At SPE-Antec, experts gathered in hushed rooms to hear technical papers, just like any Society of Plastics Engineers annual conference. But SPE-Antec was about more than molecules - as the group struggles to rebound from a budget crunch and a major membership slide.
SPE has lost nearly half its members in the past decade.
Despite the challenges, Susan Oderwald, the new executive director, said SPE remains a strong provider of ``leadership to an industry in a chaotic world.''
Oderwald addressed the society's business lunch May 17 in her first SPE-Antec speech.
The Brookfield, Conn.-based professional society named Oderwald to the top position May 11, the week before the annual conference in Chicago. She joined SPE in 2001 as deputy executive director.
She replaces Michael Cappelletti, who retired as executive director at the end of 2003.
Oderwald, 39, has a background in industry associations.
``I have worked with SPE over the last three years, and come to this position with my eyes open to both the challenges and opportunities that face SPE,'' she said.
Oderwald said the plastics industry ``needs professional organizations more than ever'' as companies look to do more with fewer resources. ``SPE is positioned to provide leadership to an industry in a chaotic world - leadership that focuses on the principles of sound science and fair competition through innovation and professional development.''
Donna Davis, the outgoing SPE president, said about 70 people applied for the executive director's job.
Before introducing Oderwald, Davis gave a speech spelling out actions SPE leaders took last year to restructure its finances. Despite one division's newsletter last summer that said SPE has to ``take drastic budgetary action ... to avert insolvency,'' Davis said the organization is on solid footing.
``We're getting back to the basics as a result of having repositioned our finances,'' Davis said.
SPE lost $488,000 in 2003, but the society is budgeting a $150,000 surplus this year to create a nest-egg cushion - a change from its past strategy of budgeting to break even.
Meanwhile, to cut costs, SPE:
* Laid off staff. SPE now employs 31, down from 45 a few years ago.
* Implemented a 5 percent pay cut for staff in 2003. Oderwald said pay was restored in January.
* Suspended for 2004 and 2005 its traditional practice of rebating a percentage of dues to its sections and divisions based on membership. The rebates are to resume in 2006.
Money saved will be used to develop new products, especially ones to increase membership. By suspending the rebates, SPE repaid its line-of-credit loan without the need to convert it to more costly long-term debt, Davis said.
Oderwald said SPE's membership peaked at about 38,000 in the early 1990s. There has been a steady decline since 1994, and a more dramatic falloff in the past few years, she said. SPE ended 2003 with 19,475 members; currently, the group has 20,629.
At a news conference after her speech, Oderwald said recent declines - suffered by many trade associations - probably reflect job losses in the industry. Volunteerism also is in decline.
SPE leaders in Chicago said they think membership has stabilized, because of a rebounding economy and growing numbers of new members around the world.
``Now we're starting to see that turn around,'' Oderwald said. Attendance at seminars and conferences also has rebounded since plunging in 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Davis agreed: ``We are, at this point, relatively stable in membership ... so that's a real positive thing for the society.'' Davis is worldwide applications associate in polymers technology at ExxonMobil Chemical Co. in Baytown, Texas.
In a speech, SPE's new president for 2004-05, Karen Winkler, stressed increasing membership. Audience members were given buttons saying ``Take Pride. Give Back.'' She encouraged people to find a young person to mentor, bring in one new member this year or contribute to SPE by becoming a speaker, writing a technical paper or helping to develop new SPE products.
``There are other leading organizations out there, but SPE represents technology, and technology is the leading edge of any industry,'' said Winkler. She is commercial Six Sigma manager for the engineering plastics unit of Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.
The two-year suspension of dues rebates rubbed some SPE loyalists the wrong way. The SPE council approved the cutbacks in a contentious January meeting. Divisions and sections can apply for some of the money if they face financial hardship, a move that softened the blow.
``Rebates were a difficult issue. I've never seen a more intense debate in council than we had on this issue,'' said Barbara Arnold-Feret, who represented the North Texas Section and the Product Design & Development Division.
``We're not happy, but everybody's saying we have to all tighten [our] belts,'' said Arnold-Feret, president of Prototyping and Rapid Tooling Service in Roanoke, Texas.
Lance Neward, who was SPE president for 1993-94, said the regional and industry sectors of SPE had become accustomed to the rebates and would have liked more advance notice, he said.
``Most people didn't like the fact that the rebates would have to be suspended, but they were more concerned about the health of the society,'' said Neward.
The Injection Molding Division - SPE's largest, with about 5,000 members - lost $22,000, according to Peter Lipp, incoming chairman. He said an earlier decision to change its printed newsletter into an online version saved money, so the lack of rebates did not hurt as much. Lipp said the division is looking at new sources of revenue this year.
One of the smallest groups, the Rotational Molding Division, also went to an online newsletter to save money. ``It hurt. It forced us to cut expenses,'' said consultant Ken Pawlak, who was division chairman last year.
The vote to suspend rebates, Pawlak said, ``was to help the society in this time of crisis. In that ... the membership came through.''