Association Development Provides Entrepreneurial Master Class

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business

Incorporated nearly 20 years ago, in 1996, the MAPP organization actually had its start two years earlier, growing from a simple seed as plastics processors in a region of Indiana invested in the theory that they would make greater strides working together to strengthen the industry, rather than trying to succeed individually.

What follows is both a history of the MAPP organization and a master’s level course in entrepreneurship, focus, business marketing and the power of building community.

Lesson: Problem-solving to create a product
Communication is the foundation of collaborative work, which is how all important problems get solved. People working together. – Marc Andreeson, venture capitalist and co-founder of Netscape

In the early 1990s, the state of Indiana recognized the importance of the plastics industry to its economic health, particularly in the region surrounding Indianapolis. The Indiana Business Modernization & Technology Corporation (BMT) was tasked with developing a strategy to make the plastics industry in the region more competitive, and Troy Nix was brought in to spearhead the initiative as a BMT employee. “The early goal was simply to bring people to the table,” Nix explained. “At the time, the concept was to form mini clusters around the region where companies could share common problems and work together to find solutions. That molecule of a thought is what MAPP germinated into – an association working with small and mid-size plastics companies to bring them together, open lines of communication and deal with work force issues.” The first plastics processor on board was Lindsey Hahn of Metro Plastics, Noblesville, Indiana. With a series of names provided by Hahn, Nix conducted his first meeting in a small hotel room with fewer than 10 processors in attendance. “I presented information on the plastics cluster in the region and talked about combining the synergies of those companies,” said Nix. “We came together for a second meeting, and our group grew.” The meetings went from six or eight attendees to 20… to 40… and, then to 60.

Lesson: Community-building creates momentum
Listen: if you want to build a community, if you want to attend or organize better events, if you want to increase the quality of talks, if you want people to learn, if you want to build a brand, then there’s one thing you must do: share the best work. – Jonathon Colman, content strategy team member for Facebook

The initial success drew more companies, and the task force continued to grow. Mini conferences were held where speakers were brought in for keynote presentations. The final 30 minutes of these conferences were reserved for processors to stand up and ask for business advice from their fellow industry members.

“I saw this organization as something that was needed from a day-to-day operational standpoint,” Hahn said. “The impetus was to find a way that individual companies could communicate together on problem-solving and best practices so we all weren’t out there reinventing the wheel when someone else already had found a solution.”

“This cross talk is part of the DNA of the organization,” Nix explained, “but when people first started coming around the table, they were very guarded.” The processors in attendance felt a reluctance to “air the dirty laundry” that would expose the problems they were having in their operations, but the threat of low-cost production in China sent many of them searching for solutions to remain competitive. And, Hahn explained, once the conversations began, the reluctance lessened. “It’s like anything else,” he said. “As soon as you acknowledge a problem out loud, you find out that a lot of other people have the same issue. Molding issues, customer issues, supplier issues, processing issues – we all have the same problems. These conversations let us see that there weren’t any real secrets, and that allowed everyone to learn and improve.”

Lesson: Business creation requires hustle
The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. It’s as simple as that. A lot of people have ideas, but there are few who decide to do something about them now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer. – Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese and BrainRush!

At this point, the organization essentially still was a task force, created by and under the control of BMT. Convinced that they were moving in the right direction, but concerned that the initiative itself could be disbanded due to factors outside of its control, a group of plastics business owners asked if it would be possible to form a separate entity. In the summer of 1996, Nix and a team of seven people met every two weeks to develop the blueprint that would become the Mid America Plastics Partners, Inc. (MAPP), which was incorporated in the state of Indiana in August of 1996.

“Then, the group looked at me and said, “Go get us money”,” said Nix. “I put pen to paper, which resulted in an $185,000 grant from the state of Indiana from a strategic development fund. In addition to the grant, I started to hit up electric utility companies, telling them we had manufacturers that use a lot of electrons and they wanted to come together to buy. We ended up with $250,000 in a fundraising account before the organization was actually kicked off.”

With funding in the bank, but no membership, another meeting was held in November of 1996. To generate member commitments, one hundred plastics professionals were asked to consider a charter membership, which would garner a five-year membership for the cost of four years. “Over the next year and a half, 25 companies paid $4,000 to become charter members for the promise of what we thought we could accomplish,” Nix said. The MAPP board of directors, which included Hahn as its first president, asked Nix to run the fledgling association.

Lesson: Taking risks increases investment in the outcome
All progress takes place outside the comfort zone. – Michael John Bobak, digital artist and singer/songwriter

Starting a new business always is a lesson in risk-taking, and Nix was doing anything he could to make it go, while working five jobs to keep himself afloat. Still, the financials weren’t working out.

“I hired two employees to try to get this new organization going,” said Nix. “We had $250,000 in the bank and a staff, but we also had to pay rent, insurance and benefits. In August of 1998, I knew our operating funds were going to run out in December. I was the highest paid employee, so I went to a board meeting and told them they needed to fire me.”

Nix provided five alternatives to keep the association afloat, including the hiring of a management company, which would relieve the organization of the burden of Nix’s salary. The final alternative was the riskiest for Nix, but would allow the board to keep the association leadership in place. “I proposed to take all the expenses on my shoulders and figure out how to make it work,” Nix said. “I would take all of the payroll and expenses, with the upside that I also would take a large portion of the revenue.” The board voted to adopt the last solution.

It’s an entrepreneurial approach to running the association that’s still ingrained today. “MAPP is not an 8-5 job, because the organization’s success is intimately tied to the success of the companies in its membership,” explained Nix. “There was a constant expectation that this association needed to live the same challenges that the industry was facing, so we could all come through it together.”

In the years since the association was incorporated, the industry has been under intense pressure from the competition overseas, the mini-recession, the internet bubble and 9/11. The value of the lesson learned in those early days became apparent. It was the entrepreneurial nature of the board and its willingness – its eagerness – to gut it out and take risks that made the difference. “The grit, focus and vision kept us moving forward,” said Nix.

Lesson: Meet the customer where he lives
Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves. – Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple

The association invested in branding, bringing a website online while at the same time starting a magazine – Plastics Business. “From a leadership standpoint, it was obvious that MAPP could only grow if it became more than a central Indiana entity,” said Hahn, “and, we wanted it to grow because the more people were involved, the more knowledge we had and the more opportunities were available to leverage financial opportunities. The first thing we had to do was change the image, and that’s where the website and the magazine became absolutely necessary.”

At the same time, MAPP changed its name, removing the “Mid-America” label and evolving into the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors.

“Troy thought I was crazy with the magazine idea,” said Hahn, “but it seemed like such an opportunity to reach people. With a website, you have to bring people to it, but a magazine goes to them. In the same way, the plant tours have expanded the visibility of MAPP nationwide. It’s resulted in members who see an organization meeting them wherever they live.”

Lesson: Growth both adds and subtracts
We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction. – Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

From a small hotel meeting room with fewer than 10 people to a conference space filled with more than 450 plastics processors at the 2014 MAPP Annual Benchmarking Conference in October, the association has grown significantly.

“As we look forward,” Nix said, “Our idea of growth has to be different. Instead of simply getting bigger, we need to create deeper interactions with our members. The plastics industry isn’t done changing, and this association has to be ready for whatever challenges our membership is going to see.”