For the second time in three years, the Plastics Industry Association needs to find a new leader.
The group parted ways with its president and CEO, Tony Radoszewski, March 28 without saying much of anything about why.
It's not a good position for the association to be in. The trade group issued a short news release and the chairman of its board of directors gave a brief interview, where they said Radoszewski's last day was March 25.
What's known publicly is that the association has seen a lot of turnover among senior staff, as we reported in recent weeks.
We spoke with executives at member companies involved in the group, and they pointed to those personnel issues as the first reason. On background, they expressed concern about how the organization can function if it can't keep good people.
There doesn't seem to be any particular scandal behind the change. Rather it seems like a steady erosion of confidence in Radoszewski.
Important positions like the group's economist and senior staff heads of its machinery and processors councils had left in recent months, as had important staff in government affairs and media operations.
Staff changes began almost from the beginning of Radoszewski's tenure. He was in the job about four months, in January 2020, when he instituted a restructuring and got rid of the group's No. 2, its chief operating officer, as well as vice presidents in media relations, industry affairs and technical issues.
It's every CEO's prerogative to hire and fire who they want, of course. But if you're going to lead off with major changes, you better have a good plan in place to bring in new leadership teams and keep them.
The association's staffing problems were creating, if not instability, certainly a lot of nervousness among its companies. In Radoszewski's defense, he was also very unlucky in his timing, to start in the job six months before the coronavirus pandemic.
That would have been a challenge for any new leader, but doubly so for the Plastics Industry Association because COVID-19 forced it to cancel the NPE2021 trade show, planned for May last year in Orlando. The association owns that show and it's a major moneymaker, although officials insist they were able to handle the loss by relying on reserves, insurance payments and government pandemic aid.
You could say that Radoszewski faced a perfect storm. But he was also getting paid to be the leader — $521,000 in 2020, according to the Plastics Industry Association's most recent public tax returns.
Besides the staff issues, member company executives said Radoszewski didn't communicate well and took a head-in-the-sand approach to managing during a crisis. Those can be subjective complaints, admittedly.
But they reminded me of one instance where Radoszewski stumbled in making a very political public statement.
Early in the pandemic, in March 2020, he got into a dustup on Twitter with an executive at a member company. Radoszewski enthusiastically retweeted and commented on a partisan essay from a blogger named Don Surber, who praised President Donald Trump and criticized then-presidential candidate Joe Biden over their pandemic responses.
Radoszewski wrote in his tweet, directly quoting the blogger, that "President Donald John Trump is large and in charge. Biden's hidin'."
The member company exec, Nick Sotos from iD Additive Inc., responded on Twitter, questioning the political tone of Radoszewski's tweet: "So this is the stance the Plastics Industry [Association] is taking in the face of this issue. Politics. Got it."
At that time, March 2020, a lot of us were nervous about what may be coming with the coronavirus. The news from Wuhan, Milan and New York City was unnerving. Radoszewski admitted he made a mistake, telling us at the time that in his job as the Plastics Industry Association's CEO, his comments could be seen as representing the entire industry and that "things have to be more thought out when I make public statements like that."
"When I put out anything, people look to me as the voice of the industry. And I thanked him [Sotos] for that because, you know, it didn't cross my mind," he said at the time. "I agree with him. I know it helps me grow as an executive."
Radoszewski came to the Plastics Industry Association after serving 13 years as president of the much smaller Plastics Pipe Institute in Texas, where he won accolades for building up the membership of that association.
I remember that conversation with Radoszewski because I thought the tweet-from-the-hip gunslinger approach didn't seem right for the job.
The Plastics Industry Association is one of the industry's two-biggest trade groups in Washington, and it manages a complex series of public issues. You would think the leader of the group would already be aware their personal tweets could be taken as speaking for the industry.
The association clearly can hire whoever it wants to, but most trade association leaders avoid being too overtly political in their social media and stick more to the issues of the group they're working for. Industries generally need to work both sides of the aisle.
The tenor in the association now seems to be to move forward. So here are some thoughts, based only on my time spent covering various trade associations.
It's not a good sign that the Plastics Industry Association now has to find a new leader. It has lost time when it could have been building for the future.
Radoszewski came on board after its longtime CEO, Bill Carteaux, died from leukemia in late 2018. Carteaux was in the job 13 years, and the two people before him were there five years and 11 years. So I don't think anyone in the leadership of the association expected to be looking for a new CEO now, 30 months after hiring the last one.
As the group begins its search, there are a lot of questions in front of it, including: Should it pick someone from within the industry, as it's done for the last three CEOs? Or should it focus on someone with specific trade show experience, since NPE generates half of its revenues and is very important to its member companies?
Some who push a trade show focus in new leadership think the Plastics Industry Association could save money by making a bigger break and not being in Washington. As well, given the importance of NPE to the association's finances, some also say any new head needs a strong global focus.
Any time NPE catches a cold, Plastics Industry Association leaders head to Europe and Japan to keep the big plastics industry there in support and participating in the show, so NPE doesn't develop the flu. Radoszewski and a team went to Europe last year after the show was canceled.
There's a third factor in the group's selection: Any new CEO should be versed in advocacy and communications, given the environmental challenges and legislation facing the plastics industry.
As one example, the association spent several years trying to bring in more brand owner companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi in its ranks, but several of them exited the association in the months before Radoszewski arrived. They cited policy differences and were responding to environmental groups pressuring them to distance from the association.
It will require nuanced leadership to guide the association through its challenges.
Right now, the group seems to still be processing this unexpected change. There will be more time to think about next steps.
Hopefully the association board and company leadership will share more details on why they decided it was best to part ways with their CEO and what the path forward will be.
And hopefully, they'll take a hard look at whether the CEO hiring process could be improved. I got pushback when I asked people how much responsibility the top board officials, who are all volunteers and have their day jobs, should have here.
Point taken. All of those folks have their regular headaches they get paid for besides the association headaches. But it seems something wasn't working if you have to give the boot to the CEO after only two and a half years. Maybe more voices should be in the hiring mix, or social media needs more scrutiny. The association doesn't want to be back here three years from now doing it again.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.