When PPAI President and CEO Steve Slagle, CAE, announced that he would retire, the Association’s Board of Directors was challenged to replace an executive who had, during more than 15 years of leadership, played an integral role in much of what PPAI had accomplished during those years. Fortunately, they did not have to look far. After an active national search of industry and association candidates, in June the board named PPAI Executive Vice President Paul Bellantone, CAE, as the Association’s incoming president and CEO.
Bellantone assumed the role on July 1, bringing more than a decade’s experience with PPAI. He joined the Association in 1998 as director of exhibitions and meetings and has steadily worked his way up its ranks. In 2001, Bellantone became PPAI’s vice president of marketing and communications, and in 2004, his position transitioned to vice president of marketing and business development. He became the Association’s executive vice president in 2007.
“For me, the role of CEO is about growing the visibility, viability and credibility of our industry and our members,” says Bellantone. “My focus is on making sure that we have an environment that allows our members to be successful and well positioned to take advantages of the opportunities in the marketplace, and demonstrating that the promotional products medium works as a successful marketing vehicle.”
PPB magazine sat down with Bellantone to discuss his new role, his plans for his first 30, 60 and 90 days as the Association’s president and CEO, and his thoughts on PPAI’s place in the industry and the challenges it faces.
What are your first and most pressing orders of business as incoming PPAI president and CEO?
In addition to leading the business of PPAI and making sure we have the resources necessary to operate a successful, progressive association, there are two primary goals on the front end of my 30/60/90-day plan. We’ve had steady membership growth over the past year, accelerating exponentially in January with the launch of the Power of Two program with SAGE. My first goal is to integrate these new members into the PPAI family and educate them on our value equation. Many of our new members come to us by virtue of the SAGE alliance, so they’ve clearly bought into SAGE’s value proposition. We now have the opportunity to bring them fully into the PPAI fold and show them what we have to offer. They need to know about our member benefits that will help them grow their businesses and the opportunities to volunteer and get involved in Association activities. Members should also know about our work on state and federal government policies and regulations that can affect their businesses and our industry, and how to get involved in these activities.
My second goal is to solidify and communicate the framework of our volunteer engagement process and leadership structure and how staff interacts with member volunteers. Two years ago, we made changes to our volunteer leadership structure that expanded on the traditional committee structure. The addition of action groups, which offer more flexibility to our volunteer leaders, has helped us grow our volunteer base but has also caused some confusion about roles and opportunities for engagement in the Association’s leadership. Action groups provide opportunities to volunteer in ways that are more reflective of what people’s lives look like. There’s considerable upside to the new model, but we need to do a better job of communicating the benefits and making sure we have the right volunteers doing the right things for the right reasons. I can’t say with certainty this is happening in every case.
The success of these goals is tied to the overall success of the Association to a certain extent. They speak to what PPAI is all about—a group of like-minded industry professionals and companies advocating for the profession and the medium. And the more members you have doing this on the Association’s and industry’s behalf, the easier it is to accomplish both.
What unique perspectives do your years of experience at the Association give you as its president and CEO?
There are certain things an experienced association employee brings: familiarity with the processes and members and with the issues challenging our industry. These are definite advantages. I’m already part of the dialogue. I’m familiar with the structure of our unique industry. I have a sense of what members are expecting from the Association, and I can help deliver on these expectations.
I’ve also worked hard over the past decade to make sure my perspective brings both industry experience and ideas from outside. One of the ways I did this was by getting my MBA. I did this specifically to make sure I was in touch with the realities of other businesses and how other business leaders address their challenges and create opportunities.
When it was announced I was PPAI’s incoming president, I received literally hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails from people sending congratulations and lending their support. On June 30, a week after the announcement, I sent out a note to these people asking them to support a legislative call to action regarding CPSIA (Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act) regulations. That’s the beauty of being an internal candidate. If it was someone from the outside, I don’t know if they’d connect the dots to say that this is what we’re looking for and here are the people most likely to help us. And they were. We noticed a significant uptick in letters sent from PPAI Law after that message.
Your opinion on change: evolution or revolution? Does the industry see PPAI as an agent of change and innovation or an organization that supports the status quo?
I think evolution or revolution is a matter of perspective. I believe my approach has been largely evolutionary. The Association has been in good hands: It’s in good shape financially, and we have a top-notch staff, a relevant and up-to-date strategic plan and engaged volunteer leaders. Our membership is growing. These are key factors in association management, so having so many of these elements in place and in good shape allows me to take an evolutionary approach in these areas.
I believe that PPAI is seen as the champion of what currently exists. It’s why our members have joined us and why we are supported.
