Speaking with One Voice — NSSGA’s New CEO, Mike Johnson

| Published on February 1, 2014

NSSGA’s new CEO, Mike Johnson, focuses advocacy efforts by putting aggregates first.

 

Q. When it comes to association management, what are the key commonalities and differences between the beer and aggregate industries?

A. First, thank you for the opportunity to respond to your questions and communicate with your readers.

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On Aug. 1, 2013, Michael W. Johnson joined the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) as president and CEO. He previously served as the executive vice president and chief advocacy officer for the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA). As his first national convention approaches, he addresses strategic planning and what’s next for the association.

While there is no question that beer and rocks are quite different, the reason that companies in the beer distribution industry and the aggregates industry came together many years ago to form national trade associations is largely the same. The participants in both industries recognized a need to have a unified voice in Washington to advocate for their collective interests before the administration, Congress, and the specific regulatory agencies engaged with each industry.

So, while the products are quite different, for both NBWA and NSSGA, advocacy was, and still is, job one. Both industries have a vested interest in policy that facilitates a strong national economy, federal laws that promote business growth, and a regulatory environment that is fair and balanced.

At NBWA, we built an advocacy organization that was routinely cited as one of the most effective in Washington. That was possible because the members of NBWA understood the importance of being involved and were committed to and willing to invest in building a strong, united voice. It also happened because those of us who they hired to represent them were devoted, disciplined, and strategic. At NBWA, the goal was to maximize our members’ ROI by focusing on those things that mattered most to the success of their businesses and the industry, and, that if we did not raise, nobody else would. In short, the guiding association management principle was “putting distributors first.”

I am excited because I see that same level of understanding about the importance of being involved and willingness to invest among the members of NSSGA. My commitment, and the commitment of our entire staff team, is to maximize our members’ ROI by building a stronger, more effective advocacy organization that is laser focused on “aggregates first.”

 

Q. The association surveyed its membership at the beginning of your tenure. What surprised or excited you about the feedback? Any concerns?

A. As was hopefully evident in my previous response, I believe that trade associations have to be member driven. When I learned that NSSGA had not fielded a benchmark membership survey in some time, doing so became an obvious priority. The results showed that the membership agreed.

The first surprise, a pleasant one, was the response rate. Around a 20-percent response rate is about average for association membership surveys. Our response rate was more than 35 percent!

I was also pleasantly surprised and very excited by what the respondents told us about the value of NSSGA membership to their businesses. There are many associations active in the construction and construction materials industries that our members could, and in many cases do, belong to, in addition to NSSGA. However, they overwhelmingly see NSSGA as the most valuable trade association for their business interests.

As for concerns, nothing in particular jumped out as alarming. The survey asked about priorities and, not surprisingly, reauthorization of a long-term highway bill, the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, and fighting for more effective, balanced regulation in the areas of safety, health, and the environment topped the list. Respondents were also asked to assess the effectiveness of NSSGA on these issues and a number of other core activities of the association. The responses were instructive. While the association is focused on the right things and generally doing a good job, there is room for improvement.

Bottom line: NSSGA membership is of high value, and we have an opportunity to, borrowing a line from Jim Collins, move from “Good to Great” in delivering on that value proposition. The really good news is that the new three-year strategic plan we are developing right now will position us to do exactly that.

 

Q. Now that you’ve had a little time to get your steel-toed boots broken in, what top priorities have you identified for the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA)?

A. You know, steel toes are one of the things that my professional past and my future have in common. While rocks may be harder and heavier, a pallet of cases or a keg can do pretty good damage to a foot, too. My boots were already broken in pretty well on day one.

As for priorities, I made reference to the new three-year strategic plan that we are working on right now. I am a big believer in the need to plan your work…and work your plan. Putting us in a position to do both, based upon what we learned in the membership survey, is where I am focusing first. The process we are engaged in, with Harrison Coerver — a well-known and highly respected planning consultant who has been part of developing more than 1,200 association strategic plans — will produce a member-focused, priority-driven plan that will chart an aggressive course from good to great for NSSGA. I am excited about sharing the plan with the membership at our upcoming Annual Convention, March 3-6, in Las Vegas.

