Special firms manage many struggling trade associations

Things get tricky when James Elsener presents a business card.

Depending on which one he pulls out, he is executive director of the Suburban Newspapers of America Inc., the Safety Equipment Distributors Association, or the National Association of Futures Trading Advisers.

Sometimes, he says, he forgets which card is in what pocket.

A shifty operator? No. Mr. Elsener is an account executive with Smith, Bucklin & Associates Inc., which manages trade and professional associations. It is part of a booming industry of more than 200 firms that, although small by most standards, is playing a growing, sometimes vital, role in American business.

Association-management firms offer certain services that many an association, expecially the smaller ones, can't afford. They hire experts in trade show and convention planning, public relations, financial management, and statistics. And they share the expertise among all their clients. One of their most important functions is lobbying.

For example, the Chicago-based Smith, Bucklin firm, by far the largest association-management firm with 74 clients, employs nine Washington lobbyists.

Several years ago, the National Fisheries Institute decided to back the 200 -mile fishing limit that was being kicked around in Congress. It was Smith, Bucklin, representing the institute, that won crucial backing from senators of interior states. Up to that time, only coastal senators had supported the bill, says a company vice-president.

However, the firm's Washington staff spends more time ironing out details with regulatory agencies than lobbying for new legislation, says board chairman William E. Smith.

When airline deregulation began several years ago, Smith, Bucklin represented the Regional Airline Association (then called the Commuter Airline Association of America). The association managed to influence a few key decisions that allowed commuter airlines to compete with the larger companies.

Although they have traditionally worked for the smaller associations, management firms are now bagging larger game, says Carl Wangman, secretary-treasurer of the Institute of Association Management Companies (IAMC). His own firm - Breeden Company, based in Glenview, Ill. - used to have clients with budgets under $500,000, but now has four clients with budgets over $1 million. ''We're far more professional than we were five years ago,'' he says.

More sophisticated management has contributed to the boom in such companies. Five years ago IAMC members handled 4 percent of all associations; its 125 members now manage 12 percent, with accounts totaling about $165 million, Mr. Wangman says.

Other factors have contributed as well. The estimated 37 percent increase in the number of associations from 1970 to 1980 helped some, observers say - and recession is a major factor.

Like the industries they represent, many associations are falling on hard times. While the cost of maintaining a headquarters, director, and staff is going up, income from membership dues is not, Mr. Wangman says.

This especially hurts associations like the National Association of Realtors that are funded completely from membership dues, says spokesman Lou Dombrowski. With its membership down to 654,000 - a drop of more than 100,000 in the past 18 months - the realtors association has had to reduce its $30 million budget by 10 percent this year.

Associations as large as the realtors group remain out of reach of the management firms, but smaller organizations are turning to the companies for help. Many of these are manned by part-time workers and volunteers ''who are struggling to keep their own businesses alive,'' Mr. Wangman says - ''so they don't have the time to spend on the association that they once did.''

Association-management firms also report that their present clients are keeping them busier than ever. ''The issues are more complex,'' Wangman says. ''It's more important to get your pleading in front of the right people.''

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