By Association Adviser staff
Phillip Russo talks about trust, taking risks, and the importance of listening to members.
This month's Corner Office profile falls on Phillip E. Russo, CAE, Executive Director of Princeton, New Jersey-based NAFA Fleet Management Association, the world's leading non-profit association for professionals who manage fleets of sedans, public safety vehicles, trucks, buses, military and off-road equipment. NAFA has approximately 3,200 members including FedEx, UPS, Johnson & Johnson and General Services Administration with 10,000-plus vehicles.
ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Phil, you just came back from your annual conference, the 2010 NAFA Institute & Expo, which you held in Detroit for the first time in more than 20 years. It's been a tough go for the auto industry in general, and it's been particularly hard on the major auto makers and the city of Detroit. How did you fare?
PHIL RUSSO: Actually attendance was up nicely and we saw an 11 percent increase in exhibit floor space sold – without last-minute discounting I might add. This is a critical time for the auto industry. All three major automakers jumped at the opportunity to speak directly to fleet managers right in their own backyard. Each of the Detroit Three hosted an educational session. They each participated in important panel discussions, exhibited on the expo floor and provided a keynote speaker. Once again, this proved that fleet managers continue to represent an extremely important market segment for the automotive industry – one they cannot afford to lose.
AA: Phil, your organization represents an industry that's been going through a lot of painful changes and restructuring. What have you learned from this economy?
PR: Whatever the opposite of “duck and cover” is, that's how you've got to operate. There are great opportunities in all economic climates, and if you have the courage to put the pedal to the metal when everyone else has the brakes on, you can make your own success and come out of the downturn with a full head of steam while everyone else is just getting back on their feet. A difficult economy almost forces you to have the courage to make changes. Whether you're a large or small organization, you've got to be nimble. You've got to try everything. That not only goes for your staff, but for your board, your vendors and your partners as well.
AA: Tell us about your background. Did you always have an affinity for motors and large engines?
PR: Actually, I've mostly been a communications guy from New Jersey. I graduated from Rutgers with a communications degree. I did an internship at The New Jersey Motor Truck Association. Then a position opened up in NAFA's communications department. I just sort of worked my way up the ranks from the communications side. Sorry, no real experience behind the wheel or under the hood of a large vehicle. Although I must say, my dad and I once did a bang-up job refurbishing a 1967 Mustang together (laughing).
AA: So, how have you been able to parlay that experience into a leading voice of the fleet administration industry?
PR: I'd say being a good communicator and listener has been crucial: listening carefully to your members and suppliers, listening to your staff and your board and more importantly, staying in touch with them on a consistent basis year round. Effective communication isn't just reaching out to members when you want something from them like a dues renewal or an exhibit contract. It's about keeping the dialogue going continuously. For instance, I send a personal thank you to every exhibitor after a show, and I make it a point to call most of them two or three times a year just to see how things are going.
AA: How have you been able to inculcate the listening culture throughout your organization?
PR: I try to surround myself with people who are good listeners, who ask good questions and who try to figure out ways to get things done. We move pretty fast and we're going to have some stumbles. But I'd rather have can-do people around me than people who spend time complaining about why things won't work or why we don't have enough resources. That goes for our partners, not just our staff. And yes, I've had to do some housecleaning to get the right team in place.
AA: You're known for giving high performing staff (and vendors) a lot of free reign. What's the thought process?
PR: The bottom line is we need to make money. More than half my annual revenue target is now pegged to non-dues revenue, primarily from our vendors and suppliers. If we don't hit those targets, I don't have a job. Since we can't do it all in-house, you have to find a partner who asks the right questions, instead of just selling me on their capabilities. If they're consistently delivering results, you should treat them like an extension of your own staff, not like a vendor. For instance, I now have Naylor doing things like scouting out a show location that I used to have my own people do. And they've certainly taken a leadership role reshaping our member magazine.
AA: How so?
PR: For many years Fleet Executive was like People magazine for fleet administrators. In other words, it was all about the industry's movers and shakers. Naylor helped us see that the real opportunity for growth wasn't just about tweaking its design or adding more personality profiles. It was about really digging in to see what's important to fleet administrators. What kinds of information do they really need to do their jobs better and build their careers? Naylor did a complete overhaul from an editorial, business and strategic standpoint, not just design. Now the magazine is called Fleet Solutions. For fleet professionals, it's all about solutions to their day-to-day challenges. It's not just about the people in the industry.
AA: Phil, you mentioned nimbleness as a key to NAFA's success. Can you tell us how an organization becomes more nimble?
PR: Sure. You have to make sure the competition is always shooting you in the rear-end (laughing). That means you're ahead of the pack. We're fanatical about first-mover advantage. You've got to keep coming up with new ideas and staying one step ahead of niche associations, for-profit media companies and even some of your major members who have their own conferences and fleet preview shows. However, it's very tiring. Naylor is unusual in that it's a large organization that can still keep pace with us. We throw an awful lot of ideas their way. Naylor gives each one consideration and helps us put some discipline (and manpower) into the process to increase our chances of success.
AA: Phil, can you tell us more about integration initiative you've put in place for your member communications?
PR: Associations should make sure all their member communication vehicles share a single and consistent voice. It wasn't that way when I was here during my first stint at NAFA and certainly wasn't that way when I returned five years ago as E.D. Like a lot of associations, everything was isolated in silos. Our magazine had one voice, the newsletter had a different voice, which in turn was different from our show and education programs.
We've worked very hard to get all our member communications offerings together with a consistent NAFA branding message that included the longstanding acronym 'NAFA' with the new tagline 'Fleet Management Administration.' We've also segmented our content – regardless of platform – so it falls under one of eight key channels: Asset Management, Financial Management, Risk Management, Business Management, Regulations & Compliance, Maintenance Management, Professional Development and Vehicle Fuel.
AA: How has that helped members?
PR: Each communication vehicle now has a specific frequency and purpose. The magazine is now bi-monthly and provides members with in-depth solutions in an “evergreen” format. The eNewsletter is bi-weekly and is designed to be read ASAP. Members act on it and it drives members to our Web site. The online buyers' guide is designed to bring members and suppliers together and streamline the RFP process. Everything we do is designed to drive members to the Web site for additional content, resources and promotions.
Naylor really stepped up the professionalism of our annual directory, making it easier for members to find each other. And the eZine is enhancing the reader experience by providing links to resources that would be too hard to include in the print version. And for advertisers, the eZine is providing lots of bonus eyeballs. You click on an ad and you're taken right away to the advertiser's Web site. It's yet another way to bring members and suppliers together.
AA: Can you share some financial results with us?
PR: (laughing) Let's just say the eZine, Web site and eNewsletter never had revenue, now they do. Exhibit sales have gone from 70 percent of capacity to 100 percent without discounting. The show guide, which we never really tried before, is now solidly profitable. The magazine is now profitable after many years in the red and the online buyers' guide, which never made money before, is now turning the corner.
AA: So, what's keeping you up at night?
PR: I'm always worried about staying ahead of members' radar. Is anyone beating us to the punch? What's our quality level? Are we doing things that don't suck?
AA: Are there any final takeaways for our readers?
PR: Always listen to your members. Listen to your suppliers. Don't be afraid to break the mold. It all goes back to customer service. Stay relevant. Always reinforce the fact that your organization is the exclusive and best provider of something that they can't get anywhere else.
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