No silver foot, no silver spoon

ANN Richards, the crusty former Texas governor, generated a few chuckles years ago when she said that George H W Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

But that political put-down was far from the minds of an appreciative audience when the former president delivered the keynote speech at the 40th annual National Truck Equipment Association convention in Baltimore. NTEA members were too busy giving the 41st president a standing ovation when he arrived at the podium and when he left, along with plenty of applause in between.

The excitement of having a former president of the United States attend its “birthday party” also obscured the fact that the NTEA of today was born 40 years ago — without a silver foot (or spoon) in its mouth and with no silver in its pockets.

It was shortly after Lyndon Johnson became president that a small group of the truck equipment industry's smallest businesses banded together to form a trade association that they could afford. Their perception was that the Truck Body & Equipment Association (TBEA), the industry's only trade association at the time, was catering to large manufacturers to the detriment of truck equipment distributors and small manufacturers.

“Distributors were being hit with dues that they could not afford, and small manufacturers were being charged exhibit space at rates they could not afford,” says Ron Collins, a recent NTEA board member. “We really didn't start out to hurt TBEA. We were just trying to provide a voice for truck equipment distributors and produce meetings that could help them with their businesses.”

The Truck Equipment & Body Distributors Association (more commonly called the D/A) was formed. Dues would be $50 per year. And if you were a manufacturer who wanted to “exhibit” in the room where the meeting was held, you could have an easel with your company's ad on it for $50. No trade show. That was for the big boys.

Arden “Art” Collins, Ron's father and president of Collins Associates, was a manufacturer's rep hired by companies that could not afford their own factory sales team. During those formative years, he served as the unofficial director of the association and carved out some space in Collins Associates offices in Cincinnati to give the association a place to operate.

“Last year saw nine distributors go broke,” he said, according to Trailer/Body Builders' report of that first meeting. “With management help, we think they could have stayed in business.”

Distributors responded, and the organization grew. By 1967, the association was able to hire its first full-time executive. A decade later, the Distributors Association was big enough to occupy its own suite of offices — 1,200 square feet, which included a storage room, mail room, and reception area. It also was able to hire its first assistant director, Jim Carney, who soon became the association's executive director — a position he continues to hold.

The association began to take on its current look in the late 1970s and early 1980s. First it moved from Cincinnati to suburban Detroit — a decision that enabled it to work more closely with chassis manufacturers. In addition, Richard Toner joined the staff as the association's first staff engineer.

The Truck Equipment and Body Distributors Association added distributors to its membership rolls during that time, but it also added manufacturers, large and small. To more accurately reflect the composition of its members and the industry, the association was renamed the National Truck Equipment Association in 1979.

Another major change involved the trade show. The $50 easels had long since gone, replaced by either table-top displays or 10' × 10' booths. For years, the association had limited the amount of space that each exhibitor could purchase. But that restriction went out the window in 1982 when NTEA sponsored Supershow I, an event that filled the entire playing surface of the Louisiana Superdome.

With the demise of TBEA a few years later, the industry in a sense returned to where it was in 1964, with a single association to represent truck equipment distributors, truck body manufacturers, truck equipment manufacturers, and other affiliated companies.

The industry has changed radically in 40 years, but some industry dynamics remain pretty much like those that led to the formation of NTEA four decades ago.

As was the case in 1964, the industry has a single trade association that continues to struggle with the conflicting demands between manufacturers and distributors — a key issue at this year's convention.

A few truck equipment distributors will go out of business in 2004, just as they did 40 years ago.

NTEA has survived for the same reason its successful member companies do — by meeting the changing needs of customers. But the goal remains unchanged — to help members manage their companies more effectively so that they can put a little more silver in their pockets.

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