The Member Voice in Merger Talks
In the lead-up to a potential merger, two associations in the horticulture industry kept their members involved every step of the way. Here's how.
Two weeks ago, in “What to Consider When Considering a Merger,” my colleague Ernie Smith briefly highlighted the consolidation of two associations in the horticulture industry. Mark Fortenmeyer, the chairman of the new American Horticulture Association (AmericanHort, for short), said in the merger announcement, “It’s what our members want.”
That made me curious: How do they know? How does an association’s leadership measure the collective will of its entire membership body, or an entire industry? In a scenario like a merger, it’s no small question, either. So, I spoke with Michael Geary, CAE, president and CEO of AmericanHort, to find out.
The new association will consolidate OFA—The Association of Horticulture Professionals and the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) into one, AmericanHort, which officially launches January 1, 2014. For years, the two trade organizations had coexisted quite happily, with about 15 percent overlap in membership, mostly among large supplier companies that sold to members of both OFA and ANLA, which tended to serve different subsets of the industry. They had partnered in small ways, such as offering discounts on each other’s memberships or meetings, and they didn’t view themselves as competitors, Geary says. “We were already one industry, it just happened to be that people joined different tribes. We weren’t warring factions by any means.”
So, while some mergers arise out of financial distress or market-expansion aspirations, OFA and ANLA’s case was more of an earnest marriage, Geary says. In fact, members had raised the question several years ago, when OFA went through a rebranding of its own. “Without really asking our members directly, we did focus groups and online surveys, et cetera [about OFA’s brand], and they said back to us, ‘There really should be one national association. Why are their two?’ We didn’t ask the question. People just said that,” Geary says.
The horticulture industry is closely tied to housing and construction, so the recession hit OFA and ANLA’s members hard. As both organizations looked to chart a path for the industry to recover, discussions of the potential advantages of a consolidation began to take shape. An early plan emerged to explore a potential joint venture, and in July 2011 the groups built a website that became a home for information about the discussions and work of its joint volunteer group. Members of both organizations could see progress being made out in the open.
From that point forward, Geary says, communication was a priority, both from the associations to their members and vice versa. “We used every channel we had available to us to tell the story over and over and over again,” he says.
Those channels included:
- the aforementioned website
- news and updates shared with the 15 trade publications in the horticulture industry
- a dedicated email address for questions specifically about the potential consolidation (which later proved helpful in developing an FAQs section on the website)
- social media interactions
- in-person conversations at OFA and ANLA events as well as other industry tradeshows
- consolidation-related questions added to standing survey tools such as program evaluations
- a straw-poll question on the ballot for OFA’s most recent board election.
“We talked about it a lot, and that gave people a chance to come back at us and reply back, and people did,” Geary says.
Geary was a member of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives when it merged with ASAE in 2004. “I understood from being a member of an organization where this is happening that you want to be kept in the loop, and you do feel a sense of ownership over your organization,” he says.
OFA and ANLA hosted a joint event in January of this year, which served as something of a trial run for working together. The event was well attended by members from both organizations, and in July the two boards voted in favor of consolidation. Members of both organizations voted in September, “in overwhelming support” for the consolidation.
Now, the management and leadership teams are busy preparing for the coming transition. AmericanHort will launch in January with about 3,000 member companies. To get members from both organizations on the same membership cycle, OFA members will be given a three-month extension on their current memberships, which would have expired March 31, 2014, so that they will expire June 30 instead. This will align with the July-to-June membership year that ANLA has used and that AmericanHort will use.
During the consolidation discussions, a committee of volunteers explored options for the new organization’s membership model, Geary says. They researched other organizations and membership models in the association community, and they landed on a new membership structure that offers three levels. Most members will join at a “regular” level, while the two other tiers will offer some enhanced benefits, such as access to legal consulting.
Geary says that the steady progress and buildup toward consolidation means AmericanHort will have high expectations from members, but he’s confident the new association can meet the challenge. “As long as we’re doing what they need us to do to support their business or support them as professionals or support the industry, they will support the association,” he says.
From an outside perspective, the website and information that AmericanHort already has available is a great example of clearly communicating both the value of a merger as well as the logistics and planning that went into the decision (in particular, see the “Key Activities” timeline). If you’ve been involved in an association merger, how have you worked to communicate with members in the process? How do you ensure that the merger is indeed the collective will of the industry?