."

Fondren points to the unrelated business income tax drama as the kickoff. "UBIT reaches into the basic fiber of association existence. It brought us all up short," he recalls. UBIT helped bring ASAE into the arena with a harsh challenge: "Our future as execs and as professionals is in danger, and we would fail in a significant area of responsibility to represent our associations and their members" by ignoring UBIT.

"One of the problems that an organization like ASAE has," Fondren explains, "is to distinguish the society's proper government relations role. That may be even more true for the allied societies. I use a rule of thumb that I think ASAE is following: If the issue affects association execs and their obligation to their associations directly, then it is a society issue. On the other hand, if the issue in a more primary way affects the members of those associations, then most likely it is not.

"For example," Fondren continues, "the tax exempt status of associations, unrelated business income tax, postal rates, and 401(k) inequality all are society issues. Directors and officers liability is an issue, but product liability is one step removed and is not an ASAE issue."

"The vast improvement in the collaboration and cooperation between ASAE and the allieds in government relations has been a significant achievement," Fondren pronounces. "We have so much at stake. It is obvious that the allieds are the primary grass-roots source for effective political activity." Fondren anticipates pursuing those relationships "on the basis of mutual strengths."

Paired partnerships

Fondren's image of ASAE-to-be moves on two vehicles: internal and external partnerships. "Partnership means our relationship is that of peers working together."

That means, for example, strengthening the partnership status of the ASAE Foundation as it plays a role "developing and documenting professional association management." Another internal partner Fondren thinks can be a bigger player is the Services Corporation. ASAE's for-profit arm "has complemented and supplemented the budget, but it just wasn't historically a major item on anybody's agenda," Fondren remarks.

"But the Services Corporation is moving and is going to become more important. One of the functions of an association is to create a more competitive marketplace so its members can have the best price and highest quality service or product," he affirms.

The Services Corporation will imbue ASAE with "the dynamics of a profit organization--in terms of its philosophy, its understanding of its members and the associations they represent. To have a profit-making arm, not one that is dominant but one that is significant, will help future leadership have better insight and deliver a better overall product to the members."

Along with allieds, associate members are external partners with whom Fondren wants to break new ground. "Our associate members can make a significant contribution in addition to providing many of the resources we need to put on the best convention or trade show or other things they help make possible." Fondren thinks associate members like hospitality executives have been pigeon-holed in the past, serving on meeting advisory committees. "But they want to participate in leadership, education, government relations, and other matters. It is our loss if we fail to make this possible.

"Not that they don't have other organizations to pursue professional growth, but we have a unique opportunity to provide it in each other's company. That's mutually beneficial," Fondren says. "We all understand the commercial side of the relationship, and it is very important. But we also need to recognize the personal and professional side."

Degrees of success

For Fondren, there is a shine to association management and the people who practice it. "We are different from other organizations. We operate without a distinct bottom line that defines success," he remarks.

"If you are in a commercial or corporate environment, ultimately if you produce a profit or a dividend, you have succeeded; you've done a good job. In associations, you do not have that bright line between success and failure. For each member, your success depends on that member's experience with staff and volunteers. We don't have the luxury of making mistakes adverse to those individual members.

"Our response to members runs from the reception desk to the board room," Fondren elaborates. "That demands of each of us competence, enthusiasm, and empathy with each problem. We don't always succeed, but the most successful associations are those that understand there is no bright line: You have to draw a screen full of bright lines showing how every person in the organization deals with all the members."

One step beyond serving as TADA's president is serving as a volunteer himself. "I like the challenge of putting on the hat of a volunteer leader and not suddenly acting in a way I wouldn't ever have my volunteers act," Fondren admits.

Volunteers are role models, he believes. Too, "There is the satisfaction of accomplishing things we feel are important--the chance to lead a group of people who can make things happen, whose combined resources make a real impact on the world out there. Every association executive ought to volunteer; we ought to be willing to give something back," he says strongly.

One step further out, Fondren looks at associations in America's skyline. "At ASAE we have a signal opportunity to do something about the public perception of associations. Unfortunately, the public doesn't think about associations generically in a positive way." Focusing on association community service will help change that perception, Fondren believes, "and I'm delighted to have the opportunity to participate."

The Associations Advance America program should inform the public about what we are doing while encouraging associations to do even more. "I think the program will reveal some soft spots," Fondren admits. "And I think it will give organizations a chance to deal with those, eradicate them, and keep the high road."

Kristin Staroba is senior editor of Association Management.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:American Society of Association Executives President Gene Fondren
Author:Staroba, Kristin
Publication:Association Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:1358
Previous Article:Environment: truth, outrage, and the American way.
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