We are not recognized as an organization that helps members figure out what their business will be like five or 10 years from now. We’re not perceived to be the organization that’s identifying trends or having real two-way strategic dialogue about these topics. I challenge this perception because we’ve done a good job of looking out into the future and educating our members about conditions on the horizon. However, our members have not recognized the opportunity. I want to change this. It is important that our members perceive us to be a forward-facing, progressive organization, and to count on us to support not only what they’re doing today but to identify what things might look like in the future.
So, certain things we do may be seen as revolutionary—such as how the Association’s role is perceived going forward. I’ve spoken about my perception that some members want the Association to exist solely to protect and maintain the status quo. To them it may be revolutionary when I say it can’t be the Association’s role to inoculate or immunize them from the realities of our fast-paced, ever-changing business climate. We couldn’t accomplish this even if we all agreed that it is PPAI’s role.
Our channel of distribution has evolved only slightly since 1903. For some people, it’s pretty revolutionary to say, “You know what, I don’t know if that exact model has another 100 years in it.” But for me, it’s evolutionary. It’s a matter of perspective.
Our announcement to launch a hosted-buyer program at The PPAI Expo was considered revolutionary by some members. I thought of the plan as evolutionary. In the end, though, I think that it was a failing on the part of the Association that our members considered it revolutionary. We should have been doing a better job of communicating that our strategic plan includes reaching out to buyers and teaching them about our industry and the breadth and depth of our marketplace. You could then debate whether The Expo was the right place to launch a hosted buyer program, but that would be a discussion largely about tactics.
I think we can all agree that it is the Association’s role to be out in the forefront identifying how successful companies are doing business and educating our members about the opportunities that exist in the marketplace. It’s also the role of PPAI to continually challenge our members on what we see as the realities of the marketplace. Ignoring market realities is not a progressive, forward-reaching role. If we do a better job of communicating the vision and goals of PPAI to our members, there will be a stronger connection between them and the Association.
How do you characterize the dialogue between PPAI and its members? As president, how will you work to ensure clarity and transparency in the Association’s communications?
We do a good job of communicating given the challenges and the diversity of our industry. We have members with $15,000 in revenues to close to half a billion. We have suppliers and we have distributors, and we have companies who’ve been members for months and companies who’ve been members for 100 years. We have different-sized member companies, from one employee to thousands of employees.
When you have an Association with so varied a membership, it is difficult to communicate with each member exactly the way they want to be engaged. Likewise, it makes it difficult for the Association to make meaningful decisions that can be positive for all of those categories and does not alienate some portion of the diverse membership. I think we can do a better job of communicating a message that supersedes all of these factors and categories and yet still represents our vision and strategic plan. Despite these differences, our strategic plan is fairly ‘non-denominational.’ It speaks to a broader vision of the Association that supersedes categories and size: advocacy for the medium and for the profession.
We try to communicate so that anyone with interest in something of ours has the ability to find it. While not every member may know the work that we do in, for example, the government relations and product safety areas of our public advocacy, anybody who’s interested in knowing, knows. If you’re interested in our awards program and recognition and what we do to identify and celebrate our most creative and successful companies, that exists and is easily accessible. If you’re interested in top-notch education, that is there, too. It’s difficult to communicate the right message at exactly the right time to all the right people. Our goal is to let the members know we do all of these valuable things, and where they can find more information and get engaged if they’re interested.
As difficult as it can be, we will continue to try to reach people in the way they want to be reached. When we first got involved in digital media and social media, we thought it would replace some of the other things we were doing to reach members. But we realized that you don’t replace something with Facebook or Twitter. You really must do them all. We’re integrating the different ways we can reach our members because, as individuals, they’re as diverse a group as the companies in this industry.
We’re also going to listen more and listen better and more actively. I’ve made a commitment that I will not only be a businessman who manages the business of the Association but acts as its chief cheerleader and advocate. Over the next six months, I’m going to hit the road, doing town halls, regional meetings and member visits to make sure that we understand the issues facing our members. Once we understand their challenges, we’re much better positioned to find solutions and communicate them back. I’ll share our strategic plan and its promise to the membership and make sure our goals are aligned with theirs. It’s part of a continuous process to find better ways to communicate with our membership.
What challenges lie in the relationships and collaborations among PPAI leadership, the Board of Directors and the Association’s committees and Action Groups?
Information flows from individual members, volunteer leaders act on their wishes and this is funneled down to the staff. For me, it’s about defining this structure, understanding who’s responsible for what and understanding how the information is to be acted on once a leadership decision has been made. In my goals presentation to the board, I spoke about clarifying these roles, making sure we’re on the right track and asking if the action group model we developed two years ago is working in the way we need it to. I say we’re close, but we’re not perfect yet. There are still some modifications we should make to this structure.
