From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: The Wisdom of Wading Into the Pool Before Going Deep

By Association Adviser staff • March 18, 2014

Chris Newton
Chris Newton

This month’s Corner Office spotlight shines on Christopher Newton, president of the 700 member Texas Food & Fuel Association. TFFA represents the state’s leading petroleum marketing, grocery distribution and convenience/grocery retailing organizations.

Association Adviser: Chris, tell us a little about TFFA’s reach and the scope of industries served.

Chris Newton: We’re the nation’s largest state organization dedicated to serving the fuel marketing, convenience, grocery and wholesale food industries. We represent everyone from “mom and pop” groceries to 7-Eleven. Incidentally, Texas has more convenience stores than any other state (14,000) and our members own, operate and supply more than 10,000 of them.

AA: Very impressive considering the Texas Food & Fuel Association is a new organization.

CN: That’s right. In 2012, two very proud and longstanding organizations, the Texas Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association (TPCA), founded in 1949, and the Texas Grocery & Convenience Association (TGCA), founded in 1938, merged into what’s now called the Texas Food & Fuel Association. I was president of the TPCA, and we had been producing a successful trade show together since 2005 (Texas Food & Fuel Expo). Over the years, we found that many members got to know each other and were paying dues to both organizations. They wanted to create a single, more efficient organization.

  • In the not-for-profit world “everybody’s right.”
  • If you have a strong, experienced staff, set good goals and stay out of their way. This frees you up to focus on the big picture.
  • There’s always pressure to get things done and make things happen, but you can’t rush culture change. It takes time to build consensus.
  • Before asking young people to join your organization, get them involved in a committee or advocacy issue so they can get a feel for your organization and its people.

AA: How did the merger impact membership?

CN: It’s been positive. We’re seeing lots of new faces and we’re seeing nice growth, especially among suppliers, refiners, grocers and distributors.

AA: Was it hard merging the two cultures?

CN: What I’ve learned after 17 years in the not-for-profit world is that EVERYBODY’S RIGHT. It takes time to build consensus. You need to take everyone’s feedback into consideration. Many members are independent entrepreneurs, and they’ve all got a distinctive outlook on the economy, the business and what the organization should be doing. You have to get things done and make things happen, but at the same time, you can’t rush [culture change]. One benefit of the [reorganization] is that it really helped the staff and members rethink the organization’s mission and purpose.

AA: What’s it like being the steward of a newly combined organization that represents so many different industries?

CN: Pretty simple. People decide to hire or fire you every year when that dues bill comes.

AA: Sounds pretty stressful.

CN: Actually I love my job. It’s so diverse. I have so many talented leaders and staff to help me solve a big puzzle. Fortunately, we’re growing, so we must be solving it.

AA: Do you come from the convenience store or petroleum industry?

CN: No. I’m an attorney. After law school (University of Texas), I started working for a state senator when Texas was redoing its underground storage tank laws. I got to know the regulatory environment as well as the industries, advocates and organizations most affected by the new rules.

AA: What are your members’ biggest challenges and concerns?

CN: Industry consolidation—it’s tough on operators and consumers, and it ultimately reduces our pool of potential members. The big are getting bigger, and that poses threats for single-store operators. But, large operators have threats as well. Everything from interchange (credit card) fees to the cost of fuel, to regulatory challenges and the ongoing environmental issues of handling fuel. The education programs at our annual show are designed to help members of all sizes address these challenges.

AA: How would you describe your leadership style?

CN: I’m blessed to have a loyal and long-tenured staff of six. My style is to set good goals and then stay out of the way so my team can do its job. This allows me to focus on the big picture. You can’t micromanage. You need to make sure there is clear and direct communication with each team member about the organization’s goals and objectives. We want everyone to feel like they’re part of the process and that they have a say in our strategic plan.

AA: On top of the merger, you’ve introduced a new website, apps for the conference and apps for the board. Do you have a formal process for innovation?

CN: There’s no formal process per se. We look carefully at what other [organizations] are doing well. We try to have as much direct interaction with members as possible so we can get good feedback. We prefer to wade into the pool slowly, taking measured steps, before going into the deep end. Also, you can be innovative and still be low-tech. For instance, when it comes to member communication, we’re finding that good old fashioned snail mail and faxing has been effective for cutting through the clutter.

AA: Do you have any specific initiatives for attracting and retaining the next generation of members?

CN: The hardest part is getting young people to take the first step and engage with us. Before asking them to join, we try to get them involved in a committee or an advocacy issue. This way they can get a feel for what it’s like here. We’re also planning to put more video of our annual expo on the website and do more with our mobile app. Unlike the boomers, younger people don’t join just because “it’s the right thing to do.” They don’t feel the same need to reach out and talk to someone at the association when they have a question or a tough challenge to solve. Younger people are more likely to turn to Google or their own online communities for answers. That’s what associations are competing with.

AA: How about social media?

CN: We’re looking carefully at social media, of course, but we’re still trying to figure it out and how to measure it. We hired a full-time marketing person for the first time since 2001, and social media will be part of that person’s duties.

AA: Any final thoughts for our readers and viewers?

CN: Like I said earlier, it’s so important to have face-to-face contact with your member and to visit them onsite if your can. Find out what their priorities are, what they’re thinking. Again, our members are in one of the most face-to-face environments there is and they have to know everything about their customers. Same goes for us. People can’t tell you what they paid for a half gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, but they can sure tell you what they paid for gas—to the penny.