WASHINGTON — The granddaddy of the industry's trade groups, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., is at a crossroads.
The group is struggling to build its base of processor members, according to an internal SPI review obtained by Plastics News. That effort comes as the society is being buffeted by very public defections of business units and major resin company members to the American Plastics Council.
SPI, the industry's most broad-based trade group, cut dues for processors dramatically in early 1997 and expected that to boost processor membership. But that has not happened, according to the review.
``Certainly SPI is being challenged on a number of fronts to revisit what SPI is about,'' said Richard Flanagan, president of Stan-Cast Inc. in Leominster, Mass., and an SPI membership committee member. ``I don't see that as altogether a wrong thing.''
SPI had a net loss of 62 processor members in 1998, and had a net gain of seven in the first four months of 1999, according to a report delivered to SPI's Membership Development Committee in May. SPI has about 800 processor members, out of about 1,600 company members.
Attempts to boost membership in the West and Midwest also have come up short, according to the report. A sales push in those two regions netted 10 processors from June to December 1998, out of a goal of 70, the report said.
SPI leaders and industry officials point to a number of factors: a fragmented industry, distractions from its feud with APC, no large threats to rally behind and questions about whether SPI is focused on the right things.
SPI President Larry Thomas expects the group's recent restructuring to help turn the corner.
``We haven't achieved [boosting membership],'' Thomas said. ``My view is, we will achieve it, for a lot of positive reasons.''
The group plans to boost its regional offices, although Thomas said it is too soon to say if that will mean more staff. The group recently put sales people in its two regional offices that did not have them, and staffers in the regional offices are starting to share practices that have been successful, he said.
The plastics industry has seen a mushrooming of state and regional associations in the past few years, most focused on bottom-line activities like worker training or joint purchasing arrangements.
One group that has attracted the attention of SPI is the Mid-America Plastics Partners Inc., said David Hidding, chairman of SPI's Molders Division. MAPP has grown to 120 members, mainly processors and mostly in Indiana and surrounding states, since launching in 1997.
MAPP charges processors a flat $1,000, while SPI charges $250-$10,000, depending on sales.
``We are kind of perplexed,'' Hidding said. ``We are asking the same questions you are asking — how did they get so many members out of such a small area?''
MAPP is growing because it concentrates on basic services and issues, said Lindsey Hahn, immediate past president and a founder of Indianapolis-based MAPP.
``MAPP is real short-term focused, and SPI looks at more long-term issues,'' he said.
MAPP is starting to cooperate with SPI to boost the latter's membership, but most MAPP members are not in SPI, Hahn said. Hahn, president of Metro Plastics Technologies in Noblesville, Ind., said his company joined SPI in early June.
There is a role for both groups because SPI can work on projects like worker certification or machinery interface protocols that MAPP is too small to do, Hahn said. SPI requires a company to want to give back to the industry, rather than just getting benefits from an organization, he said.
Some SPI members say the group needs to be more focused on business issues.
``The restructuring is one major step in getting this organization more of a business focus than it had in the past,'' said Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a member of SPI's membership committee.
Thomas said SPI is considering suggestions for a processor-oriented trade show, and he said its programs on worker orientation, work force development and benchmarking, and seminars with manufacturers offer value to businesses.
``We need to deliver very tangible programs — we have done that and will do more,'' Thomas said. ``No. 2, we have to convince these companies of the value of broader industry efforts.''
Flanagan said focusing only on whether SPI provides value misses part of the picture.
``As valid as that question is, and a lot of focus has been put on it, I would submit to you that the question falls short of the real problem,'' he said. ``Regardless of how well SPI does, if a company does not have a regard for the industry, it will not join any trade organization.''
Ron Yocum, president of the American Plastics Council, said SPI's problems extend beyond its high-profile fight with APC over merging the two groups. As fallout from that, at least 11 resin companies and several business units have left SPI, and others are considering it.
``SPI has bigger problems than just what happens with APC,'' Yocum said. ``It is a very diverse industry. Under the best of circumstances, it is tough to hold together.''
Yocum objected to an April 23 letter Thomas wrote to SPI members that was critical of APC. The letter said APC has been ``proactive in attempting to realign some SPI business units under the APC.''
Yocum said APC officials have not recruited units, but have met with SPI divisions when approached. APC's member companies may be launching their own efforts, he said.
``We have issued very clear orders,'' Yocum said. ``We are not meddling in SPI affairs.''
But Thomas said APC's member companies are tightly knit.
``If those members are working to invite a business unit to participate, certainly any reasonable person would agree that is APC working,'' Thomas said.