After five years on the job, Don Duncan is preparing to step aside as president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
He's staying for a few months, as the Washington-based trade group seeks a replacement. So there's no rush to editorialize in any detail on his tenure. For now, let's just say that Duncan has been a success. He has been an energetic, approachable leader. He came to the job with a background in the resin sector, and he quickly earned the respect of all sectors of the diverse plastics industry.
The economic slump notwithstanding, SPI is in better shape now than when Duncan arrived. But right now, there's a more important question to consider: What should SPI look for in a new leader?
Five years ago, we came up with a prescription for success for the new SPI president. Some of these suggestions may sound familiar, because Duncan's replacement will face many of the same challenges. But they're worth updating and repeating, and we encourage others to share their own ideas.
First, SPI's president must be someone who places the highest priority on building the association. Considering the size and importance of the U.S. plastics industry, SPI should be a bigger player in Washington. SPI has spent a lot of time on plans to attract more processor members. But while many processors get a lot of value out of belonging to SPI, many more don't think SPI is worth their time. To make SPI stronger, the new president must be able to make the group more relevant to more processors.
Washington experience isn't necessary. In fact, one school of thought today is that SPI doesn't even need to be in the capital. Proponents say it should move somewhere like Chicago to be closer to more of its members. At this point, we haven't heard any compelling reason to move.
There are advantages to being near the nation's top legislators and regulators, and to leaders of other trade groups. For SPI's president, having political contacts helps, but there's no reason to hire a former politician. SPI would be better off with someone who knows the industry and its major players.
Trade association experience is more important. The association needs someone who understands what it's like to be active in an organization like SPI. But SPI surely can find some great candidates even if they have no association management experience.
Like Duncan, the new president must be comfortable taking a visible leadership role. Duncan has been involved in issues that are important to the industry. When he talks to members in public, he is direct and clear. He attends important industry events, and is comfortable meeting with and mixing with everyone. The new leader should emulate that style, because while the plastics industry has many outstanding managers, there is no single dominant company or leader. SPI's president can play that role.
There's one issue that faced Duncan five years ago that doesn't seem as important today - the split with the American Plastics Council. APC is part of the American Chemistry Council now, and there's no reason to believe it ever will rejoin SPI.
Both groups will represent resin companies - neither will claim all of them as members. SPI's president will need to continue to work with APC, while at the same time showing its members the value of joining SPI, too.