The American Supply Association officially incorporated in December 1969 with the merger of two regional associations, the Central Supply Association (CSA) and the American Institute of Supply Associations (AI).
Both CSA and AI believed in the idea of one national trade association that could better serve the interests of the industry by providing networking opportunities and forums to discuss the critical issues facing the industry. These two regional associations ultimately decided to combine their values and merge to form one large not-for-profit national organization that would serve the wholesale distributors and their suppliers in the plumbing, heating, cooling and industrial piping industries under an incorporated 501(c)(6) entity, thus the American Supply Association was formed.
CSA, originally formed in 1894, represented wholesalers from western Pennsylvania to the Rockies and from the Canadian border to Tennessee. AI, originally formed in 1951, was a federation of local regional associations from different areas of the country. Neither organization had full national coverage.
From the 1930s to the early 1960s, many efforts were undertaken to form a national association, but all fell short. Over those years many factors, including World War II and the Korean War, derailed the efforts to form a national entity. It wasn’t until 1967 that real momentum was gained through the efforts of Robert Taylor, of Taylor Engineering in Detroit (and president of CSA) and Glen Turbeville of Morrison Supply in Fort Worth, Texas and president of AI. Both men fully believed in the idea of one national association and both held dual membership in CSA and AI.
For nearly two years, they drove each association to bring their leadership in line with a national concept. After years of determination and focus, the CSA membership approved the merger in October 1969 and the AI membership approved the merger in November 1969. With the two approvals, the American Supply Association was officially incorporated in Illinois in December 1969.
The early years
During the first few decades, ASA was the only national organization where industry professionals could gather to meet, network and share ideas. One of the core values of the new association was networking; the national convention and trade show became a key place for manufacturers to connect with distributors and launch new product offerings.
ASA’s strength grew with a membership base of more than 1,000 distributor firms, most of which were smaller regional players that affiliated with ASA under the banner of one of the 12 regional independent outlets. ASA’s national conventions were “the place to be” for many of the industry’s manufacturers and distributors with attendance regularly exceeding 1,000 attendees.
However, with the emergence of consolidation, many independent firms were bought out by larger distributors to form national groups, which resulted in the formation of buying groups. These buying groups challenged the idea of ASA being the “one and only place” to gather and network. While ASA continued to operate as it had always done, with minimal changes to the national convention, the membership rate began to decline. Distributors were either acquired or gravitated to the emergence of their growing buying groups that offered a more focused opportunity to network with manufacturers and compete with the strengthening national distributors. The declining membership base and the steady decline of the annual convention weakened ASA and its ability to represent the industry. It wasn’t until 2008 that ASA abandoned the tradeshow as the primary funding source for the association and shifted the primary focus of that annual event to more of an educational conference for the membership.
Educating the industry
In 1977, looking to expand the value proposition for the national association, ASA established the formation of an educational endowment to ensure that the members of the association would have sufficient resources to provide educational and training programs for its member employees. The association formed the ASA Education Foundation (ASAEF) as a separate corporation to exclusively serve the educational needs of the membership.
Since its formation, the organization built a corpus of funds that would provide the necessary resources to support the development of what has become ASA University, which offers more than 175 courses through both book and online delivery via five distinct colleges (sales, purchasing, operations, leadership and general business). The foundation faced its own challenges toward becoming the industry standard for training. In the late 1990s, sales of association products relied on book sales and in-person seminars that were conducted throughout the regions. It was in the late 2000s when the stock market collapsed and the foundation’s corpus of $10 million was decimated that the foundation trustees shifted their priorities away from book and in-person sales to establishing ASA University and creating online programming.
It was felt that after the economic turmoil created by the collapse of the housing market and stock markets that distributors would be looking for more cost-effective and efficient ways to deliver education. The association focused on building an online educational program that today exceeds $700,000 in sales and has become an effective method to enable a member’s employees to become the best trained and most professional.
The road to the top
After decades of decline, ASA embarked on a major resurgence. Beginning in 2007, the association refocused its programming to four core values: education, business intelligence, advocacy and a more streamlined networking approach that would differ from what was being offered by the buying groups. The association went to work by realigning its staff, changing leadership, outsourcing some association functions, eliminating nontraditional programming, enhancing core programs and rebuilding its financial health.
