Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Wall Street Journal Interviews TMC

by Itai Shperber | Nov 17, 2012

Meet Sarah Hagy, one busy woman. Just 30 years old, she's already Executive Director of the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association ("Cleaning to a Higher Standard"), the trade association for 250 of the world's top stovepipe cleaning specialists.

But that's not all. Ms. Hagy is also Director of the Water and Sewer Distributors of America, not to mention management liaison to the North American Horticultural Supply Association. Before that, she served as Executive Director for the International Association of Ice Cream Distributors & Vendors. "I live in acronym world," she says.

Ms. Hagy is a director-for-hire, an employee of an "association management" company.

In the U.S., there are roughly 20,000 professional and trade associations ranging from the International Packaged Ice Association ("Ice is Food!") to the Real Diaper Industry Association ("Promoting the Cloth Diaper Industry"). The biggest employ their own staff - 950 workers in the case of the American Bar Association. The smallest squeak by on volunteer labor. But many mid-size industry groups outsource their staffing needs to a management firm that provides everything from a mailing address to executive support. That's where Ms. Hagy comes in.

The straightforward, cheerful University of Pittsburgh grad works for Fernley & Fernley, a Philadelphia firm that serves as world headquarters for 20 industry associations including the National Railway Historical Society.

Occupying the fourth floor of a squat brick office building, the place is buzzing with accountants balancing the books for the Eastern Nursing Research Society while young admins process memberships for the Society for Clinical Trials. In the back, a single graphic artist churns out hundreds of publications, such as the National Renal Administrators Association's glossy conference guide, "Bundling, Quality and All That Jazz."

It's a good thing Ms. Hagy has assistants; depending on the firm and the arrangement, a director might write newsletter copy, lobby Congress, sign checks, sell ads in the membership directory, field press calls and organize the annual trade expo - for three different trade associations at once.

It takes a quick study. Ms. Hagy has been heading the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association (IKECA) for just over a year, but she already talks like a veteran. She knows where to order the plastic grease gauges that serve as swag at industry events. She has learned, when booking event space, to warn the hotel staff about her clients' habits - they'll invariably go into the kitchen to inspect the stove hoods.

"We don't sneak in, we only go in by permission, like vampires," says IKECA president Jack Grace. "We get up from the dinner table and next thing you know, we're climbing across the kitchen equipment. That is very typical behavior for us."

And Ms. Hagy can put together a mean convention. At IKECA's recent fall meeting in Indianapolis, which drew about 170 attendees, highlights included a talk on winterizing pressure-washing equipment and an appearance from a ladder vendor. Meanwhile, she was busy arranging the annual speed-networking powwow for the Water and Sewer Distributors of America, and advising them on social media.

Some head one group at a time. As founder of Transition Management Consulting Inc., Bob Van Hook and his squad of 12 directors-for-hire take full-time interim CEO gigs with industry associations ranging from the National Parking Association to the Entomological Society of America. He says he has personally served as the interim head for professional associations representing psychoanalysts, geophysicists and architects.

When he takes an interim CEO role, Mr. Van Hook says he usually works in the association's office several days a week.

Learning the industry and mastering the lingo (including the all-important pronunciation of the organization's acronym) takes, on average, about 60 days, he says. It's a matter of reading reports, meeting members and noting social mores. While heading the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, for instance, he noticed that everyone kept a dispenser of hand sanitizer on their desks, and passed a bottle at meetings. "I did that too while I was there," he says.

The real challenge is managing the politics and personalities that come with any board of directors - the director must be seen as neutral. Bob Waller, president of Association Headquarters, an association management firm in Mount Laurel, N.J., says that when his clients included the now-defunct Pencil Makers Association, he avoided offending any one manufacturer by using another's pencil. "It was much easier if I just used a pen."

Matching a director with a trade association is a bit of an art, but association management companies do their best to make a science out of it. At Fernley & Fernley, directors take a personality test and are matched with an association deemed to exhibit a similar profile. The Association of Oncology Social Work, for example, is paired with a director who scores high on enthusiasm and collaboration. The pragmatic exhaust cleaners matched well with Ms. Hagy, who scored high on the spectrum for dominance.

Industry preferences emerge at conventions. While plenty of associations are cutting the bagels in half to save money, bankers and lawyers still want thick steaks and rich desserts. Doctors slurp oceans of coffee. When the American Association of Heart Failure Nurses meets up, "You can't even put a salt shaker on the table," says Mr. Waller.

Brad Weaber, head of event services for SmithBucklin, the nation's largest association management firm, says medical conventions can be especially tricky. He once had 24 hours to locate 100 pig bladders for a surgical demonstration.

There is, of course, a trade association for association management companies. And that association, the 180-member AMC Institute, is itself managed by an association management firm, currently Fernley & Fernley.

Andrea Bower, the institute's executive director, says it is an easy association to manage, because members seldom meddle. It's not so interesting to fuss over tablecloth colors when meetings are your business.

The downside? It takes her a long, long time to explain what she does for a living. "Every once in a while, someone says they get it," she says. "But usually they don't."

Write to Anne Kadet at

A version of this article appeared November 16, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Have a Question on Kitchens, Flowers or Sewers? Try Ms. Hagy.

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