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Top Story: The honeymoon is over for NFI

John Connelly employs "tough love" to take NFI into a new era

Lisa Duchene
March 01, 2005

During his first two years as president of the National Fisheries Institute, John Connelly spent 150 days on the road, visiting member seafood companies and speaking with executives all over the country.

One conversation and handshake at a time, Connelly — rosy-cheeked and often grinning — has won support of NFI’s core leadership for his plan to deliver the tougher, stronger, more effective trade group they want to see.

From the get-go, Connelly, a trade association professional whose experience includes three years serving as an officer on a Navy destroyer and 12 years defending chemical companies against environmental groups as head of the American Chemistry Council, has spread a core message: Be proud to sell fish, because it’s good for people, and it’s time to let everybody know it.

“I think members of the board and those who have met him would follow John to the end,” says Robert Hallion, who heads up sales and purchasing for Crocker & Winsor Seafood in Boston. “It’s just a matter of opening up their pockets. It’s that leap of faith.”

The collective soul-searching and big-picture strategic planning is over. The NFI leadership knows it wants the organization to be a pro-seafood powerhouse, and Connelly has a plan to make that happen. The looming question is whether the rank-and-file members are willing to pay for it.

A newly redesigned dues structure that seeks to raise an additional $1 million is in place, and in late January, a week prior to the Jan. 31 dues deadline, 12 companies unwilling to pay the new dues had dropped out of NFI.

Recent changes include a new director of political programs, a senior policy strategist and a VP of public affairs (see sidebar, page 28) as well as a re-structured executive committee designed to make faster decisions. Connelly is clearly reshaping NFI.

“It’s the new NFI,” says Dave Weber, VP of operations for Gorton’s in Gloucester, Mass., and current NFI chairman. “I wouldn’t call it evolutionary.

“I’d call it revolutionary. It’s a different approach to what NFI has been for a number of years.”
 

Connelly, to be sure, stepped into a troubled organization facing challenges intertwined with the nature of the industry. Eighty percent of supply is imported, causing strife between importers and domestic producers.

NFI’s most recent chapter was plagued by a “woe-is-us” apathy, in which members blamed a lack of resources and their fragmented industry for being unable to speak with a single, strong voice, says Weber. As a result, the organization was often paralyzed and defensive, he says.

One board member described the old NFI as “lethargic.”

The seafood industry has lost some key Capitol Hill battles like
a two-year delay in Country of Origin Labeling regulations won by the beef and lamb industries because it couldn’t speak with one voice, says Justin LeBlanc, who was NFI’s VP of government relations for six years.

He left NFI in late 2004 to become VP of government relations for Strategies 360, a Seattle-based lobbying and consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C.

The seafood industry has no choice but to invest more in its lobbying effort, he says. Lobbying results typically equal the investment, and there is always more to be done, says LeBlanc.

“For too many years, the seafood industry has acted like the ostrich with its head in the sand. They didn’t like government, so they just ignored it. And the truth of the matter is, it’s one of the most regulated industries. If the industry doesn’t get its head out of the sand and start actively participating in the political process, it’s screwed,” says LeBlanc.

Domestic producers and importers find themselves split over bitter issues like COOL and trade. Smoothing over those differences is definitely a challenge, says Ewell Smith, a board member and executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, which represents the Lou­isiana seafood industry. The domestic shrimp industry supports COOL.

“If people can agree to disagree, we can still work together for the ultimate good of the industry,” says Smith. “Being able to work through those issues takes a lot of finesse. John has the skills to do that. It’s just not easy.”

Connelly’s approach is to emphasize the positive and what members have in common.

“What we’re trying to change significantly in the new organization is the ability to go on the offense. I think with John and his new team in place, we’re certainly better able to answer the question for seafood companies in general: What’s in it for me to be a member of NFI?” says Weber.

Enacting a plan
Connelly’s strategy is to “more forcefully” emphasize five top priorities that have taken a back seat to other issues in the past decade:
• Explain the benefits of eating seafood twice a week.
• Promote aquaculture.
• Present seafood’s trade deficit as a positive to consumers and key decision-makers. Imports allow a variety of choices in a healthy diet, says Connelly.
• Retain continued access to sustainable U.S. fisheries through the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
• Ensure the government invests in long-term research on the health benefits of seafood consumption.

All of the priorities fall under an advocacy umbrella, and Connelly’s plan involves boosting the organization’s government-relations and communications efforts.

“Shaping the environment means proactively engaging with the Hill, the [government] agencies and the media to tell our story and provide a better environment in which our members can profitably sell more seafood,” says Connelly.

