In October 2021, Smithbucklin welcomed Railway Supply Institute (RSI), the only all-inclusive trade association for railway suppliers. In early 2021, the RSI Board of Directors started a search for an association management partner. We sat down with RSI Board of Directors Chair Jack Isselmann and Treasurer Terry Heidkamp, both members of the search task force, to learn more about what led RSI to Smithbucklin.
Addressing the Need
RSI officially began seeking association management solutions in early 2021. RSI’s president resigned in 2020, and COVID-19 became a significant disruptor for both RSI members and the association’s operations and programs, presenting an opportunity to make a change. “Looking at the organization, we didn’t have the bandwidth across various functional areas where we wanted to execute,” Isselmann says. After determining what RSI could achieve by partnering with an organization that offered a complete association management model, the board moved forward with a formal evaluation and search process, issuing a formal Request for Proposal (RFP).
Choosing the Right Partner
As it started the search process, RSI developed a scope of services against which to measure the fit with prospective association management partners. Among the capabilities were effectiveness of tradeshow management, advocacy expertise, and credibility in managing associations, particularly the technical committees that are a prominent part of RSI. With these factors in mind, how did RSI choose Smithbucklin? “We felt very comfortable that Smithbucklin had the breadth and scope of services that would be great for RSI,” Heidkamp says.
Throughout the entire process, the volunteer leaders recognized that Smithbucklin showed understanding and complete flexibility for RSI’s unique needs—including the retention of key employees. “The relationship couldn’t have gotten off to a better start,” Isselmann says. “Even in the RFP process, the team showed a lot of flexibility and adaptability to our needs. We’ve been very pleased with how everything has gone and are optimistic about our working relationship moving forward.”
Experience to Date
Since transitioning into Smithbucklin, RSI has quickly realized its short-term goals while prioritizing the long term. Regarding long-term goals, RSI and Smithbucklin are engaging and collaborating in a strategic planning process. “The experience and structure that Smithbucklin brought to the strategic planning process is unlike anything RSI had ever experienced before or could have afforded to do if it stayed in its old model,” Heidkamp says. “We did two days of strategic planning,” Isselmann adds. “It was funny, because for about a day and a half of it, I was not sure where it was all going. I was not sure how all these pieces were going to connect, and I was worried we’d run out of time and not leave with our hands stacked. Right at the final installment, I saw how all these pieces were going to come together and give us a plan.” Heidkamp concludes, “I think that's really going to prove itself over the long term.”
In the short term, Smithbucklin quickly addressed the most urgent need that brought RSI to the association management model in the first place—by leading the search process to recruit qualified candidates to be RSI’s new leader. “The process for choosing a new RSI president was the most streamlined process in hiring for a leadership role that I've been involved with,” Isselmann says. “If I'm ever involved in a competitive recruitment like that again, I'm going to suggest a similar approach because that was quite an amazing feat.”
Heidkamp adds, “The time spent in advance of the search to develop the characteristics and the attributes of the leader was outstanding, and it helped get the board aligned around what we were looking for as opposed to sending out a general job description and getting a bunch of resumes.” However, there was skepticism around whether the new leader needed a rail background. “Smithbucklin opened our eyes that while a rail background would certainly be nice, there's a lot more needed to run an association,” he says. Now, the RSI volunteer leaders see a bright future under the strong leadership with their new president, Patty Long, and they credit it to the process and work they did with the Smithbucklin team to attract such an experienced and influential leader.
Advice for Other Volunteer Leaders
When asked what advice he’d give to volunteer leaders who are considering an association management solution, Isselmann was quick to note that “not all association management firms are created equal.” Both he and Heidkamp advise that volunteer leaders should be clear on what they are looking for. While some firms were focused solely on one piece of the business, such as advocacy, Smithbucklin offered broader capabilities and a breadth of resources that could contribute to achieving RSI’s goals, like event strategy and enhancing the member experience. Isselmann says, “Smithbucklin, which was our preference, emphasized managing the association, growing membership, and looking at programming and events that can attract new members and retain existing members.” Having this clear understanding of the association’s needs will ensure that a final contract is so well written that it addresses every item on a board’s checklist.
Morgan Manghera is in Marketing & Communication Services at Smithbucklin.