The Society of Plastics Engineers has stopped its membership decline and climbed back into the black, leaders said during SPE's annual technical conference May 1-5 in Boston.
``We're seeing a far more stable situation,'' said Susan Oderwald, executive director.
But Oderwald and other leaders of the 20,800-member society said it has to keep changing to stay relevant to engineers and technical sales people, who face unprecedented demands to take on management tasks and to understand business issues.
She promised to conduct regular research, beginning with focus groups held at Antec, to see what services members - and potential members - want.
``We will continue to be increasingly member-driven, more dynamic and more savvy about the industry we serve,'' she said.
The mood this year was brighter than at last year's event, Oderwald's first as executive director. The big topic among SPE activists last year was the move to suspend the organization's traditional practice of rebating a percentage of dues to sections and divisions. SPE used the money to shore up finances by paying off its line-of-credit loan.
The rebate suspension for 2004 and 2005 was part of a cost-cutting plan that included a one-year pay cut for staff and layoffs at Brookfield, Conn.-based SPE. SPE lost money in 2003, but ended 2004 with a surplus.
Oderwald announced that the dues rebates will resume in 2006, as SPE leaders had promised.
SPE membership peaked at about 38,000 in the early 1990s, before sinking to about 19,500 in 2003. Oderwald said membership grew 3-4 percent in 2004. The goal is to grow at least 2 percent a year from now on. ``Nice, slow, steady wins the race,'' she said.
Karen Winkler, outgoing president, outlined how SPE activists are working to understand and reflect the industry. The year-old Technical Advisory Board is charged with identifying new business and technology issues, to keep SPE programs current.
Winkler, commercial Six Sigma manager for the engineering plastics unit of Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., also announced that SPE members have created new special-interest groups in two hot areas: nanocomposites/micromolding and radiation processing of polymers. Such groups eventually can become full-fledged divisions, like the Flexible Packaging Division, which got its charter at Antec 2005.
Plastics engineers have said they need better management skills, so SPE has teamed with the American Management Association to provide training. SPE officials also had leadership training the weekend before Antec began.
At Antec, AMA presented ``Lessons Learned from The Apprentice,'' featuring three contestants from the hit television show.
Also in Boston, Winkler announced a European Advisory Board. Oderwald said the society is forming boards for India and China, with future plans to start one in Latin America. The goal will be to develop SPE leaders in those areas.
SPE also continues to investigate how to link its members in the age of e-mail and travel-budget cuts. Len Czuba, the new president for 2005-06, envisions a search network of all SPE members.
``Imagine the possibilities [of] essentially a 20,000-member advisory board,'' he said.
Czuba, who runs Czuba Enterprises Inc., a product-development firm in Lombard, Ill., is active in SPE's Medical Plastics Division. Recounting all the contacts he has made since joining SPE in 1975, he advocates face-to-face contact by attending SPE events.
``This member-to-member communication is a very powerful member benefit and my No. 1 reason for being a member of SPE,'' Czuba said.