Connelly, who joined the organization in February 2003, took most of his first year to meet with members and learn the ropes. “About a year into the job, I started to have specific ideas about changes we needed to make, how we operate, how political we were and the staff positions we needed to upgrade,” he says.

NFI’s technical chief is the only top-tier position that hasn’t turned over. Bob Collette, a 21-year veteran of NFI who has been the VP of science and technology for six years, is staying on.

But over the past year, seven members of the 13-member staff are new to NFI. Linda Candler, VP of communications, left in November. Andrea Ginty, director of meetings and events, left in early January and Dan Herman, director of technical affairs, left in early February.

“Part of my responsibility,” says Connelly, “is to make sure we have an industry voice and make sure we have the people with the right skills, the right energy level and a common vision about what NFI needs to do to provide better value to our members. I evaluated a number of staff over the past year and came to agreements with several staff that they would probably be better off professionally in another organization.”

One of the last positions to fill is a medical-outreach coordinator responsible for communicating with medical and health professionals one-on-one to ensure they are giving out positive information about the benefits of seafood consumption and the studies backing those benefits.

When Dick Gutting resigned as NFI president at the end of 2002 after 20 years with NFI and five years at the helm, NFI’s board of directors soon had specific criteria for his replacement. Board members said they respected Gutting, an attorney whose departure was amicable, but had a different kind of president in mind for NFI’s next era.

The hiring group sought a trade-association professional with a proven track record, strong leadership skills, a consensus- and team-builder and an experienced strategist known for taking action, says Bill Herzig, VP of seafood purchasing for Darden Restaurants in Orlando, Fla.

“John met all of those characteristics and has done an excellent job since coming onboard at NFI,” says Herzig. “John was hired to do exactly what he is doing — make NFI a modern and effective trade organization, and I can say that we are extremely pleased with the leadership he has brought to our industry.”

Travis Larkin, executive-committee and board member and VP of The Seafood Exchange, a Florida importer and processor, sat in on one of Connelly’s interviews prior to his hiring.

“It became very evident to us very quickly that John was a real organization professional. That he had a good understanding of how to help companies work together,” says Larkin. “He really came off to us as a business person, that he would run the organization like a business, not a bureaucracy. Those were key areas for me and I think for many others who were involved in the process.”

Armed for battle

Connelly holds an MBA from George Mason University. Running trade associations is the “family business,” says Connelly, whose brother-in-law is president of the American Health Lawyers Asso­ciation. His father-in-law was president of the Electronic In­dustries Alliance for 20 years. Many dining-room table conversations center on the trade-association business, says Connelly.

During his 12 years with the American Chemistry Council, a $110 million organization that went through a turnaround similar to NFI’s, Connelly led business and advocacy efforts and streamlined the staff, reducing costs by 30 percent, he says.

Connelly also served five years in the Navy, which is evident in the military lingo he uses. For instance, he aims to reduce general administrative costs so that as many resources as possible can be devoted to advocacy, or “sharpening the tip of our spear,” he says.

“On purpose I used some martial terms in talking with members, because we are in a fight,” says Connelly. “There are groups that don’t like the seafood community. They don’t like how much fish we’re able to harvest or the manner in which we harvest it. It’s important to use terminology that gets members to understand that they are in a battle, that we are in a battle, so by design some of those terms are martial.”

The first test of Connelly’s plan will be whether NFI members are willing to pay for the “new” organization. About 45 companies serve on NFI’s Board of Directors and are up to date on Connelly’s plan.

Most of those members were supportive of Connelly, his plan and the new dues. What’s not so clear is how the new dues structure is being received among the remaining 550 members.

Under Connelly’s direction, NFI is looking to raise an additional $1 million, or 65 percent increase, in re-structured membership dues.

This would take the organization’s revenues from about $2 million in 2003 to $3.1 million in 2005, bringing it in line with the budgets of most trade associations, according to the American Society of Association Executives. Fifty-four percent of trade associations have revenues greater than $2 million, according to a 2001 ASAE analysis, the most recent year for which figures are available.

After a dues task force studied the issue last year, NFI abolished the old dues structure, a system Connelly says hadn’t changed in 20 years and allowed companies to negotiate their dues, in favor of a simpler, non-negotiable system in which company dues are calculated based on sales.

Membership dues under the new structure range from $1,000 to $50,000. Associate members, companies that don’t sell seafood but sell seafood-related services, pay a fee of $1,000. NFI officially represents harvesters of wild and farmed fish, importers, processors, retailers and restaurants. Harvesters and processors makeup 30 percent of the membership and importers make up about 25 percent.

