Not long after he became the new executive director of the International Association of Assembly Hall Managers (IAAM) in August, John R. Zimmer, CAE, appointed a director of finance for the association--a CPA with corporate experience.
"We need to run this association like a business," Zimmer says of the Irving, TXbased IAAM. Managing a nonprofit organization, Zimmer insists, does not mean "you live on a shoestring with zero budgets and no. That is totally wrong. That is 100-year-old thinking." In 20 years of association management experience, Zimmer, 47, has always taken a business-like approach.
"Associations tend to think it's against the law to develop some reserves. I'm saying, is it against the law to be a good steward to the money? To be responsible? It's not your goal to live month-to-month, is it? You don't want the government to operate that way. Why should an association have a different value system about money than the rest of the world?"
Zimmer also intends to make the 75-year-old, 3,000-member organization more visible. "We do lots of wonderful things," he says, "but we never tell anybody." He has already turned IAAM's publications department into a public relations/communications department and has hired a new staff person to take charge. He plans to publish the association's magazine, Facility Manager, eleven times a year instead of six and to cover IAAM news in the publication instead of only technical information. And he wants to send out press releases on IAAM accomplishments.
Zimmer aims to increase IAAM's visibility and influence worldwide. He is excited about directing the year-old World Council for Venue Management. An international coalition of associations similar to IAAM, of which IAAM is the driving force, the council exists to facilitate the global sharing of information. "It makes more sense to build coalitions with organizations like ours," says Zimmer, "rather than steal their member lists. It's a bit presumptuous to assume we can totally understand the needs of someone from Britain or Germany. Solutions that work in North America don't necessarily fly elsewhere."
As for what changes planners can expect in the convention center industry, Zimmer sees a trend toward higher professionalism among facility managers. "People are actually pursuing degrees in facility management," he notes, adding that IAAM's senior executives institute has a waiting list.
But don't expect any relief from the high price of convention center exclusives. Zimmer says that in most cases, those policies are set by someone above the facility manager. "It's a shame," he says. "[That system] sets up adversarial relationships."
Turning Losers into Winners The man who expounds the benefits of ROI is not at all a cold-minded businessman. Zimmer, who prefers to be called Jack, grew up in Iowa about 90 miles north of Des Moines. Coaching Little League while in college, he realized he got the most gratification from helping the "kid who didn't know what hand to put his glove on." To help children overcome other kinds of obstacles, he became a speech clinician, working in the Des Moines public schools.
But when his wife, Deb, became pregnant with their first child, Zimmer needed to earn more money. (They now have three teenage daughters.) He also wanted to move into a management position. Through a friend, he landed his first job in the association field in 1978, as director of education with the Iowa Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). "I fell in love with it," he says.
He moved on to become director of education for ABC's national office in Washington, DC, and then served as executive director and finally as executive vice president for the North Texas Chapter. During his tenure as executive director, from 1986 to 1994, Zimmer built the chapter's reserves from $25,000 to more than $400,000. The budget grew from $400,000 to $1,400,000, and the two-person staff increased to ten.
How did he generate such growth? By applying business principles. When he came on board, he announced, "We will not provide programs and services that don't deliver a profit. Here's why: If we can't make money off it, it's probably not really needed." Instead of running programs at cost, Zimmer upped fees, with the goal of eventually reducing dues, and balancing the dues to non-dues revenue. IAAM, he says, is "extremely balanced." Two-thirds of its revenue comes from non-dues activities. "That means people are coming to conferences and buying products. And that's the way it should be," Zimmer says.
Zimmer applied another business concept at ABC: Treat members as customers. "If you go out and ask your members what problems they are dealing with, you find the common causes, and a program is born. If you do a good job meeting customers' needs, more people join."
After 20 years with ABC, Zimmer faced the toughest challenge of his life when the organization considered a merger with another association. Although Zimmer supported that idea, a few people within ABC accused him of trying to undermine the process. "I did not allow thoughts of fighting back," he says. "I didn't want to get down to their level." Instead, he focused on achieving his goals. The painful experience taught him patience, he says. While he left ABC partly due to that crisis, he is thrilled to head up IAAM. "My long-term goal was to run a national organization," he says. "I'm happy as a clam in mud."