By Association Adviser staff
This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Gus Edwards, executive vice president of the 500-member National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) in Alexandria, Va., which represents the interests of the $17.5 billion U.S. aggregates industry.
ASSOCIATION ADVISER: Gus, tell us a little about your background and how you came to your role at NSSGA.
GUS EDWARDS: I started as a newspaper reporter covering government and politics for a city daily. I was lured to work on Capitol Hill, and my plan was to use that experience as a springboard back into journalism. But, I ended up staying on the Hill for 12 years, serving as a chief of staff in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. From there I worked in two presidential administrations before a stint at a major Washington, D.C., consulting firm. In 1997, I had the opportunity to join the staff of the National Stone Association as head of communications. In 2000, the National Stone Association and the National Aggregates Association merged to become NSSGA, and I continued in the communications slot until 2008, when I became executive vice president.
AA: How would you describe NSSGA’s membership?
GE: We have about 500 member companies nearly evenly split between aggregates producers and those that provide goods or services to the industry—our Manufacturers & Service (M&S) Division members. Our producer members range from huge multinationals and Fortune 500 companies to “mom-and-pop” operations that produce crushed stone, sand and gravel—or construction aggregates—for all types of construction. Our M&S Division members are in the same range, from the world’s leading manufacturers of equipment and vehicles to one-person consulting businesses.
AA: How big an industry does NSSGA represent?
GE: Nearly two billion metric tons of aggregates were produced in 2011 worth approximately $17.5 billion. We contribute more than $40 billion to the nation’s GDP and employ over 100,000 workers. Our member companies produce more than 90 percent of the crushed stone and 70 percent of the sand and gravel consumed annually in the United States. Every $1 million in aggregates sales creates 19.5 jobs and every dollar of industry output returns $1.58 to the economy.
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AA: What are the biggest issues facing your industry today?
GE: The absence of a comprehensive, well-funded, multi-year federal surface transportation program. The current federal highway law expired in 2009 and is on its 10th extension because Congress can’t seem to make the hard decisions about funding and reforming the program. Meanwhile, roads, highways and bridges across America are crumbling, deteriorating and creating terrible safety and congestion problems for millions of citizens who rely on public throughways to get to and from work, school and church. Merchants and distributors depend on safe, efficient roads to get their goods to the marketplace and road conditions are compromising their ability to do so.
AA: To what extent has the economic downturn impacted your members?
GE: Fundamentally we are a construction industry, and the construction sector has been the hardest hit by the economic downturn. Unemployment hovers around 17 percent and there’s not much hope of a quick turnaround. When nothing’s being built, crushed stone, sand and gravel aren’t being consumed. That being said, our members are tough and resourceful. Most of them look at challenges as opportunities and have “innovated” their way into new markets or niche markets. The business model for the industry may be changing slightly, but I think everyone in the industry is hopeful that a new federal surface transportation program will help turn things around.
AA: You recently returned from NSSGA’s annual convention. How was attendance?
GE: Registration was comparable to what it’s been in the last couple of years, with perhaps a slight uptick. The mood was not despondent, but clearly our members are deeply concerned about the economy and getting people back to work. As many of your readers know, we co-locate our convention with our trade show, the AGG1 Forum and Expo, and attendance and exhibit space sales hit record highs this year. I guess you could say that was somewhat of a surprise—a decidedly pleasant one—given the state of the economy.
AA: Aside from the economy, what other challenges are you and your members facing?
GE: Regulation. We’re constantly challenged by federal, state and local regulators. Ours may be the most heavily regulated industry in the nation. We’re subject to stringent safety and health rules and constant inspections; we are required to meet strict environmental requirements set by virtually all levels of government, and we fall under the jurisdiction of some major federal laws, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and others.
AA: How do your advocacy efforts fit into this picture?