By the third week of January, 12 companies had dropped out instead of paying the new dues. By the deadline of Jan. 31, Connelly said he was just looking at the numbers and did not want to publicly comment on how many companies were in, out or unknown.

The new dues structure is not without its critics. One member, who spoke anonymously because his company did not want to publicly criticize NFI, says the new fee structure is unfair because it is based on sales revenue, which is less indicative of a company’s ability to pay than a figure like profit margin. He would rather see the same fee charged to all companies. He is also concerned about whether the benefits of NFI membership will justify the new costs and expects some members will drop out.

“We expect the number of NFI members to drop,” says Connelly. “[Losing members] is not our goal. I think what’s important is for the leaders of the [member] companies to look in each others’ eyes and say, ‘This is the direction we want to go in, and I think we should do that through NFI and it’s the kind of quality we need to look at to move forward as an organization.’”

It’s a two-way gamble. There is a certain “leap of faith” required to fully support the new organization, says Crocker & Winsor’s Hallion. Up to a certain number of dropouts, Connelly has said he will still have enough money to reach his goals, says Hallion.

But if too many companies drop out and Connelly scales back, Hallion fears the companies that took a leap of faith and paid the new dues will be disappointed.

The emphasis on fewer “quality” members is a huge shift from the days when the organization’s leadership, afraid to upset members, balked on taking strong positions.

“NFI has been its own worst enemy in terms of its capacity to be an effective advocate because for too many years it tried to cater to a broader array of members than were really the financial supporters of the organization,” says LeBlanc.

“NFI is not a commercial fishermen’s organization, and it never has been,” says LeBlanc. “It’s a seafood companies’ organization, and I think John Connelly is focusing on that.”

Divergent interests are not unique to seafood, says Grace Leong, president of Hunter Public Relations in New York and an active member of the Public Relations Society of America. Leong has worked with trade groups like chocolate, coffee and confection manufacturers.

“They hate each other, but they know to come together to put together the programs that are good for the industry,” says Leong.

The seafood industry is hardly in dire straits, says Leong. Despite alarming headlines about mercury and PCBs, Hunter’s survey of 1,300 food editors indicates the food media is far more captivated with low-carb diets, new U.S. dietary guidelines and the death of Julia Child, than negative news about seafood.

“The food editors are still running fish like crazy. Food editors love fish because it carries so many great nutritional messages,” says Leong.

Nonetheless, it is a challenge to be constantly on the defensive. Taking an offensive, public relations approach is better and can be extremely effective, she says. Groups like the Idaho potato industry that have united and been proactive in branding themselves have enjoyed good results, she says.

Even companies that have climbed onboard and given the “new NFI” their full support are watching closely to see whether all of the changes add up to Connelly’s stated goal: selling more seafood.

“The best proof that all this works [will be] if our businesses are healthier,” says Gorton’s Weber.

(Sidebar) 

Meet the NFI 'dream team' 

When National Fisheries Institute President John Connelly went shopping for staff to represent the interests of seafood companies in Washington, D.C., he didn’t go looking for fish folks but for experienced Beltway pros.

“We wanted to hire people who understand how the machinery of government, the
machinery of the media and the machinery of associations and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] operate. That’s what was important to us,” says Connelly.

People with the right experience, skills and connections could always learn about seafood issues, strategized Connelly.

In January, NFI announced its new lobbying and communications Dream Team: Cherylyn
Harley LeBon as VP of public affairs, Margaret McElroy as VP of government relations and Frank Vitello as director of political programs.

Harley LeBon replaces Linda Candler, who left NFI in the fall after several years as VP of communications. McElroy and Vitello replace Justin LeBlanc, former VP of government relations who left NFI in December to join the D.C. office of Strategies 360, a Seattle communications and lobbying firm.

“They bring a different set of lobbying capabilities to the table than we had,” says LeBlanc, who was hired about six years ago out of the office of Sen. Pat Murray, a Washington Democrat.

One key difference is the Republican connections of LeBon and McElroy. LeBon recently served as senior counsel to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and appears frequently on network and cable talk shows. She is a former communications consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and former spokesperson and deputy press secretary at the Republican National Committee. 

McElroy recently served as legislative director to Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.), where she was also regional representative for the GOP Legislative Directors Group, an organization that offers legislative directors opportunities to network with colleagues as well as key House staff.

Vitello recently served on the legislative staff of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands. He is the former executive director of Defenders of Property Rights in Washington, D.C., for which he created a number of coalitions and grassroots campaigns.  — L.D.

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