Trade associations harbor their industry’s foremost experts.

This is written less than a week after returning from theASA Convention, held Oct. 14-16in Washington, D.C., and my head is still buzzing with ideas and insights from the event. From a superficial perspective, it would be easy to diss this year’s annual convention. The dreadful economy weighed down attendance. The ISH NA product exposition went away as did ASA’s joint convention with PHCC. Like most of its members, ASA suffered a toxic year marked by revenue decline, staff cuts and red ink. It was hard to muster convention hoopla amid so much gloom.

Yet, despite everything going against them, ASA managed to pull off what I think was one of its most substantive confabs ever. Almost without exception the convention speakers were first-rate, and a legislative lobbying blitz was pulled off masterfully.

On page 30 is an article summarizing some of the most memorable content coming out of ASA 2009. Here I’ll focus on one of the simplest but most valuable programs any trade association can put together - a peer networking session. The one I participated in at ASA 2009 was geared to member CEOs and CFOs, who spent an hour and a half gathered around a roundtable discussing their problems and solutions. Noted consultant Adam Fein acted as facilitator and developed a list of discussion topics but otherwise stayed out of the way.

I came away from this session far more enlightened about your business than when I sat down. In no particular order, here were some of the most notable insights gleaned from ASA members who bared their business souls.

  • Human resources & employee management. This was one of the topics bandied about, and a general conclusion was that these trying times demand more detailed and frequent communication than ever before. The open-book management philosophy seems to be spreading and wholesalers are sharing more and more financial data with employees.

    One participant spoke of engaging in “worst-case scenario planning.” He asked each manager to specify seven ways to cut overhead. This psychologically astute wholesaler shared that even though all of his managers came up with similar ideas, it’s important to ask everyone to come to the table with a specified number of proposals. Otherwise, one or two forceful individuals are likely to dominate discussion.

    On the subject of managing health care costs, a couple of participants said their wellness programs proved worthwhile. They can be expensive to implement but over time produce savings.

  • Financial management. A subtopic under this category was banking relationships, a discussion that generated more heat than light, unfortunately. Banks everywhere are cracking down on lending standards and loan covenants. Longstanding relationships count for much less than they used to.

    Receivables were another sore subject, and wholesalers are cracking down with tighter credit standards and monitoring just as the banks are with them. Be suspicious of contractors who have been around awhile but never ordered much from you until now. Odds are they are in arrears to all the other supply houses in town.

  • Sales & marketing. Exclusives are the key. Seek them out wherever possible and build them into your product mix.

    Also, do what you can to beef up your counter business. The extra margin dollars can help offset the bid & spec doldrums, which are only getting worse.

    A particularly fascinating part of this discussion came from a wholesaler telling of success with joint venture branches. These are handshake arrangements in which his company shares locations with friendly electrical distributors. They split overhead costs but maintain separate personnel, inventories and related costs. “Don’t conflicts arise?” I asked. They certainly do, the wholesaler said, but he laid down the law to all his people that he was determined to make the arrangement work and they need to do likewise.

    A key to successful joint venture branches is that they be largely self-service facilities with advanced computer systems. Product knowledge is downplayed as all the counter staff has to do is punch in part numbers. The co-distributors send out separate invoices, and while product crossovers occasionally create confusion, they are rare.

    This short précis can’t do justice to the entire range of discussion at ASA’s peer networking session. Suffice to say that every trade association harbors some of its industry’s foremost experts within its own membership ranks. They are a valuable resource readily available to meeting planners.

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