The little association that does

WE all know the story about “The Little Engine that Could” — the tale of the pint-sized locomotive that made it to the top through the power of positive thinking.

By repeating the phrase “I think I can, I think I can” the engine was able to pull the train over the top. It's a story that has motivated countless school kids to achieve more than they thought possible.

But in the business world, thinking that I can is not enough. The hills are higher and a lot more frequent. If you believe “I think I can,” it won't be long before you run out of steam. It would be much better to assemble a team and work together.

Want a better mantra than “I think I can?” Try “We know we will.” Make a team effort and deliver value. This two-part formula works for companies, and it works for trade associations.

There wasn't much of a team at NTEA 35 years ago. In fact, there wasn't even an NTEA 35 years ago. Instead, there was a group of disgruntled truck equipment distributors that had broken away from the Truck Body & Equipment Association, the established industry trade association at the time. They were convinced that their needs were not being met and that it was time for a new trade association. It was this group — the Truck Equipment & Body Distributors Association — that hired Jim Carney, a guy who admits that he did not know what a trade association was before he was interviewed.

So here we have a splinter group taking on the industry's establishment, led by someone who learned about trade associations during his job interview.

But Carney did bring a few tools to the job, including an excellent ability to work with people. And fortunately for him, he was able to attract people who shared his desire to build an organization that provided real benefits for its members. Many of these early leaders served in leadership positions for the association at significant costs to themselves and to their small family businesses.

When we attend a Work Truck Show today, it's easy to lose sight of just how far the association has come. Back when NTEA was known as the Distributors Association, everything was small — especially the trade show. The association had a policy that limited the size of the exhibits to no more than 10' × 10' booths. Plus, the association also had an option for companies that could not afford to spend a couple hundred bucks at a trade show. According to Ron Collins, whose father started the organization in 1964, manufacturers who wanted to promote their products to truck equipment distributors could put a poster on an easel for $50.

From the start, the association was not afraid to take on the establishment in order to meet the needs of its members. For example, a year after Carney took over as executive director, the Distributors Association joined in a successful legal fight against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Shortly after this victory, the association moved from Cincinnati to Detroit in order to work more closely with chassis manufacturers. At the same time, the organization was renamed the National Truck Equipment Association.

One of the landmark events of Carney's years with NTEA was the decision to create what is now The Work Truck Show. The association's leadership decided to remove the 10' × 10' limit on the size of exhibits. Supershow I was born, and the entire playing field of the New Orleans Superdome was filled with truck bodies, chassis, and equipment — something many thought would never happen.

The ripple effect was immense. It was as if removing that restriction on the size of exhibit space freed the truck equipment industry to be all that it could be. Why? Because Supershow I and the others that have followed it have provided NTEA with the revenue stream it needs to provide the level of services that a larger, more sophisticated industry now demands.

In an address to the 1,700 who attended the president's breakfast at this year's Work Truck Show, Carney continued to touch on the idea of working together to deliver value. (Much of what he said in his farewell address is reflected in the article he wrote for Trailer/Body Builders that appears on Page 50.) He reminded the audience that he was simply part of what the association has accomplished and assured members that NTEA is in good hands with Steve Carey, the association's new executive director, and the staff.

It's the end of an era and the beginning of another. Congratulations for making it over the top. But hang on. There's a long and exciting ride ahead.

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