It has become less fashionable to join groups. Whether we're a society too obsessed with our own work or our personal time, we don't always want to fit an association into our life. We have enough to fill up our Palm Pilots already.
Maybe it's a commentary on the era we live in. But the fact that the Thermoforming Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers could attract 1,003 people to its conference in Indianapolis in September is reason for some optimism. Those attendance numbers are holding steady from the division's previous conference in Cincinnati in 2003, a record year.
Look at what else we've seen during this decade. SPE as a whole lost half its members and was forced to lay off some staff. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has had similar challenges, losing companies and some staff. It's not easy being a trade group. In other manufacturing sectors, the news has been of comparable struggles.
But SPE's Thermoforming Division is unique - a merry band of entrepreneurs that has stayed tight and true to its roots. It incorporates a mix of top corporate executives and plant engineers, most of whom work for midsize companies with annual sales of less than $50 million.
All of them grew up together in the industry. Compared to injection molding, thermoforming is a relatively young field. Its denizens are more craftspeople than businesspeople, and they are fighting to gain a greater measure of respect.
That us-against-the-world mentality is probably what has united the group. Or maybe it's just that the group is like a tightly knit club where everyone knows each other and can relate to each other's concerns. Smoking jackets not required.
No matter, there are only about 250 thermoforming companies in North America, according to division Chairman Roger Kipp. But they all seem to know each other.
The board even commits to coming nearly a week before the conference begins to spend a few days talking business. At the meeting this year, the group added $10,000 in annual scholarships for schools, doubling the size of that bequest. The new funds are earmarked for technical schools offering associate degrees in the field, Kipp said.
The division also matches funds to high schools, spending $80,000 this year to train young prospects for thermoforming, he said. The group is looking out for the future.
And another $7,500 was parceled to the Discovery Museum in Milwaukee, for the center to prepare a DVD about thermoforming. The group wants to keep the information flow circulating.
Representatives from other SPE divisions were on hand at the conference to see how to duplicate the thermoforming division's efforts. So was SPE President Karen Winkler. About half the Thermoforming Division's profits go to mother SPE, a large sum in the association world, Kipp said.
Altogether, what the band of business owners has been able to accomplish is impressive enough. But maybe it's the type of member that has led to the group's success.
``We are a group with entrepreneurial business sense,'' Kipp said. ``Our business owners are also managers in their businesses. We're quite a hands-on group.''
We hope others can learn from their example.