GE: Nearly 60 percent of NSSGA’s budget is allocated to advocacy. Our Government Affairs Division staff and our Environment, Safety and Health Division staff are constantly present on Capitol Hill, in the halls of the regulatory agencies and the White House to advocate on behalf of the aggregates industry. Also, we don’t hesitate to use to the courts if necessary to defend the industry against unreasonable or burdensome regulations.
AA: How would you describe your leadership style?
GE: It’s more or less laissez-faire. The people we have on staff are seasoned professionals and experts in their fields. I respect them because they know their jobs and do them well, so there’s not much need for me to interfere. I do like to challenge them from time to time—and they like to be tested—so when a sticky or seemingly insoluble issue arises, I encourage them to astonish me with their ingenuity. And they do.
AA: Is it tougher being an association leader than it used to be?
GE: Principally because of the economy, it’s become tougher to attract and maintain dues-paying members over the last five years. We’ve had to work extra hard to make sure our members are getting an outstanding return on their investment in us. Like many national associations, we’re finding member companies less willing to send their employees to national meetings. Travel and the new, leaner work environment mean it’s just not as easy an investment for a member company.
AA: Do you have any particular strategies for recruiting and retaining the younger, industry up-and-comers?
GE: We have a very highly regarded Young Leader’s program that invites participation from under-40 up-and-coming managers and executives from companies of all sizes and makeups. We’ve also waded in slowly to the social media environment recognizing that younger workers are more likely to be engaged on the Internet.
AA: What’s been the reaction to your social media efforts?
GE: We’d like to be more aggressive with our social media efforts, but we are heavily regulated and our primary focus is on advocacy. That makes it hard for us to launch social media programs like you might see in less regulated industries. That said, we have established a presence on Twitter, Facebook and various blogs. We hired a young person to oversee our social media efforts and monitor the Internet for relevant information.
We’ve also launched a member-only social network that we hope will re-energize the collaborative networking that used to take place at the many events we held prior to the economic collapse. As with any association effort, members will get from the platform what they put in, but they’ll be able to do it from their desk or laptop rather than get on a plane to attend a meeting.
AA: Do you have an overall member communications strategy?
GE: We try to provide members with the information and services they need to be successful in their businesses without overwhelming them with too much communication. We send them a weekly electronic newsletter, the NSSGA e-Digest & Washington Watch, and a bimonthly magazine, Stone, Sand & Gravel Review, which also is available online. In between, we provide them “as-it’s-happening” legislative and regulatory updates via email.
AA: Are all your communications designed for the full membership base?
GE: Our association is organized into divisions and committees with specific or specialized interests, and those groups communicate internally, with staff facilitation, on new issues, best practices and problem solving. We’re in the process of establishing SharePoint communities online to make it easier for members to communicate with us and with each other.
AA: How much competition does NSSGA have for members (and members’ attention)?
GE: We try to give members things they can’t get anywhere else. We’re the only national association that’s looking out specifically for the interests of aggregates producers. Some of our members who have vertically integrated companies belong to other national trade associations. But, those associations can’t get into the weeds of the issues that are critically important to aggregates producers. We’ve found that if we stick to our expertise and don’t try to be all things to all members, we hold their attention without much trouble.
AA: Any predictions for the future?
GE: We expect memberships will be more frictionless, so it will be easier to join and leave than it was in the past. It will be critical to have a robust, innovative value offering. Our industry probably is not that innovative outside of the production processes members have created and installed in their operations. They do limited marketing and all operations are local, so the need for external innovation is pretty limited.
Sometimes it feels like we have to drag them along technologically, but they are very smart and focus internally where they’ll see their greatest return. That’s tough for an association that is in place to make an impact externally.
AA: Are there any lessons you can share with our readers?
GE: We are scrambling to deliver the services that our members are paying for. As a result, we often find ourselves cocooned from the rest of the world. We get a lot better at doing the things we’ve always done. We would like learn how to better serve our members. Perhaps more online collaboration, outlets like yours, and maybe even find time to actually network to identify best, or better, practices from other associations.