Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers From funeral directors to magazine publishers, professional associations represent the collective interests of their members — and provide a boost to Tallahassee’s economy By John Kennedy


You don’t often use Washington, D.C., Chicago and Tallahassee in the same sentence.

But you can when you’re talking about industry and professional associations. The three far-flung cities rank No. 1 through No. 3 as the national leaders in associations when compared to their respective populations.

"Associations are growing because of what I call the hangar effect," said Judy Gray, the president and CEO of the Florida Society of Association Executives, which is celebrating its 50th year of operation.

"Just like airline pilots like to sit around the hangar talking about flying with other pilots, association people like to mingle with others in the same business," she said. "That’s helped us grow and flourish, even in these tough times."

The FSAE Foundation Inc., the think-tank side of the Tallahassee-based society, commissioned a study two years ago that examined the impact of associations on Florida and related industries. The research found that Florida’s 1,000 largest associations generated $3.5 billion in economic activity annually; directly employed more than 10,000 people; and supported another 106,000 jobs through their spending.

The travel and hotel industry is on the receiving end of much of the association spending, with these groups traveling frequently to attend board meetings, conferences, trade shows and education programs. Airline and rental car companies also benefit, with associations spending $825 million a year on air and ground travel.

In Florida, the Tallahassee area ranks second only to greater Orlando in the bounce it gets from association activity, the study by Kerr & Downs Research showed. In the Capital City, association spending amounts to $887.1 million a year, with Orlando close to $1 billion earned from spending.

Similarly, of the 10,800 association jobs in Florida, half, or 5,400, are in Tallahassee, the research found. Across the state, associations run the gamut — representing mortgage brokers, farmers, doctors, printers, hoteliers, insurance agents — even bird doctors.

"The networking and continuing education training that we can get through the association is invaluable," said Adina Freedman, executive director of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, whose Boca Raton headquarters serves members spanning 47 countries. "When you’re sitting at your desk, you can feel kind of isolated. But the association helps you find plenty of other people who share the same interests and challenges."

Bennett Napier, chairman of Partners in Association Management, is currently serving a one-year term as FSAE chairman.

"The recession has been a mixed bag for associations," Napier said. "There have been layoffs within associations — particularly in the industries hit hardest by the recession.

"Hoteliers, real estate, construction, architecture and engineering associations have been belt-tightening. But then again, some of the health-care industry associations have actually been hiring a few people."

Indeed, Florida’s housing industry continues to sag under the weight of more than 300,000 unsold homes and a construction industry that shed 80,400 jobs over the past year alone. By contrast, health care in Florida is just about the only economic sector looking for workers — tucking in 10,000 new jobs over the past year even with the bleak economy, according to the state’s Agency for Workforce Innovation.

"It’s been a difficult year for all of us," Gray acknowledged. "But we have weathered times like this before, and we like to think we’ll come out the other side of it."

Gray said her organization, which has 830 members, has tried to anticipate business trends that can help many industries and professions. FSAE, for example, is among the analysts who have researched the potential economic effect on Florida of the United States lifting the decades-old trade embargo on Cuba.

Association health, though, usually mirrors the economy.

"The association field has always been very strong," Napier said. "But really, we’re only as strong as the industries we serve."

While Florida’s economy is being buffeted, winds of change are also sweeping across the association arena. For years, industries often maintained an association presence with a minimal staff and a volunteer member playing the role of the industry’s main agenda-setter and media voice. But a heightened level of professionalism now is demanded, experts say.

Tougher regulations governing business practices, public company boards and accounting that stem from the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 have led many industry associations to establish full-time executive directors who provide a higher standard, continuity and also become the group’s voice in Tallahassee. While so-called captive associations still dominate — those that represent a single professional group, have paid staff, and maybe own a building near the Capitol — a rising trend has many smaller associations being led by management companies.

Napier’s, for example, is one of roughly 35 companies across Florida — a dozen in Tallahassee alone — that provide association services for a professional group.

"We represent a pretty wide mix of groups," said Napier, whose clients include the Florida Funeral Directors Association and the Florida Magazine Association. "We publish association magazines, take care of their financial management and even do personnel recruiting. Within our company, we assign staff that serve as executive director of the association."

One of Napier’s successes was luring the National Association of Dental Laboratories from Washington, D.C., where it had been since 1951.

"They sold their building and basically moved everything to Tallahassee, where we took over operations," Napier said. "We hired 10 new staff members when the dental lab group came here."

While FSAE is a big fish in Tallahassee, its ripples are felt profoundly around the state, members said.

The organization runs professional development training that can lead members to gain Certified Association Executive (CAE) or Certified Meeting Executive (CME) levels of achievement. Webinars are held on such topics as social media, global business trends and diversity, while study groups are held to allow members to share "tales from the crypt" on tackling strategic or management issues.

There are also plenty of regional luncheons and meet-and-greets.

"For me, it’s a statewide organization that offers a lot, but just happens to be in Tallahassee," said Karen France, executive director of the Clearwater Bar Association. "On issues involving sales taxes, property taxes, insurance, we can get lobbying help in Tallahassee from FSAE. But each association also has its own issues before the Legislature that it tackles on its own."

France, who said she has been in association management for 27 years, added that the threads that bind all associations are the challenges they face — which get full vetting within FSAE’s programs.

"They’ve had events on technology, social networking, how to work with different generations within your organization," she said. "It’s not all about Tallahassee."

Kathy Ford, a sales representative with Boyd Brothers Printing in Panama City, said she too felt strongest about the professional development opportunities and networking the organization offered. But she also appreciated FSAE’s ability to "watch her back" at the Capitol.

"I was asked to testify before the Legislature last spring when there was talk of eliminating a tax exemption on magazine subscriptions," Ford said. "But I felt a lot better appearing before the committee with (FSAE president) Judy Gray there. It was also good that she testified right after me." N


The STRENGTH of Many

There are 6,884 associations in the state of Florida, as of 2006.

In 2006, Florida associations employed 62,606 people, which is the 4th largest in the nation. In 2001, state associations employed 53,697 people, which was the 5th largest in the nation.

In terms of wages, in 2006 Florida associations paid on average $33,066 to an association employee, which was 22nd in the nation. Compare this to 2001: associations on average in Florida paid $28,550. This is a change of 15.8%.

Florida has the nation’s fourth largest association work force and it has grown 27% between 1997 and 2006.

Florida has the second largest number of associations (6,884) behind only California.