Here’s a traveling salesman story for you

Jan. 1, 2014
Trailer/Body Builders editorial

IF YOU were starting a trade association to serve the truck body and equipment industry, would you build it around a former Proctor and Gamble marketing guy, a used addressograph salesman, and someone who realized while interviewing for a job with a trade association that he did not know what a trade association was?

We didn’t think so.

But it happened. Each of these three men held leadership positions in the early years of what is now the 50-year-old National Truck Equipment Association.

We doubt that there would be Work Truck Show for thousands of people to attend this year had it not been for the P & G guy and the man who had to learn very quickly what a trade association is.

Art Collins had the salesmanship, the enthusiasm, and the entrepreneurial vision to conceive of a new trade association and nurture it through its infancy. And after learning what a trade association is, Jim Carney took what Art Collins started and led it into the professional organization that it is today.

The leaders of this trade group seemed to know from the beginning what it took to succeed—identifying what its members needed and delivering it. The July 1964 issue of Trailer/Body Builders ran a four-page report on the first meeting of this new group. Here’s what struck us:

Profits in this industry, Collins told the audience at that first association meeting, are inadequate. The average distributor makes 1.9% profit before taxes, he said, a margin that is not enough to enable companies to survive bad times.

“Last year saw nine distributors go broke,” he said. “With management help, we think they could have stayed in business.”

 With that, the first management seminar of the newborn trade association began June 27, 1964. The foundational principle was already evident at the first meeting: serve the members. Help them survive. Help them prosper. Help them grow. Help them.

But how? For 50 years, NTEA has been answering that question in a variety of ways. Workshops led by our peers. Keynote addresses given by presidents of the United States. Seminars and webinars. But the association also helped us by applying to their own operation some of the principles espoused at their conventions. We can learn things about running our own businesses by looking at the association’s example.

Granted, running a trade association isn’t the same thing as managing a manufacturing operation or a truck equipment shop. But let’s see if some of the strategies that have been employed at NTEA can help our companies. For example:

•  Hiring wisely. One-man shops don’t last long. It’s important to build a solid team of professionals. Like every organization, NTEA has missed on some of its hires, but overall the association has maintained a solid team. Multiple staff members have served the industry for a generation. How can you attract key people and create a company culture that makes them want to stay?

•  Learning constantly. NTEA has not succeeded exclusively on the strength of its staff. The association has been able to attract some of the industry’s sharpest minds to provide leadership by serving on the board of directors and on industry committees. It’s easy to surround ourselves with people who think like we do, but we grow when we listen to a variety of voices.

•  Listening closely. NTEA has a history of systematically seeking feedback from its members to improve what’s working and to stop what isn’t.

•  Operating creatively. Based on what we know from our customers, is there a new, better way to meet their needs?

•  Planning systematically. NTEA leaders meet regularly to form and review long-range plans. It’s difficult to plan five or 10 years down the road in an industry that changes as rapidly as this one. But it’s even tougher when you don’t.

•  Transitioning smoothly. Successful organizations strive to be perpetual organizations. They outlive the people who create them, and the key executive or manager makes sure someone is in place to take his place. Jim Carney served 35 years as the top executive at NTEA. He could have been indispensable, but he wasn’t. He worked closely with the board to plan for the day he would step down. When he retired in 2012, Steve Carey was there to take his place and to move the association into the future. From our vantage point, the association hasn’t missed a beat.

It’s been a great 50 years. Now let’s get to work  and make tomorrow even better.♦

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.