Improvements start with the partnership between the president/CEO and the board chair. The chair is responsible for the actions of the board, and I’m responsible for the actions of the staff. There’s also the relationship between these two organizations—the board and the staff—and how we receive, share and process information. Sometimes it’s more art than science. It’s about building trust-based relationships between our volunteer leaders, the board, the executive management team and the entire staff.
Do volunteers and volunteer leaders face challenges in contributing to the Association and the industry?
We do a better job of engaging our volunteer leaders than most organizations, but it is a work in progress. Associations are wrestling with how to successfully engage volunteers because the definition, the makeup of a volunteer, has changed so much. It used to be that people volunteered for life, but today time constraints, aging demographics, work and life realities take a toll. The dynamic of why people volunteer has changed. You used to just ask for them to help. Now you have to give them compelling reasons to do it, and you have to let them do it and allow them to disengage once they’re done. They don’t want to participate just to participate or for the seat at the table. They don’t do it just to have their names on a roster of volunteers.
I’ve learned as an association executive and a volunteer that you can’t force people to be engaged with their associations, you have to create a platform that allows anybody who wants to be involved to get involved. We’re making real progress. There used to be unnecessary barriers to engagement, such as having to be on a committee or serve for three years, but those barriers are coming down. As an example, if our goal is truly to get younger volunteers, a three-year commitment to 30-year-olds represents 10 percent of their life. That’s not an appealing value proposition. We need to be more flexible and allow people to get engaged in ways that are meaningful to them, not just the Association. I think the flexibility afforded by our action groups are a step in that direction.
We will also focus on recognizing and celebrating the successes of our volunteer leaders and groups. Recognition and celebration needs to be timely and frequent. Members volunteer for many reasons, and the recognition we offer should reflect how a member wants to be recognized.
How well do PPAI’s programs and policies match the needs of its members?
PPAI strives to make sure we’re delivering value. In the end, finding solutions for member needs is creating value. They’ve identified something they expect from us, and we try to deliver it. It’s never ending, and while we’ll never be 100-percent successful, I am proud of where we stand today. In 2010, we had an 84 percent member retention rate, which is good for a trade association in any economy. It is especially strong in this economy, given the consolidation we’re experiencing in the industry and the fact that association membership is not perceived to be a business necessity for every member.
Meeting member needs hasn’t been easy, nor will it ever be easy, and it’s a job that’s never really done. From a staff perspective, my approach is that every employee that walks through the door needs to think about adding value every day. Whether you’re an administrator in the education department, the CFO or director of The Expo, you need to see the straight line between what you’re doing and what we promise our members in our strategic plan. If we continue to do this—listen and find solutions to member business needs—we will continue to deliver value to our members.
Watch a video featuring Paul Bellantone, CAE, speaking about his vision for the future of PPAI.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Paul Bellantone, CAE
1. Where were you born?
Brooklyn, New York
2. What would be your ideal road trip?
I am not much of a road-trip guy—either as a driver or passenger—so I don’t have an ideal trip. My favorite road trip is my annual drive to the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas, each year. I plug in the iPod, listen to the bands that will play over the three-day music festival and just let my mind wander.
3. Do you have a favorite movie?
I have two favorite movies: The Godfather: Part II and Phenomenon. They are different, but I lock onto both movies if I come across them while scanning the channels.
4. In what section of the bookstore would I find the book about your life?
I hope I am well-rounded enough to fit in a number of sections, but I think “Inspirational.”
5. Cat person, dog person or other?
I am a dog person, although I don’t have any out-of-water pets at this time. We are currently parents to two water frogs—the kind you buy at Brookstone that live in an aquarium and are only supposed to live a few weeks. We’ve had ours for almost two years.
6. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Morning, morning, morning, morning. I haven’t been a night owl in 20 years.
7. Where in the world would you most like to go?
I think this is where I am supposed to say something about exploring cultural Europe, cruising Alaska or a safari in Africa, but the reality is that I enjoy going to island beaches. My favorites are in the British Virgin Islands. I also had a great time with my family last summer in Belize. I guess anywhere there is an ocean, sand, sunshine and family.
8. Cook or dine out?
Dine out. There hasn’t been a home-cooked meal in my house since the last time my mother visited.
9. What is your favorite song?
“Change The World.” The Eric Clapton version, not the Wynonna Judd version.
10. What are you most proud of?
My children; I have two. Samantha, my 18-year-old daughter, starts her freshman year at Texas Tech University in August. Benjamin, my son, is a typical, fun-loving seven-year-old. One makes me old(er) and one keeps me young, but they are both really good kids who’ve taught me more about being a good dad than I have ever taught them about being good kids.