From the Corner Office: Eric Fletty, TAPPI

By Association Adviser staff • July 16, 2013

Eric Fletty, TAPPI
Eric Fletty, VP, Operations, TAPPI

Association Adviser: Eric, tell us a little bit about TAPPI.

Eric Fletty: TAPPI was born back in 1915, when a bunch of paper makers got together determined to help fuel the progress of their industry. It had been a time of huge growth and technological advancement for the paper industry, and their idea was to gather and disseminate information about paper production. This was a forward-thinking group; they wanted to create a forum in which information could be channeled and ideas could be exchanged, as a way of benefiting the entire industry. Almost 100 years later, their formula for success continues to work.

AA: How so?

EF: Recently—by requests from within our industry—TAPPI has entered the world of association management. Our focus is on associations with goals that are related to ours, but which won’t represent a conflict of interest. We did not expect this opportunity, but our previous success has enabled us to grow our portfolio to include five other organizations: Association of Suppliers to the Paper Industry, Pulp & Paper Safety Association, Pulp & Paper Manufacturers Association, Forest Products Society, and the National Association for Print Ink Manufacturers.

  • The most significant game-changer for associations has been the role of volunteers as they take on more responsibility for an association’s operations.
  • The biggest change TAPPI has made to its membership marketing during the past five years is listening more to members to understand what they need. Despite the economic climate and being in a mature, manufacturing-based industry, TAPPI has grown their membership during this time.
  • If members have an idea and it’s fiscally responsible to implement that idea, TAPPI does it. If it’s not fiscally responsible to act on their idea, they talk openly and honestly about how to raise the funding needed or change the scope of the plan. Once people know their ideas will be treated seriously, you will get more ideas.

AA: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the association world over the past three years?

EF: I think everyone can agree that smartphones, social media and new technologies in general have been game changers. Yet I think that, for all associations, the most significant game changer has been the evolving role of a “volunteer.” Historically, our volunteers produced and approved content for dissemination to the industry; but these days, our members wear many different hats, and so do we. So we’re revamping our processes to allow more staff-driven content that our volunteers then approve. With more than 500 member groups at TAPPI, this is a long-term change, but it is going to be critically important for our future success. Simply put, people’s hearts—that is, their loyalty and support for the association—are bigger than the time they can realistically devote. We need to make it possible for them to be engaged, and to gain all the benefits of engagement, within the time they have to give.

AA: In general, do you feel associations are getting better (or worse) at keeping up with the times?

EF: At TAPPI, we’ve got an amazing team that always looks to improve. This team effort has helped us keep up with the times better than we used to. Our biggest challenge is finding the resources—both time and money—to keep up with the pace of technological change.

AA: What big changes do you see on the horizon for your own industry?

EF: Paper itself is changing; we all see the impact of e-media on printing and writing grades of paper, particularly newsprint. But our industry is changing as well; we create a sustainable, renewable raw material that’s made into thousands of products we all touch every day, some newly developed and some we’ve relied on for hundreds of years. Can you really imagine a day without paper, tissue and packaging? Our cars, our homes, our schools, and businesses and hospitals—they all rely on products made by our members and their companies.

Yet we’re not stopping there. Our industry is rapidly advancing in the development of nanocellulose, a material derived from the cellular “building blocks” of wood and wood pulp. These advances are producing a raw material that has the strength of steel but half the weight, all from a renewable resource. Nanocellulose can lead to thousands of applications and is part of a healthy future for our industry. Recently, we held a conference on renewable nanomaterials in Stockholm. It was really cool to see the exciting work our members are doing and, more importantly, to get a glimpse of the future. You can check out our video, “Rethink Trees,” at www.rethinktrees.org.

AA: Do you come from the paper industry?

EF: Yes, I do. Prior to TAPPI I worked for a company that made papermaking machines. My role was working in the mills, so I got to travel a lot; since our business was global, I was fortunate to be able to see the world. That experience has really helped in my career.

AA: Is there such a thing as a “typical” TAPPI member?

Eric Fletty: Our membership is really diverse. We’ve got members in 66 countries, in all aspects and at all levels of the industries we serve. The power of TAPPI is our members, and this broad range of members helps us better serve our industry.

AA: Has TAPPI changed its membership recruitment and retention strategy in response to the many changes affecting the paper industry?