One of the most significant steps of rebuilding of the association began when a strategic long-term plan was established with bold goals that would guide the organization and leadership. This plan came to fruition at the association’s winter board meeting in 2008 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The officers of the association invited all board and committee members as well as past chairmen (nearly 70 people in total) to participate in a two-day-long strategic planning effort with the support of a facilitator. Very few associations have successfully pulled off bringing more than 70 opinionated individuals into a planning session, and walk away united in purpose and thought. However, those who attended the inaugural meeting left with enthusiasm and excitement about the future of ASA. They would now be driven by the new mission statement of “ASA will strive to be indispensable to prosperity in our industry.” Each year since then, the association’s leadership has conducted annual strategic planning retreats to keep the organization focused on the future and to continue to drive ASA’s leadership and value far into the horizon.
Today, ASA’s Winter Leadership meetings continue to be long-range strategic planning sessions that set the direction for the association’s leadership by evaluating assumptions about the future and revising plans to keep ASA focused on long-range goals. ASA’s strategic planning process and the results from it have enabled the association to come a long way toward building the brand of ASA throughout the industry. Based on feedback from surveys, ASA is once again looked at as the leader of the industry, especially in the areas of advocacy, education, workforce recruitment and business intelligence. Refocusing association resources back to the core values, while streamlining the operating budget has given ASA the ability to deliver quality in the areas that matter most.
ASA’s financial health has improved due to growth in membership and the successful launch of the association’s Supplier Partner program. While distributor membership went from nearly 900 companies 20 years ago to nearly 350 today, the number of ASA member branch locations has expanded to more than 4,000 locations throughout the U.S. It can be argued that ASA’s strength and reach is now stronger as it represents the majority of the major industry players.
Over the past decade, as the organization rebuilt its resources and reserves, the leadership continued to invest new resources to offer enhanced value to the membership. Some of the association’s key accomplishments over the past decade include: building ASA’s voice and leadership in the codes and standards arena by becoming a voting member on many committees; establishing a full-time staff office in Washington, D.C.; expanding its advocacy success by engaging several buying groups with one-on-one meetings with lawmakers; engaging industry leaders in advocacy efforts in California with the first ASA Sacramento Day; expanding the visibility and recognition of the ASA Political Action Committee; continuing to have net membership growth year after year; continuing to host an annual staff blitz to member locations; strengthening its financial reserves to 12 months of net operating funds; building ASA University to include: five colleges, 29 role-based training tracks and more than 175 courses; developing industry leaders through a Master of Distribution Management program; sponsoring the national Skills USA plumbing contest; developing programs and materials to expose students and job seekers to the career opportunities that exist in the PHCP and PVF industry; providing members with an advanced look at what economic forces impact the industry; connecting to 60,000 industry customers through monthly e-newsletters via Plumbing Business and PVF Outlook; establishing professional peer networking opportunities to provide networking within all levels of an organization; and launching the “Digital Branch” program to assist members in connecting to their customers through e-commerce programs.
The future of ASA
In his 2019 ASA president’s acceptance speech, Northeastern Supply’s Steve Cook said: “With so much accomplished over the past 10 years, it would be easy to take our foot off the throttle and just coast for a while, but that just doesn’t work for us. Instead, we challenge ourselves to help you remain relevant and successful long into the future.”
As ASA heads into the next decade, the leadership and staff continue to think deeply about the future. During the Winter Leadership Meeting in 2018, volunteers and leaders were presented with the discussions of a think tank comprised of industry visionaries. This pioneering think tank was driven by the belief that dynamic change in our organization will be crucial to survival.
It was during this Winter Leadership Meeting that the volunteers decided it was time to shift the focus on some major issues that could impact the industry’s future including: how will we find the 100,000 people that we will need to replace the employees retiring from member companies in the next 10 to 15 years; how will we keep our members relevant with the constant onslaught of technological changes in our marketplace; and how can we best engage our members to become innovators and early adopters to ensure they continue to be relevant and successful for the next decade and beyond?
Each of these issues will be addressed and acted upon in the years to come as ASA continues to focus on the future of the industry.