Steven Hacker tells a story about opening a box of brochures and annual reports sent to him 10 years ago by the National Association for Exposition Managers. At the time, he was vying for the association's position of president. “It was like opening a time capsule from the 1950s,” he says about the association's dated material. “I thought, this is really intriguing. There's so much to do here. This could be a lot of fun.”

Hacker got the job, giving a slide presentation to the board that advised changing the name of the organization to the International Association for Exhibition Management — broadening both the mission and the constituency of the association. “I came up with a new logo,” he says. The board bought the name change but not the logo.

The anecdote illustrates a lot about Hacker: He likes challenge — the “old guard” way of doing things doesn't straightjacket him. He's confident, some would say brash. He's a guy who doesn't bow to the past, but makes a habit of learning from it.

These qualities have served him well in leading a decade of change for the 3,500-member IAEM, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Indeed, in a time when new leadership is the order of the day for sister organizations American Society of Association Executives, Meeting Professionals International, and the Professional Convention Management Association, Hacker has become the “old guard,” but only by default. This is no time to fall back on the old way of doing things, he says.

TWILIGHT ZONE

With a B.A. in history, Hacker is trained to look at the present through the prism of the past. About society today, he says, “We're in a kind of twilight zone. We've left the Information Age and are in an interim before the next era, a time when all traditions are being challenged.” He likens the present to the period between the Agrarian Age and the Industrial Revolution, a time of demographic dislocation, social deterioration, violence.

These days associations simply can't rely on long-range strategic planning — the times are too unpredictable. “It's important to be able to trust your instincts,” Hacker says, “to know what the members' needs are, and build scenarios for multiple possibilities.”

Do the unpredictable times have something to do with the recent leadership changes at ASAE, MPI, and PCMA? “I don't like to speculate on this,” Hacker says, averring however, that “in a time of turbulence, organizations that don't have a highly defined track for themselves can get themselves into trouble. Of the four groups, IAEM has the most tightly defined market niche. Our glue is everything and anything to do with the show.”

Despite that glue, the exhibition industry, after decades of growth, is facing big challenges (see cover story, page 18). It's a time, says Doug Ducate, who heads the Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, when business practices of the past need to be evaluated, practices such as cost-shifting, exclusive contracts, and date protection.

“There are more questions about efficacy from within our industry than from outsiders,” Ducate says in his December 2002 Situation Analysis (www.ceir.org). “And that suggests that now is the time to review practices and our model and determine what changes need to be made voluntarily before industry pressure, public opinion, or government fiat demand it.”

JUDGMENT CALL

If sweeping change is needed, Hacker will be no stranger to the process. When he led the campaign to change NAEM into an international organization that represented the entire exhibition industry, as opposed to a national group focused on show managers, opposition was fierce.

“Sometimes when you are making radical change you have to make a judgment call. Do you accomplish it a little bit at a time or all at once?” The former didn't make sense to him so he opted for the latter, “putting on my armor and sharpening my sword.”

Ten years later, few dispute that the move to broaden the association's scope and constituency was a smart one. Recently, IAEM signed collaborative agreements with several international associations, creating a global network for the exposition industry — one of the association's most strategic accomplishments, in Hacker's view.

“You have to change the model to suit the times. We are not likely to return to the model of the 1980s and '90s, when you went to an association meeting, no matter what,” Hacker says. “The nature of the connection that associations provide is changing. We all can connect daily by e-mail now. So you redesign your education so you can deliver some of it online. You have your committee meetings via the Internet.”

Still, face-to-face meetings are an opportunity to “fill in the gaps,” in a larger environment of social dislocation. “You see a lot of hugging and kissing at our meetings.”

ROLE OF BOARDS

Given the public outcry over recent scandals involving corporate boards, have association boards become more hands-on in guiding the executive leadership of associations? Members' oversight and expectations of their associations own business practices are a different issue than stockholders' expectations, Hacker contends.

“Association board members are generally selected because of their interest in contributing time and expertise to their industries or professions. Associations are often the authors and custodians of codes of ethics, and they often publish best practices for the industries or professions they serve. Most associations routinely engage in outside financial audits each year.”

He says the challenges of association boards these days are typically: positioning the association in a space that will allow it to compete effectively for members' time and resources; finding and retaining talent at the board and staff levels; and determining the missions and goals of associations in a rapidly changing environment.

IAEM has a 13-member board, the same size as it was a decade ago. Hacker finds the number “elegant and efficient. It's easier to get that many people together in person, and it's small enough do business by conference call. It helps us to be nimble.” And that's a great asset in these unpredictable times.

STEVE HACKER

COLLEGE: Graduated Dowling College, 1970 B.A. History

FAMILY: daughter, Katherine; son David; wife, Evelyn Ireland, CAE, Executive Director, National Association of Dental Plans

PREVIOUS JOB: President of the Professional Insurance Agents of Texas for 17 years

CURRENT READING LIST: “Bush at War,” by Bob Woodward; “The Conquerors,” by Michael Beschloss; “Benjamin Franklin,” by Edmund Morgan

MANAGEMENT STYLE: “I would say consultative/intuitive. I usually rely upon input from staff, board, and members to create the environment in which I make decisions and formulate strategy and tactics. I also rely heavily upon my intuition when dealing with issue in which clarity is not absolute.

ROLE MODEL: “I was hired, indoctrinated, and paper-trained by Rod Geer. He's retired now but was the long time CEO of the Million Dollar Roundtable and before that the Independent Mutual Insurance Agents of NY, NJ, and CT — where I was hired in 1970.”

SUN SIGN: Libra

NUMBER OF JOBS: Three in 30 years. “I've made good choices.”