SmithBucklin is on a roll. The country's largest association management firm logged one of its best years in 2003 and has parlayed that success into several new initiatives in 2004. Most recently, the firm was awarded the management contract for the Insurance Conference Planners Association and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (see opposite page for more on CEIR). In January, SmithBucklin's Michael Payne became the new chairman of the Professional Convention Management Association (See page 15.) And this month, the firm will introduce a think tank — the William E. Smith Institute For Association Research — an organization designed to generate research on important topics in association management.

“The main goal is to underwrite and deliver to the association community practice-based research,” says Henry Givray, SmithBucklin's CEO. The institute, named after the firm's founder, was established to “demonstrate our industry leadership by giving back to the community,” Givray says.

A leadership council will be created to identify research topics and trends that are “vital to the growth and sustained competitiveness of associations,” Givray says. The board will consist of two SmithBucklin officials, including Givray and Michael Olson, executive vice president, and up to five other industry thought leaders who have yet to be named. (Olson, former chief executive officer of the American Society of Association Executives, joined SmithBucklin in January.)

Once a focus for research is determined, SmithBucklin will request proposals from independent researchers and academics to conduct a study. The leadership council will select and interview the finalists and ultimately choose the winner, with SmithBucklin funding the project. The firm is in the process of hiring a director of research to assist in the process. The final report will be available to anyone who asks for it, free of charge, Givray adds.

While there are other research programs out there, Givray says this is unique for several reasons. One, it is done by independent researchers through an RFP process. Two, the results are being shared with everybody, and three, the topics are being developed by a stand-alone board.

In February, SmithBucklin launched another new program, called Ask SmithBucklin, which is a free consultation service designed for volunteer leaders, executive directors, and others in senior leadership positions. The no-cost service, which can be accessed by calling (800) 539-9750, provides callers with guidance on challenges and opportunities facing their organizations. It is believed to be the first program of its kind in the industry, according to Givray. Callers are not required to make any commitment to SmithBucklin's services in order to use the 800 number.

The service leverages the expertise of the company's professionals as well as its other resources. Counsel will be customized to each organization, and questions on any related topic are welcome. A high percentage of the inquiries will be answered on the spot, says Givray. In some cases, however, depending on the complexity of the topic, questions will be answered within 24 to 48 hours.

Both of these initiatives are the product of a strong year for the firm last year. “It was really one of our best years,” he says, citing 17 new clients, including eight full-service and nine project-specific clients. That growth enabled the firm to invest back in the business.

Another of the company's high-profile new hires last year was Michael McShane, who is now SmithBucklin vice president. McShane had been president of the McShane Group, a government relations firm. He joined SmithBucklin in November.