Former WDMA Chairman Tourek on Major Organizational Change
In 2008, Steve Tourek served as the Window and Door Manufacturers Association’s (WDMA’s) chairman of the board. It was an interesting time for his industry. The housing boom was showing signs of bust. The economy was about to suffer an historic meltdown, and the policymakers on Capitol Hill were poised to get involved in a big way. WDMA board members were seeing the dark clouds on the horizon.
At the same time, WDMA hired new management to help chart a new course for its future. That course change would come to entail the opening of what Tourek calls a "co-location" in Washington, D.C. Tourek, who today serves as senior vice president and general counsel of Marvin Windows and Doors Inc., recently sat down with Board Forward to discuss the association’s shift in focus to advocacy at the federal level. What follows is our chat.
Tourek recalled, "In 2008, our trade association – which is in the leadership capacity at the board level an all-volunteer entity – was serving an industry that was on the cusp of phenomenal expansion and activity. But some of the early signs of distress were becoming evident among the membership. If you recall, there was a tremendous run-up in housing construction and activity, which tended to drive the businesses of our member organizations. Some of the early warning signs that put pressure on the businesses were reflected in membership cancellations or people changing dues levels. We started to see those signs, and we began talking about it at the board level."
He continued, "At the board level, we also saw that there was tremendous opportunity for the association to make its case and to represent the interests of the industry in what was, at that time, becoming an increasingly more visible discussion about energy efficiency. We felt like we had a lot to say … and we wanted to show up in those conversations to keep people realistic and factual."
From out of this came the decision to open a District of Columbia branch. "Fortunately," he noted, "our new management company had a Washington office, and we immediately acquired access to their lobbying professionals, their lobbying team in Washington, their contacts and their expertise. We also had an office location to hold meetings when we were going there to do Washington-centered business, which we didn’t have before. Within a year, [lawmakers] were passing all sorts of tax credit legislation, energy policy and energy code legislation that would dramatically affect our industry. Prior to that point in time, I don’t think anyone on the Hill had ever heard of the WDMA or even knew of any organization that spoke on behalf of our industry."
Four years removed from opening the Washington branch, Tourek still marvels at the courage WDMA's board showed in making such a big move. He remarked, "I really credit our board of directors in taking stock realistically of what we had and what we would be capable of if we kept our old model in place. The fact that they were willing to think bigger, to think longer term and really make such future-oriented decisions is a credit to their leadership. History has borne out that we look a lot smarter in retrospect than we felt at the time!"
When asked what advice he would give to other association boards faced with dramatic change, Tourek was quick to respond. "Don’t be afraid to do the right thing," he stated. "Today, with the uncertainty and the volatility in the economy, all boards and management teams are really challenged to be innovative and creative in dealing with what feels like a rapidly changing set of circumstances. I think you honestly have to look at your trade association in terms of the needs of your member base and assess if you have the expertise and the flexibility to change on a dime, to address things that seem to come out of the woodwork and often. If you feel you do, that’s great. If you don’t, then you need to think about how you are going to develop those capabilities and who you will need to partner with to do so."
He added, "The challenge for a lot of trade associations for the member leaders on the boards is: 'Hey, this is not my full-time job. This is not the principal focus of my daily activities.' You’re sort of doing it off the corner of your desk. The demands of your day job don’t lessen."
And because Tourek has spent years in the association world, he has learned a lot of lessons with regards to what makes an effective association executive and board member. He stated that the first rule of thumb is to be a good listener. Second, know that good leadership is not about authority, but about influence. Third, he noted, "serving on a board is serving. It's not about you. It’s about the organization. We are all representatives of our companies, and one of our responsibilities is to look after the best interests of our employers. Yet, when you serve on an association board, you also have to look out for the best interests of the industry and the membership, as a whole. Sometimes you need to be making decisions that maybe aren’t in the absolute best interests of your employer if you are going to be serious about serving the membership."
Tourek concluded, "At a minimum, you have to give their concerns at least equal weight to your employer's concerns, and then find the right balance. In my life experience, that has always been the real challenge in a trade association board. You don’t have that singularity of focus that you do when you serve on a company board."