In the Beginning: The Early History of ISFA
By Joanna Duggan

In 1997, the International Surface Fabricators Association (ISFA) became a legal entity. It was originally called the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA), expanding in the late 2000s to include fabricators of all materials. How it all began and what happened during that first year is a great story that only a few people know. I was there, and these are some of my recollections.

My husband Mike Duggan and I sold our solid surface shop in 1995 to start SOLIDSURFACE Magazine (SSM), with the target audience being solid surface shop owners and industry professionals. It was clear early on that there was nothing much in print for our job category, and we wanted to change that.

The first issue of SSM was launched in August 1995. We were fortunate to find a wonderful graphic design house, Watermark Design, in Alexandria, Va., and the first issue looked beautiful. Also, Steve McCracken of DuPont Corian finally agreed to an interview about the business of solid surface manufacturing, and it was brilliant. McCracken ordered 400 copies of that issue and mailed them to his reps around the world. Within a few weeks SSM had subscribers in 50 states and 16 countries. Within eight years, the number rose to 56 countries.

Shop owners began calling, saying they loved the magazine, and asking who we were. They understood the magazine was for them and about them, and they loved it! We were so proud! What could be better than people calling to say they love what you do. It’s definitely a rarity.

Taking It to the Next Level

By the following summer, it was clear that we needed some outside help with ideas for the magazine, and developed the idea of an advisory board. Five fabricators from around the country and even from Europe (Jon Lancto from North Carolina, Gus Blume from Pennsylvania, John Forst from California, Paul Temple from New Jersey and Martin Funck from Germany) were chosen from all of those who had called in with great ideas, many of which were included in articles. The plan was to bring them together to share ideas. They agreed to pay for a flight and room, and we would take care of the rest. They all said “Yes!”

On September 6, 1996, we met our guests at the Dulles Marriott lobby, and boarded a transport bus to visit the two largest shops in the D.C. area at the time, ASSI and STC. Having a shop open its doors and allow in others in the industry was unheard of back then.

What happened on the bus that day was truly memorable. We all felt an immediate connection. Great conversation about business, family and various situations, ensued, all loaded with humor and insight. Questions were raised and answered. This was something wonderful and new, and it was great!

While there were many questions asked that morning, two come to mind that show the scope of the discussion: 1) How can I get my guys to do a cleaner silicone joint at the backsplash? and 2) What to do when someone has a design and wants to pay below the cost of fabrication? The answers were to 1) get a laminate sample chip, cut a roundover, and have installers run it along the joint and 2) (which was answered by Funck of the renown Rosskopf & Partner) was to come up with two estimates — the first for the price of the designed piece and the second for what they could actually get for the price they wanted to pay. “You can discuss it from that point,” said Funck. That was perfect!

We quickly learned that this group of intelligent, forward-thinking and successful business people were pushing the envelope, had great ideas which they acted upon, were just generally good people, were nice as could be and humble, too. Spending that bus ride with them was awesome and I remember it fondly to this day.

The bus took us to visit Bob Hazlett, of ASSI, and Howard Burger and Jack McCarthy, of STC. They were gracious hosts, open and generous with their responses. For most of us, being inside the kind of large successful shops that they ran was a real eye-opener. All of the fabricators did the same basic things, but everyone tweaked each process a bit differently, and sometimes very differently. There was so much to learn.

On our way back to the hotel, we discussed highlights of the day and then we all rested a bit and met later for dinner. What a great day it had been to see these people coming together to the benefit of all, sharing information and beginning a process that would ultimately benefit the entire industry.

The next day was spent in a conference room, and a few industry people were invited to join us. Dr. Don Slocum, the inventor of DuPont Corian, was among the group and he discussed his views for the future of the industry. Jeff Sager from Kormax, a manufacturer and supplier of custom shower pans, talked about the huge market for using solid surface in bathroom applications. And this was just a sample of the knowledge that was in the room. There were more than I can share here or even remember!

An Idea Emerges

About an hour before the first of the fabricators left to catch a plane home, someone mentioned how great if might be if a fabricator association was formed, where fabricators could come together and have the same fantastic experiences we just had. The idea was intriguing and very well received by the group after the amazing things we had all learned, and so we decided to meet again in November.

Then they were gone. This hadn’t been the plan, but it was a great plan, that was a bit scary but also very exciting.

November arrived quickly. Numerous communications had transpired between the original meeting and the upcoming one, and everyone spent a lot of time discussing ideas. Brad Reamer from Chicago (see a profile of his business Wilcor Solid Surface on Page 36) and Don Hinckley from Vermont were invited to join us. The next two days were spent in a conference room, making plans for the solid surface association that would eventually develop into today’s ISFA.

