From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: Susan Neely, CAE, American Beverage Association

By Association Adviser staff • November 5, 2012

This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Susan Neely, CAE, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, the leading policy and public education advocate for the $112 billion non-alcoholic beverage industry that employs 220,000 people nationwide. Susan is also a board member with ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, at whose annual conference Naylor will be exhibiting in August.

Former Bush Administration Staffer Uses Innovation and Intuition to “See Around the Corners.”

ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Susan, you took a very interesting path to the helm of the ABA. Can you tell us about your background?

SUSAN NEELY: I’ve been here about six years. Before that I gained a lot of policy and advocacy experience at the Health Insurance Association of America and the Association of Medical Colleges. Earlier I worked in the Bush administration White House as one of the architects of the nation’s first Department of Homeland Security and then in the department as assistant secretary for public affairs. A lot of that experience revolved around managing threat announcements, branding, public education campaigns and crisis communications.

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AA: What can you tell us about your members and the unique challenges they face?

SN: We have about 250 company members and they represent about 95 percent of the U.S. market for non-alcoholic beverages. Our members are bottlers, manufacturers and distributors of some of the most widely recognized brands in the world–Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, Powerade to name a few. Our products are very visible and available. They can be easy targets for tax-starved governments that really need revenue, even though polls show 70 percent of the American public is against taxes on non-alcoholic beverages.

AA: What is the toughest part about leading a not-for-profit organization today?

SN: There is no part of the association business that you can take for granted. Everyone’s working harder than ever and doing it with fewer resources. You have to help your staff navigate that. The tough economy has forced us to be a lot more agile.

AA: What are ABA’s biggest challenges with respect to member communications?

SN: Our main mission is on the policy and advocacy front. Membership has held steady despite the economic downturn, industry consolidation and external pressure on our industry. Members really need us now. I’m a glass-half-full type of person and that’s one of the good things about a down economy. You can really help your members when they need it most.

We also like to think we’re addressing the problem of information overload that your annual benchmarking research study addressed. Our members are extremely busy. We filter and sift all the industry news and information that’s hitting them all day long and turn it into concise, actionable intelligence. We also work very hard to get members together via our trade show, as well as our Government Affairs Conference, our fly-in gathering in Washington, D.C. every April as well as our webinars.

AA: Can you tell us more about your communication strategy and platform?

SN: The strategy is simple: Get things that really matter to members in a timely manner so they can’t get it anywhere else. Even with our social media, you’ve got to get it out to members right away. You can’t have a weeklong review process that creates a bottleneck every time an important piece of news or legislation comes up. You really have to be timely, accurate and very niche-focused.

Remember, our members are very sophisticated marketers. You have to be smart just to keep up with them. If something looks to broad-based or generic, they’re not going to read it. They don’t have time for anything that’s not need-to-know.

AA: ABA seems to rely heavily on online and social media to reach its members.

SN: Yes. You’ll notice we don’t have print publications anymore except for our annual review. Electronic delivery is better suited to our needs and it’s going to be even more so as so many legislators and their staffs are Millennials. We have 7,000 Twitter followers, nearly 1,000 Facebook fans, plus daily posts and tweets via our Sip & Savor blog, numerous videos posted on YouTube, a daily news brief of aggregated industry news and two weekly e-reports: Federal Legislative Report and State Legislative Report. We’ve also had success with the member directory and online buyers guide that Naylor produces for us. They’ve been very helpful as recruiting tools in addition to building business and raising awareness for our members.

AA: What has been the biggest surprise for you since taking the reins for ABA?

SN: It’s how grassroots our members’ products are. The beverage industry is a very large business, but there’s nothing arcane about it. Our members’ products are widely available, widely known and everyone has a strong opinion about them one way or the other. We’re constantly monitoring how lawmakers, the press and consumers are portraying our industry.

AA: ABA has a strong culture of innovation. How is that maintained in today’s era of tight budgets and widespread job insecurity?

SN: You’ve got to keep on innovating or you cease to be relevant. I’m not saying you should be reckless, but you can’t wait for members to drag you into a decision. You can’t wait for your industry to tell you what they want. Part of being an effective leader is anticipating needs rather than reacting to them. You’ve to learn to see around the corners.

AA: Can you give us an example? 

SN: When I first joined the organization, I had a pretty active role in taking back the management of our InterBev show from an outsource partner. We really ran with a theme along the lines of “It’s Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Over the past several years, we’ve not only reinvented our trade show and communications platform, but our policies and advocacy efforts as well.

AA: Do you have a formal process for coming up with new ideas? 

SN: The executive committee and the board have been very involved, but so are all the departments and teams. Twice a year we have formal brainstorming meetings in which all the teams get their people together, but any staffer can and should get their ideas recognized at any time. It’s more of an organic process and I often have 10 ideas floating in my head at any given time. I’ll be the first to admit that only one or two ideas may be worth looking into. Fortunately, I have plenty of people here who aren’t afraid to tell me the others aren’t worth pursuing and that empowers everyone to feel comfortable contributing.

AA: So, what’s keeping you up at night?

SN: We have so much going on here, I’m always afraid I’m forgetting something. Also, we’ve really been on a roll lately. There’s a lot of pressure to keep on winning.

AA: Are you at liberty to tell us what the president’s favorite beverage was while you were in the White House?

SN: Let’s just say we all consumed a lot of caffeine in those days [Laughing].

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