On the History of ISFA - Guest Commentary
By Bill Barton

Congratulations to the women of ISFA, the association has come a long way. It’s nice to see a woman President and Executive Director as well as two other women on the Board of Directors. This caused me to think about the ISFA early days and how the organization has changed. I am the attorney who was “present at the creation,” when ISFA (then called ISSFA) was first formed in a hotel conference room at Dulles Airport, and I continued with the association as its general counsel for 15 years attending most board meetings, and of course the show.

It was an exciting time to be part of this endeavor. I was the business attorney for Mike Duggan, the founding member, and he told me of his plan to start an association for fabricators and needed an attorney to start up the organization. I met Mike and the original founding board members in 1997 and formed the organization as a Virginia nonstock corporation because Mike, as president and founder, was operating a fabrication shop in Virginia. There were laudable goals in the start up documents, and the idea was to have an organization representing the interests of the fabricators. There was enthusiasm but it was challenging because there was no staff, marketing, budget, history or income. We established member dues, but they would not carry the load and as a new organization, members were not that plentiful.

Perhaps a year or so after the founding, Mike sold his fabrication business and took on the association full time. He had the idea of putting on a trade show to raise revenue, complete with sponsors, exhibitors, programs, workshops and an annual meeting with awards. Las Vegas was the logical place to do this with its many venues and all the necessary support services. It was also a cheaper place to obtain office space and staff and was a popular location for associations so the ISFA office was opened in Henderson, Nev., (just outside of Las Vegas). This was really the Wild West for ISFA as Mike and other founders launched the first show putting charges for guarantees to cover convention space and services on their personal credit cards. The first show was held at Circus Circus, a rather lowend casino hotel, and in spite of the unknown, somehow it came off and raised considerable association revenue. The founders, who were all successful fabricators, had a vision, took chances, pulled it off and word spread.

The now annual show grew in size, scope and attendance as more exhibitors and sponsors wanted to be part of it. The programs became more varied with many workshops over three or four days and visits to local fabrication shops. Exhibitors from all parts of industry filled bigger and bigger convention centers. It became a massive undertaking and ISFA became dependent on the show for revenue. While there were regional meetings during the year and some training classes, Vegas was a big draw for fabricators and everyone came to the show with their significant others and select shop staff. The association became a voice for fabricators talking with suppliers like Dupont, Avonite and Wilsonart. Membership grew to include not only nearly a thousand members in the United States, but also 28 foreign countries.

ISFA’s ambitions continued and the board embarked on more international expansion. Some successful fabricators from Europe and a few from Asia had been coming to the show, and we reached out to them, especially in Germany, and formed a core group to explore forming a European ISFA affiliate under the umbrella of the U.S. association. These discussions ultimately lead to a sort of hybrid affiliation/licensing agreement with a core group from Germany, France and Spain. In 2002, terms were finalized in Berlin. ISFA licensed the use of its name and limited rights in intellectual property and property, and importantly, membership in the “European Affiliate” gave them membership in the U.S. arm in exchange for a percentage of dues revenue. ISFA also hired a European member as a sort of limited executive director to help organize, schedule meetings and market. While the concept was good, the impact was less so, and it was taking much longer for ISFA Europe to become self-sustaining than expected. Memberships were slow to materialize and after a while the affiliate was unable to continue as a viable separate entity, although many of the European members did continue their membership in the U.S.-based ISFA.

After five years of putting on the show and expo, there was debate about whether the association would be better served to sell the show and concentrate its efforts more directly on the members. Much of the association’s efforts were going toward the show, and there were large financial risks associated with it because guarantees had to be paid — meaning sufficient sponsors and exhibitors were critical. The board also knew if it abandoned the show, one of their main sources of revenue would go with it (assuming sponsors and exhibitors were sufficiently in place).

In 2003 the board decided it was time to get out of the business of producing the expo/show but look for ways to retain an interest. Cygnus Business Media had expressed strong interest in buying the show and had other compatible investments with a proven track record so an agreement was reached that included a significant cash payment and royalties based on net trade show revenue. This provided ISFA with a substantial infusion of cash to carry the association while it refocused some of its efforts. ISFA was still committed to sponsor the show and assist in obtaining attendees and participate with the planning, but was relieved of the financial guarantees and administrative work. It was also required to have its annual meeting coincide with the event. An Expo Board with representatives of ISFA and Cygnus was created to coordinate planning. The association was still incentivized to make it a success to maximize their royalty fee and was required to support the show in advertising, helping with sponsors and providing membership lists. Exceptions to the non-compete were carved out to allow ISFA to put on regional shows that were not competing in size or at the same time as the national show. In 2005 Cygnus changed the name of the show to the “Surface Fabrication and Design Expo” to be more inclusive of stone and other products. The show continued to be held and the changes were mostly behind the scenes, but ISFA was off the hook financially for the liabilities. The show went on, but with different ownership.

The original founder and executive director, Mike Duggan, left around this time and a board search committee decided to recruit an industry expert in the field of training. The idea was that the association would concentrate more on delivering first-class training, conduct more workshops and get closer to the members through more regional meetings. The new executive director brought many ideas including proprietary training methods, software to help find business opportunities and other services.

The transition from the old model concentrating so much effort on the show to the new model was difficult. The board struggled with defining and delivering the “value add” for members. The association conducted training classes and regional meetings for fabricators to meet and greet and visit local fabricating shops. Early on, attendance at regional meetings varied and there were not as many fabricators at workshops and training as hoped for, although that was beginning to pick up. No one knew how long or how difficult this transition would be.