Ideas were discussed and voted on, and decisions made — when, where and how to achieve goals, dues, manufacturer and supplier participation, how best to respond to fabricator needs. It all boiled down to what could we do for fabricators. There were pages of things to accomplish, and among them a stand-out was developing a manufacturing standard for solid surface (which was accomplished and after revisions over the years still stands as the standard to this day). We set another meeting for the following year, 1997, and set about putting together what we needed to make the association a reality.

The Association Is Born

When we got together in 1997, we had our lawyer present, and we signed the papers to officially make ISSFA a legal entity. Jon Lancto was voted president. He was clear-thinking and decisive, belonged to other trade associations and understood better than most what they were all about. Mike Duggan would be the executive director, whose job it was to accomplish the goals. All of us would be ISSFA board members.

ISSFA needed a logo, and Brad Reamer designed a good one. Gus Blume with his wife Dottie took on the daunting task of developing a manufacturing standard. And, of course, a membership drive was a must. How much to charge? What were we offering? It all had to be developed, planned out, discussed and decided upon.

Another decision we made was to have the first-ever solid surface trade show, to be held the following year in January of 1998. We felt this could be a driving factor in making the organization a success, but we also knew it would be a lot of work and cost money. As a testament to the kind of people that were the foundation of this organization, everyone wrote a check in whatever amount they chose. Some checks were much larger than others, and not one person wanted to be paid back. The money was used for printing, mailing and making phone calls.

We worked hard every day and took on this daunting task, making decisions as best we could. We immediately set to work on a membership drive and trade show. With Mike Duggan serving as executive director, I became president and publisher of SOLIDSURFACE Magazine, which was a labor of love for me!

Mike sent each board member a list of about 100 SSM subscribers, and we all worked together to call and convince them to join this association that had their best interests at heart. People knew it was me from the magazine, and were willing to listen and chat. But long distance calling was very costly back then, and I needed to find a way to call, get them to join, and hang up, all in five minutes. The plan I developed became the root of what the association was all about. I called, said we were starting a trade association, and wanted them to join. They hesitated and most of them said no. So I said that I wanted to ask just one question, and I wouldn’t bother them again if they still weren’t interested. They agreed to listen. “When you’re alone in your shop at night, struggling with a problem you can’t seem to solve, who exactly do you have to call? (pause, dead silence) Certainly not your mother!” Everyone giggled, said no, that was the last person they would call, and agreed to sign up. My success rate was about 85 percent.

Members immediately started calling in, to chat or looking for help. One fabricator had deliveries cut off by his distributor. Mike had a direct line to Steve McCracken — crisis averted. Others had different issues, and if we couldn’t help them, we sent them to someone who could. They appreciated that we were there for them, and we were happy to help in any way. Those were exciting times for us.

For the trade show, Mike’s idea was to have it in Las Vegas where travel was easy and costs were reasonable. Circus Circus had a new exhibit hall perfect for about 500 people, which was how many we hoped might attend. Plus, there was plenty of space for conferences and social events.

By November, we still had fewer than 300 members, not nearly enough to fill the 500-bedroom block we needed to fill in order to get the exhibit hall free of charge, instead of paying $30,000. January was coming up fast. I was in a severe panic. Mike had been calling subscribers all over the world inviting them to join us. There was much enthusiasm, but paperwork wasn’t coming in.

Then, Monday after Thanksgiving, responses came pouring in. By Christmas Eve, over 900 people had registered for membership, the show, conferences and events. Responses continued until the show began. There was so much to do we even recruited our daughter Catherine to help enter it all into a computer. (Thank you Catherine for all your hard work.) We ordered more food for the reception and banquet, larger conference rooms at other hotels with buses to and fro, more hotel rooms, etc. Then the day finally arrived.

The Welcome Reception was truly unbelievable. It was much better than what transpired on that bus. This was much bigger than all of us. As I looked over the crowd, the term sardines came to mind. More than a thousand people were packed tightly into that large space. There was laughter, good cheer and so much excitement. It was very loud, and truly fantastic!

The Exhibit Hall was filled with suppliers from all product categories, with terrific exhibits that pushed the fabrication envelope. The conferences contained good industry and business information, and were well received. The final dinner was packed with 500 people — more people than room.

When all was said and done, almost 1,700 people came to the show — industry professionals and people from related fields. Although it was overwhelming, as people were leaving, we heard the same sentence repeatedly: “We came not knowing what to expect, and this exceeded any expectations we had.”

New friendships were formed, business connections made and partnerships developed, across the country and the world. Fabricators were now connected, and the possibilities were endless. No longer would anyone need to be alone in the shop with no one to call.

About the Author

Joanna Duggan is a founder of ISFA, former publisher of SOLIDSURFACE and Surface Fabrication magazines and a member of the ISFA Hall of Fame. Her contributions to the surfacing industry are beyond calculation. She can be reached at [email protected]