Time for a course adjustment

When a trade association’s top executive leaves due to ineffectiveness or because of a scandal, everyone naturally assumes that the next appointment will represent a new direction.

Walter McCormick, however, apparently initiated his own departure from the American Trucking Associations. McCormick’s tenure at ATA was far from serene, but his move to the U.S. Telecom Association appears to be about getting a better deal, not members’ dissatisfaction with his performance.

ATA Chairman Duane Acklie has said he doesn’t anticipate a fundamental shift in priorities with the next president. Whether or not a dramatic change in direction is necessary, a course adjustment is in order.

McCormick left ATA with a solid, though perhaps unexciting, list of accomplishments to his credit. Most involved killing or postponing initiatives the industry opposed – the proposed hours-of-service rewrite, mandatory onboard recorders and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s oversight of motor carrier safety, for example.

Naysayers might play down such “negative” achievements, but trade associations representing heavily regulated and scrutinized industries – trucking companies, airlines and pharmaceutical manufacturers, for example – often serve members the most when they keep bad things from happening to them.

Under McCormick, ATA had its share of defeats, especially in the environmental arena. But on the whole, the association’s advocacy toward Congress, the executive branch, the judiciary and the media was strong.

Where McCormick really missed a step or two was internal affairs. You can forgive the so-called Wren Plan for its pie-in-the-sky optimism over the potential for dramatic membership growth. The assumption that a major dues reduction would bring in more members was persuasive, but it also was flawed.

In order to achieve those dues cuts, ATA chose to focus narrowly on its core advocacy mission because that’s what the most passionate ATA members wanted. That’s understandable; the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But that fundamental decision probably made ATA membership even less attractive to the carriers that weren’t already members.

Carriers that truly understood the value of advocacy probably already were ATA members. By choosing to reduce services rather than add them, ATA may have eliminated the value proposition for the unconverted. Even if it’s just a couple of hundred dollars, a business owner wants to know that he’s getting something for his money that he won’t get if he pockets it. ATA can’t prevent nonmembers from enjoying the benefits of its advocacy.

McCormick probably made the situation worse by sticking with the most controversial elements of the plan, such as mandatory ATA membership as a condition of membership in the conferences, even when it was clear that the approach would be highly divisive. The attitude seemed to be that conferences and their members were either with ATA or against it.

McCormick appeared to misjudge how fiercely independent truckers can be. Tell a trucker he has to make a profit, and he’s liable to lose money intentionally just to show you he’s his own boss. Rather than trying to negotiate a compromise to preserve the spirit of mandatory ATA membership, McCormick just seemed to paint dissenters as troublemakers.

What lessons can McCormick’s replacement learn from his tenure? The next president should be a bit more attuned to human and organizational psychology. He or she should also understand that prospective association members expect more than a quality advocacy machine in Washington. I can’t say what combination of programs and services will grow membership. That’s for the next president to ascertain.

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail avise@eTrucker.com.