Building a Legacy of Association Strength: Thomas Foreman, BSIABC

By • November 21, 2019

Thomas Foreman, Building Supply Industry Association of British Columbia
Thomas Foreman, Building Supply Industry Association of British Columbia

Thomas Foreman enjoyed a long career in industrial supplies sales followed by a stint working from home for a construction hardware manufacturing company when his wife spotted an ad for what seemed like the perfect position for him: president of the Building Supply Industry Association of British Columbia. “You have to apply!” she said. “You have the right experience and connections!” Thomas didn’t realize he was looking for a job, but he phoned the president of BSIABC at the time, realized the position was a perfect fit, and got the job.

Twelve years later, he is the Executive Director of the British Columbia Floor Covering Association (BCFCA) and couldn’t be more satisfied with the legacy BSIABC and BCFCA are creating for the building supply industry as well as other small associations in the province. Thomas is also the Executive Director of the National Floor Covering Association and the North West Industries Association.  The Building Supply Warehouse and Distribution Certification Program trains and places new workers each year in meaningful, dignified jobs. A new mentoring program that helps students explore construction-related careers in more depth while promoting the idea of association membership is in pilot stages with students from the University of British Columbia. Thomas also is on the board of an association of associations – the Building Material Council of Canada.

We spoke with Thomas about these accomplishments and how he balances a satisfyingly full workload.

Association Adviser: You started your professional life working in sales for a few industrial/construction equipment suppliers. How did you find your way into association work?

Thomas Foreman: Early in my career I worked in construction sales, and the owner of my largest customer was on the board of the Northwest Walls and Ceiling Association – a trade association for commercial and institutional drywallers – and I was invited to join the association as part of the supplier committee. At that time, it was a perfect way for me to build my relationship with the customer, learn more about the industry, work with the members that I wasn’t doing business with and “mine the rooster” for more opportunities.  In other words, build my customer base and get more sales!  That was back in 1984 just prior to British Columbia hosting the 1986 World Exposition.

Then about 15 years ago, I had retired from a senior sales and management role and was working at home for a couple of years on the import-export of engineered construction hardware products. My wife saw an advertisement for the position of president of the Building Supply Industry Association. I didn’t know I was looking for a job, but she saw this was an excellent opportunity for me to use my leadership skills. I phoned the president of the association and he explained the role. The association is more than 80 years old, and I liked that it was steeped with history and tradition. The association president and I had a lot in common, and I decided it would make sense for me to apply. I got the job and will have been with BSIABC for 12 years on Jan 1, 2020.

AA: What are your major responsibilities with Building Supply Industry Association and with the British Columbia Floor Covering Association?

TF: Leadership and team building, as influenced by Tom Peters, a management guru. He believes in “management by walking around.” I’ve always felt it’s important to be at ground level as much as possible. People respect what management inspects.

Coming from sales where the bottom line is important to a non-profit where there are other mission-driven goals was quite the culture shock. Accountants tell not-for-profits to not talk about profit. But you might have “excess revenue” some years, and it’s just as important to invest that revenue smartly in your nonprofit as it would be in a for-profit business. It was quite a change to embrace a somewhat different way of doing business but both types of organizations use the same philosophy and leadership style. We still establish budgets and forecasts, but now we use profit to sustain the association and further the mission instead of doling it out to shareholders.

We set measurable result benchmarks through working closely with the board, committees and the members. We build plans that everyone involved understands.  And we promote member engagement and retention through communicating, communicating, communicating!

AA: How did your sales management background prepare you for association management?

TF: As a sales leader/manager I was responsible for the top line, the bottom line and all the lines in between that were allocated to my division. This certainly assisted me in understanding what a profit and loss statement was all about, and it drove accountability. I was responsible for sales and that included forecasting, budgeting, staffing, marketing and events.  The “sales manager” was the company cheerleader, focusing on results, providing direction and communicating with all staff, customers, prospects, and suppliers. All this wrapped around “communication.” Very similar to an association leader, who must have vision, be able to communicate with others and move the organization forward with the support of the board of directors and committees.  Relationships are key to an association and I have always been very successful in building long term mutually beneficial relationships.

AA: How do you balance your roles at these two associations?

TF: Four associations actually: BSIABC, BC Floor Covering Association, the National Floor Covering Association and the Northwest Industries Association. I balance my roles with these organizations very strategically! Most of that strategy relies upon setting clear goals and objectives for each with measurable key performance indicators. Another large factor in maintaining all of my roles is surrounding myself with great coworkers and working closely with the executive board members so that they are always in the loop.

AA: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader for your organizations?

TF: Well, the board of directors make the decisions; I am a facilitator for the board. I gather the information, communicate to the board and they decide.

All of our functions and events are driven by association executives, board and committees. So a committee might decide they want to host an event to stimulate membership, and they put those ideas forward. The staff and I came up with a plan to execute what they want to achieve. I guide committee members based on my experience, but I never try to sway them unless I think they’re heading in the wrong direction. We work for them, not the other way around.

AA: Has there been a time when you resolved a conflict?

TF: We’ve kept board politics and member politics to a minimum. We’ve had heated discussions, but we’ve always been able to come to a resolution that makes sense for the association. We make sure everyone knows the rules, and knows where the edge of the pool is. There have been times where we weren’t in agreement, so I would research compelling info that would help direct board members or regular association members in what I felt was a more appropriate direction.

Usually, they accept my research, and I don’t take that respect and trust for granted. Nine-tenths of what we do in our professional lives is preparation. If you prepare, you generally succeed. If you know how to work with people, and communicate, you can succeed. If you give others the tools to make informed, proper decisions you can almost always build consensus.

