Another Pressing Challenge for the NKBA

The senior leadership of the NKBA sure has its work cut out for it this summer.

Whether or not it’s up to the task will largely determine the association’s immediate future – and perhaps its long-term fate, as well.

NKBA leadership, of course, is currently tackling the annual summer challenge of developing a strategic direction for 2006, so that specific goals and budgets can be locked down in time for fall.

But that’s not the major challenge facing leadership at the moment.

The real challenge is something, sadly, that’s become an all-too-familiar exercise for association leadership: Finding a CEO who can remain on the job long enough to successfully implement the NKBA’s objectives, while effectively managing the association’s staff and day-to-day activities.

Leadership’s current challenge stems from the fact that former CEO Larry Spangler abruptly departed the association in April, literally on the very eve of last month’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS). As if that’s not enough, the association is currently functioning without several key administrators. Director of Professional Programs Lili Corman DeVita and Director of Marketing Bill Schankel both resigned within days of Spangler’s departure. The NKBA’s Director of Membership post was also vacant at last report.

And with these vacancies, of course, have come inevitable uncertainties and drift, strain on existing staff resources, key new decisions to make – and questions about exactly what’s going on at the NKBA’s headquarters in Hackettstown, NJ.

Too bad. And a bit surprising to some outsiders.

In fact, prior to the latest departures, the NKBA – despite some operational deficiencies – seemed to be walking a relatively smooth path. Its financial position, once upon a time a real bugaboo, seems as strong as ever, thanks primarily to the success of K/BIS. Membership is said to be at an all-time high. Retention is said to be strong. New programs and services were seemingly gaining traction. And the association is coming off the heels of perhaps its most successful K/BIS ever – a rousing, high-energy event staged for the first time last month in Las Vegas.

Despite it success on these fronts, however, the NKBA just can’t seem to shake its disturbing legacy of turnover among key administrative officials at headquarters.

While this type of turnover is par for the course at many trade associations, the NKBA has certainly experienced far more than its share. Spangler’s departure, for instance, came just two years after the departure of former CEO Cecilia Balazs, whose tenure at the helm was also relatively short-lived. Other top NKBA positions in such areas as education, marketing and membership have also witnessed high turnover. In fact, measured against the industry’s other major trade association – the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, whose executive v.p. Dick Titus has been in place for some 25 years – the NKBA’s executive turnover has been nothing short of staggering.

NKBA leadership is remaining tight-lipped about the reasons for Spangler’s departure, terming it a “mutual decision.” But the specific reason for Spangler’s resignation – or dismissal – is not the real issue. Neither is the question of who’ll eventually be named to replace him.

Instead, the real issue – and a key question for leadership to address – is why is the turnover rate among the NKBA’s top executives so high in the first place? Is the job simply too demanding, too political, too frustrating? Is the association’s volunteer leadership too unwieldy and ever-changing to cope with? Have past hiring decisions been poor? Are structural changes needed at headquarters? Is the location of headquarters in rural New Jersey a problem in itself?

There has to be a reason – or reasons – people come and go so frequently.

And those reasons are among the topics leadership has to address as its mulls replacements for those who’ve just left.

According to NKBA president Jeff Cannata, CMKBD, a search team – led by immediate past president Beverly Dalton and assisted by association counsel Ed Nagorsky – is sifting through the resumes of some 40 CEO candidates. Spangler had a marketing background. Balazs was an experienced trade association professional. One of Balazs’ predecessors, Paul Kohmescher, was an accountant. Other past CEOs have come from within the ranks of the kitchen/bath industry. Having gone those routes in the past, the talk now is that NKBA leadership is leaning toward filling the CEO post with someone possessing hands-on business experience.

Who knows? It’s still up in the air.

Cannata says the association hopes to name a replacement for Spangler by August, adding that it’s likely the other vacant posts won’t be filled until at least that time, so that the new CEO can have a hand in the hiring process.

That means, of course, that volunteer leaders will have to work doubly hard through the summer months to assist existing staff at maintaining day-The senior leadership of the NKBA sure has its work cut out for it this summer.

Fortunately for the NKBA, it remains populated with dedicated and professional volunteer members. Cannata, Dalton and the remaining Executive Committee members – president-elect Al Pattison, CMKBD, secretary Bob Garner, CKD, and treasurer Max Isley, CMKBD – are prime examples. All have been working extremely hard over the last several months, taking time from their own businesses to nurse the association through its latest challenge. Cannata himself has been piling up the frequent-flyer miles between his Chicago home and NKBA headquarters, as well as presiding over frequent conference calls between executive committee members and the association’s administrative staff, which Cannata says remains upbeat and functioning “unbelievably well” under the circumstances.

But, clearly, the burden is on NKBA leadership to quickly address the voids in the paid professional staff, support existing staff with more than simply lip service, and inspire an atmosphere that lends itself to greater staff stability than in the past.

No trade association – or any business, for that matter – can function effectively if it’s hamstrung by turnover and the constant retraining of key personnel.

One can only hope that NKBA leadership responds to the current situation quickly and intelligently. Membership, remaining staff and the industry at large deserve – and should demand – nothing less.