Eric Fletty:
Actually, during the past five years we’ve changed a lot. The biggest change has been listening more to our members to understand what they need. TAPPI had been in a steady membership decline for a decade, and we’re proud to have turned that around and be growing again.

AA: Any examples you can share with us?

Eric Fletty: We used to have a “build it and they will come” attitude towards membership, but we have really increased our marketing efforts. We’ve improved the value we provide, we bundle membership with other products and, most importantly, we go out and sell the value membership. At TAPPI, membership has changed from a “department” to something that every team member helps with every day. After all, our members are why we’re here! We invest in a lot of shoe leather and visit, face-to-face, as many members as we can.

AA: How has your membership fared during this difficult economic climate?

Eric Fletty: Despite the economic climate and being in a mature, manufacturing-based industry, we have grown our membership. It’s easy to blame your industry or other external factors for poor performance, but to us that’s not acceptable. One thing is for certain: All of our markets will change. We feel it is not enough to change along with it; we need to help lead this change.

AA: How are you helping members overcome industry challenges?

EF: We’re investing a lot of staff time toward what’s happening with nanocellulose—partly through traditional association products such as events, books and webinars, but also by helping the industry develop standards in this area. Right now we’re drafting the first nanoceullulose standard on Terminology; it’s such an emerging field that people are using many names for the same thing.

AA: What’s been the best way to attract and retain members?

EF: Our company visits have really helped gain support for TAPPI’s efforts. We listen to every member’s ideas about how to improve, and when we’re “back at the ranch” we do everything we can to implement their suggestions. This loop of listening and implementing has helped our members see that we’re here for them.

AA: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

EF: Technically, it’s servant leadership, but I try to keep things pretty simple. My belief is that if you create a culture based on trust—promote the importance of integrity, empower your team make good decisions, but give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes—you will create an exceptional team. We work hard to inspire our team to achieve extraordinary results through teamwork, and they do. It takes a passion for what you do backed by the courage, integrity and commitment to help make it happen. It has to be OK to raise your hand and ask for help, because the sooner your teammates know you need help, the sooner they can come give it to you. Lastly, you’ve got to have a work environment that is fun. We spend so much time at work, so it’s a lot better if we can laugh—and we do!

AA: What’s the most important thing for your team to do in order to be successful?

EF: We’ve got the best team in the association game and with so many things going on it’s critical that we communicate with each other. Our pace surprises a lot of people; we like to say we’re eliminating “association time.”

AA: TAPPI seems to have a reputation for being very forward-leaning. Can you describe your organization’s philosophy/culture of innovation?

The culture has really changed at TAPPI, but we did not set out to change the culture. In my opinion, forced culture change just doesn’t work; instead, work to accomplish a goal. Our goal was to turn TAPPI around. Prior to 2007, we were losing a ton of money; armed with one goal, we decided to turn that around, and our leadership modeled the way. We’re proud to say that we’ve been in the black ever since.

Here is an example. We tell TAPPI members that if they have an idea and it’s fiscally responsible to implement that idea, we do it. It’s that simple. If it’s not fiscally responsible to act on their idea, we talk openly and honestly about the financials—how to raise the funding needed or change the scope of the plan. Once people know that their ideas will be treated seriously, you get more and more ideas. This has helped us do some amazing things.

AA: Overall things seem to be trending in the right direction. Is there anything keeping you up at night?

EF: I get really frustrated by “greenwashing.” Every day I see “anti-paper” environmental claims from companies and individuals; these are usually misleading and often just plain wrong. If a company can save money by doing things electronically, I wish they would just say so, instead of making misleading claims about “going green.” On the TAPPI side, I worry about how to keep up our pace. This year we’ve hired more people than in the previous five years combined!

AA: Any final thoughts for our readers?

EF: Unexpected growth and opportunity has been quite a learning experience for us. We’ve branched out into association management services, and we recently launched a large new safety initiative called TAPPISAFE. In both cases we’re competing with for-profit companies, and many folks said what we’re doing “couldn’t be done.” Well, we did it, and the industry is noticing. One publication in our industry publishes an annual “Top 50 Power List,” and for the first time ever, our CEO made the list. He joins the leading industry CEOs, chairmen and trade association execs from around the world. I think it’s the first time a professional society has made the list. So shoot for the moon—you just might get there.