ISFA took the lead in developing industry standards for solid surface. Researching and developing industry standards is one of the fundamental tasks that associations have historically performed, but there are fixed rules for this and it has to be an open, transparent process. There has to be significant industry participation, a chance for everyone to voice opinion, open public discussions, drafts circulated and so forth. The process cannot be seen as a way to favor certain parties and exclude others. A task force was created and worked intently for many months with fabricators and suppliers to develop the standards. Ultimately the efforts were rewarded and standards were accepted and approved.

A parallel effort in branding ISFA was also underway. The branding message was that fabricators who were members of ISFA were more highly trained, skilled and competent than others. In advertising, publicity and business cards customers were encouraged to use ISFA “certified” or “trained” fabricators. The association set itself up as the discriminator in highly skilled workers and fabricators. Kitchen designers were encouraged to specify solid surface in their specs along with ISFA-trained fabricators. This was also an incentive for fabricators to take advantage of ISFA training classes and workshops. It’s hard to measure the success of an advertising and branding campaign, but it provided a way for fabricator members to distinguish themselves from the pack and this was important.

Emphasis was put on reigniting growth of membership and activities. The focus was on creating gathering places where fabricators and those who support them could come together to learn, fellowship and develop personally and professionally. In 2005, ISFA sponsored six successful regional events and more than 1,000 fabricators and their shop employees attended a combination of online and in-person training classes. The ship was turning.

As with any industry, new products and technology change the landscape. The association was started to represent solid surface fabricators, but natural stone, engineered stone and other products were becoming very popular countertop surfaces. The suppliers and fabricators of these products wanted to become members, but there was resistance by the solid surface fabricators that their interests would be diluted. It required a significant financial commitment in the way of equipment, space, cranes and cutting tools for fabricators to take on hard surfacing products. Despite some initial resistance, the association decided they could not ignore market trends and consequently changed the name of the association from the International Solid Surface Fabricators Association (ISSFA) to the International Surface Fabricators Association (ISFA) and admitted stone fabricators and suppliers. This also added memberships which were needed.

The board and the membership continued to wrestle with growing competition and fine-tuning a vision for ISFA’s future. ISFA had always run fairly lean and mean, but the executive director expressed a desire to add resources and laid this out in his 2006 long-range plan intended to offer more services, grow membership, address the competing surfaces, establish and/or preserve helpful industry relationships and execute market awareness and consumer education initiatives. The timing for all of this was right before the 2008 financial meltdown, which affected everyone in the construction industry as housing starts tanked. The board also formed a committee to study whether to relocate the headquarters from Las Vegas and/ or whether to buy or lease a new property. The lease was coming up for renewal, and the time for notice not to renew set some hard deadlines.

ISFA was now 10 years old and was no longer the brash start up it had been in 1997. Unlike the early days when ISFA had little competition, now there were many competing surfaces to contend with. Many of the original founders had rotated off the board and a new set of directors was coming in to manage an established business in a very different business environment that was more competitive and was being hammered by the faltering economy. Sponsors and exhibitors were much tighter with their money.

As ISFA continued to mature, it experienced the same robust discussions that all membership organizations experience, such as maintaining and growing membership, program priorities, staffing, budgets and responding to competition. Although Cygnus and ISFA were committed by contract to the show through 2009 (unless sooner terminated), attendance and sponsorship reflected the general economy. The show remained the one time a year when everyone got together to celebrate and share with the industry.

As a replacement, regional meetings and exhibits were planned to take the place of the national get-together, and this is where ISFA demonstrated its value and met members face to face, heard their concerns and planned accordingly. Training and workshops were an important component of the association’s value. However, it was not always easy to get busy board members or fabricators running their own businesses to attend. Another strategy was to schedule some of the board and membership meetings to coincide with the Kitchen & Bath show that many of their customers and designers attended.

Ultimately, in late 2008, the executive director moved on, and the board hired a longtime ISFA staff contributor and someone who knew the inner workings and players of the industry to become its executive director and vice president. He resided in Utah, so in 2009 the board terminated the Henderson lease and the ISFA office officially moved to Utah. A few key staff continued to work remotely to maintain continuity, especially for membership records. This was a challenging time for the association, moving to a new location, securing new training space, wrapping up old contracts and providing the services expected by the members. Board members stayed in close contact.

Around this time my involvement became minimal as the association did not need an attorney at board meetings, and they were not entering into big contracts with show exhibitors. Systems and policies were in place, and my constant nagging about antitrust laws applying to associations was no longer necessary and had been thoroughly documented in my presentations to the boards. Late 2012 was my last involvement and it was after this time that the headquarters was ultimately moved to Pennsylvania because of convenience and proximity to another director. I have only had a few conversations with the new team to discuss events or legal documents from the past.

I am delighted that ISFA is still a forceful voice for the fabricators and that it has continued to change with the times and move forward. Obviously transitioning to a different model has worked. Being a fabricator is one of the ways a small businessman can become an entrepreneur and own his (or her) own business. They can take ownership of their business and destiny and provide jobs for their families and communities. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with ISFA, its boards and members, and wish everyone well.

I have tried to give a brief summary from the 30,000-foot level as I remember it, and others may have different recollections. I have not named names except for Mike Duggan, the original founder, as the purpose is not to assign heroics or identify individuals at the exclusion of others. I have probably left out some parts of history, but I will leave it to others to fill in as necessary from their own recollections. And of course, there is plenty more history to be written.

Best to everyone,

William (Bill) Barton, past ISFA counsel
[email protected] [email protected] Cell: (703) 624-1191