AA: You’re also involved in a few “extracurricular” organizations: The Canadian Retail Building Supply Council (now the Building Material Council of Canada/BMCC) and the Northwest Industries Association (NWIA). Both are associations of associations. What was the motivation behind the formation of each, and how do they help individual association members?

TF: I’m a board member for the BMCC. The council is made up of representatives from four building material associations from across Canada, and provides a platform for collaboration to build a stronger national industry and a unified voice. It also allows me to meet with my peers, keep current with new ideas and what other associations are doing.

Additionally, I’m the Executive Director for NWIA which was formed this past spring after we recognized that many British Columbia-area associations need help providing membership value. After a term as volunteer president of the CSAE British Columbia chapter, I felt the need to pull together associations that were interested in an alliance that focused on three pain points that smaller associations have in common: Training and education for entry level workers, advocacy and lobbying, and revenue-generating partnerships. Collectively, our economic impact is huge, so we have partnered with organizations that will help us make an even larger impact on professional and career development for our members and others in our industries in these three key areas. I’m now able to share my knowledge, wisdom and network to help others succeed. It is very gratifying!

AA: How do you help new members or staff understand the culture of your organization?

TF: Through talking with them, meeting and getting them involved. We have a process for follow-up to ensure new members are getting involved and enjoying their membership. If you have good people coming up in the ranks of committees, those are your future board members.

I think of an association like a train: You start work in the caboose on committees. Then you move up a few cars when you join the board. When you become an association executive, you’ve moved to the front of the train and can help determine its speed and direction. Without active committees, the association will have future struggles.

AA: What is your biggest challenge as an association leader?

TF: Creating value for members coupled with a revenue stream to sustain the association into the future.

This year, we’ve received nearly $1 million Canadian dollars to help train unemployed people with essential skills to get them into our building supply and manufacturing industry through our Building Supply Warehouse and Distribution Certification Program. British Columbia has a 4.5% unemployment rate and our members are in desperate need of new staff members.  Our program allowed us to recruit, train and place people who have personal barriers that keep them from working. It’s almost like a religious experience seeing them change their lives as their confidence grows with the training! To see someone come to class and leave after six weeks of training with skills and confidence is amazing. I get goosebumps thinking about this legacy our association is leaving with these students and helping fill the staffing needs of our member companies.

BSIABC Warehouse Certification Program graduates standing in blue shirts in front of a wall
BSIABC’s Building Supply Warehouse and Distribution Certification Program trains people who have experienced barriers to finding and sustaining meaningful jobs. The program recruits, trains and places participants. Here, some graduates of the program pose for a photo.

Recently, we were awarded another grant to help train workers within another industry – the garment and textile industry. Fifty years ago, much of east Vancouver was populated with garment businesses and workers. We had textile plants as well – it was an important industry! Over the years that industry moved offshore.  Now that industry is growing again, and BC companies are expanding.  Studies show that over the next five to seven years we will need thousands of Industrial Sewing Machine Operators to meet the demand.  Therefore, we are working with several government agencies to identify people who could work in the industry, allow us to train them with essential skills and place them with companies needing more staff. That’s the perfect scenario for associations: helping smaller business grow, finding solutions to their needs.

Associations in B.C. and Canada are being challenged. Our traditional basket of goods isn’t attracting membership. Many associations aren’t staying current and don’t have engaged boards. This contraction of associations concerns me. In the building supply industry, we’ve had a lot of mergers and acquisitions as well, which means we have a reduced potential membership because most building associations’ memberships are company-based. We have dealers who don’t have connections with individual buyers. I listen to other association directors who are now outsourcing their programs and not creating events and programs that keep them in constant contact with their membership. Try calling an association?  We answer our phones. Ninety-eight percent of our incoming calls are answered by someone in of office.

If you look at most association websites, they host events, hold education programs, and advocate for industry. But when you actually ask them questions about what they’re really doing, their results are minimal. There’s lots of talk and bureaucracy. Associations and the businesses that support them should want to do a better job collectively than what we could do individually. Sometimes, outsourcing work tasks is a solution to free up staff so that they are more member engaged. We traditionally produced our own magazine, but it became too onerous. Naylor is one of those partners we’ve chosen to work with to keep our member magazine going, freeing time for our staff to accomplish other things. What we don’t want to do is “outsource” everything and end up working from home with little or no member engagement.

Fortunately, we’ve built a great relationship with Naylor that doesn’t feel like outsourcing but more like a mutual partnership. But some associations outsource everything, including their management! So I see this disconnect between an association and its members happening. That’s why Northwest Industries was started: To try to help smaller associations to focus on those three key pain points of education, advocacy, and revenue-generation. And to do the best job we can as far as offering them with guidance, connections and support.

AA: What has been your biggest success?

TF: I consider three things my biggest successes:  First, we’ve kept politics out of our associations. The best way to avoid that is to communicate, keep talking, keep everyone informed and make sure there isn’t something coming out of left field you’re not prepared for. The people that volunteer in associations are special people that want to help and give back.  Keeping the executive and the board informed though close communication is the best way to avoid issues.

Second, we turned around two associations that were struggling.  Membership was declining in one, there was limited member engagement and the executive director was retiring.  The second association had been wound down by the board and it was dormant.  In both cases we put together a very aggressive plan to resurrect the associations and today both are viable, member engaged, growing associations.

Third, our members have staffing challenges and we came up with a solution where we have trained and placed more than 100 unemployed people into meaningful jobs with our members.

AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?

TF: Very little. To be effective in what we manage/lead, we are laser focused on the tasks we have identified and focus on getting the job done.  Worrying is just a lack of action. I believe in a positive mental attitude, dealing with issues head on.

I don’t sleep a lot but when I do, I’m not worrying about “issues” because we deal with them.

If I am wakeful, I’m reflecting on the great characters and opportunities that we have in our life and how I can be a better leader to achieve even better things in the future.