However, we know that there are some ongoing priorities that we must continue to address while we work on the new plan. With the expiration of MAP-21 in September of this year and dependence upon a funding mechanism that will be insolvent in 2015, the stakes are high. We are continuing to aggressively advocate for a new long-term highway bill and a solution to the solvency issues surrounding the Highway Trust Fund.

At the same time, we will continue to push back against unreasonable actions and unwise proposals by federal regulatory agencies. We will keep working to facilitate a better dialogue with our regulators. However, when that is not enough, we will also push for greater congressional oversight and not be afraid to engage in litigation when we have to protect our members’ ability to do business responsibly.

 

Q. Getting anything done in Washington, D.C., is a challenge these days. How will NSSGA, under your leadership, navigate the partisan political atmosphere?

A. No doubt about it…the situation in Washington is challenging, to put it politely. Frankly, the past few years have been the worst that I have experienced in more than 20-plus years of working in this town. The President and Congress have lurched from man-made crisis to man-made crisis — the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff, to the sequester, and ultimately a government shutdown; and the brink of a debt ceiling default all over again. Absolute disaster has been avoided only by last-minute “deals” that are crafted to prevent the worst case and kick the can down the road rather than any concern for sound policy and real solutions.

Unfortunately, it is too simplistic to blame pure partisanship, while it is about as bad as it has ever been, as the underlying cause is actually even more complicated and harder to address. Whether it was Reagan and the House Democrats or Clinton and the House Republicans, pure partisan differences have historically been overcome by cooler heads prevailing and moderates coming together to make progress on matters of national importance. The current situation is even worse because current electoral politics have resulted in fewer moderates on either side of the aisle, and the parties have moved more toward their respective bases, making the incentive to find compromise even less. This has especially been a problem for Republicans who are literally in the midst of a civil war of sorts for control of their party.

All that said, and it’s plenty, there have been some bright spots recently, including one directly related to infrastructure investment, that give us reason for some optimism. The recent passage of the NSSGA-supported water resources (WRRDA) legislation followed by approval of the end of the year budget deal by broad bipartisan margins and, maybe more importantly, broad margins within each party in each chamber shows that there still is a path forward on issues deemed to be of high national importance.

The goal for NSSGA, working with our allies in the construction materials industry and broader infrastructure coalition partners, is to foster an environment in which reauthorization of the surface transportation law and a long-term, stable funding solution are viewed universally as matters of high national importance. To accomplish that, we will need to work with non-traditional allies to deliver a message from the grassroots up that transportation infrastructure in not only the backbone of our national economy, but also the Main Street economy. You cannot have the number one economy in the world with the 23rd rated infrastructure, and you cannot run a successful business and create jobs on Main Street if it takes too long and costs too much for your customers to get to you.

 

Q. How can individual aggregate operators help spur transportation reauthorization?

A. There are a couple of ways for individual aggregate producers to really make a difference. The first is to support NSSGA with both membership dues and contributions to ROCKPAC. Doing so will help the association be well positioned and equipped to be the most effective advocate for the aggregates industry. For our current members, renew for 2014 and grow your support for ROCKPAC. For those companies who are not current members, join us so that we can fight more effectively for you.

The second thing that individual companies can do is to make the most of an invaluable and irreplaceable strength they already have. There are aggregates companies doing business in every congressional district across this country. Aggregates producers and the manufacturers and service providers who support them are strongly rooted, respected members of the communities in which they are based. The jobs they provide are key to local economies from coast to coast. Leveraging that and engaging other businesses in delivering a message about the importance of transportation infrastructure to their success will be impossible for those in Washington to ignore.

There is a path forward, and, working together, NSSGA will put aggregates first and be that one voice, powerful and effective, for the industry.

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