Spring Hill College Alumni Board and New Offices for the Verto Solutions Companies

The Association Navigator Blog is back.  It’s been nearly three months since my last post, Spring_Hill_College_220435but I’m back and I’m picking up the tempo.  I’m getting re-started with updates about Spring Hill College and our new offices at Verto Solutions.

First, Spring Hill College.  I was appointed last week to Spring Hill College’s National Alumni Association Board (NAAB).  The Alumni Board includes alumni leaders from around the country who serve as advocates for the College in their communities.  I received a BA in English from Spring Hill in 1987.  I try to be an active alumnus, but until now this just meant attending DC receptions.  I’ve been looking for a way to increase my involvement and hopefully this is it.  Monde Donaldson with the Alumni office recognized that I was a good candidate to put some energy into helping this great school.

Spring Hill College is a liberal arts school located in my hometown, Mobile, Alabama. It’s the oldest college in Alabama, the first Catholic college in the Southeast, and the third oldest Jesuit college in the United States.  There are about 1,300 students – more than half of them are from outside Alabama, and the current freshman class is the largest first year class in the school’s history.  It is fast becoming the premiere Jesuit college in the South.

The challenges faced by small schools like Spring Hill were highlighted this weekend in the Wall Street Journal.

I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with the school and helping them with their recruiting efforts.  I attended Spring Hill initially because of a leadership scholarship awarded to local student leaders; I stayed at Spring Hill because of the environment – great students and dedicated teachers.

Verto1Verto Solutions and Verto Legal Solutions moved into brand new offices in Washington just two weeks ago.  The new suite at 1101 17th Street N.W. is 2 blocks north of the old space, and it’s larger, more comfortable, more modern, and hopefully more inspiring to the team.  We now have more than 10,000 square feet of offices and conference facilities.  The new space gives us room to grow.

Verto2The office move was a huge effort and the entire process took more than a year.  Finding the new location, negotiating the lease, designing, furnishing, wiring the space, and moving, was an enormous project.  Everyone at Verto worked extra hard over the past month, with incredible efforts from my partners, Christie Harman and Sean Taylor, and our Director of Finance & Administration Sue Knudsen.  Critical support from outside Verto was provided by the brokers from CBRE, the design architects from Wingate Hughes, the construction management team at James G. Davis Construction, and technology support from Ntiva.  We’re planning a holiday open house, but please let me know whenever you can stop by for a visit.

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What Does the Sale of The Washington Post Mean to Your Association?

We’re just back from a great family vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We RoadtoRelevanceplayed golf and tennis, went swimming, hiking, wine tasting, and visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. I spent most of the week off the computer, only looking at email once or twice.

I’ve been thinking about what Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post means for trade associations?

We heard the news a couple of weeks ago that Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon is buying The Washington Post and there have been many articles about what this means for the newspaper business.

Yesterday’s New York Times article, “He’s Going to Break Some Eggs” is certainly worth reading.

The connection to associations is Competition. Like newspapers, associations face an “onslaught of unprecedented, ubiquitous, and relentless competition in the space that once belonged exclusively to associations.” This quote is from Road to Relevance by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, the most valuable book out there right now for association professionals. I think this book is so good that I’ll be featuring quotes in future posts. One of the themes of Road to Relevance is that associations are facing competition from multiple sources. Key areas where associations used to hold an advantage – information sharing, professional networking and education are now served by lots of new competitors. Information comes from the Internet, networking is done best via social media, and workshops are hosted by just about everyone.

We’re being told that the reason the Graham family is selling The Washington Post is because it’s been losing money for years and they need someone that can afford to continue losing money while he innovates the way the model operates. No one knows what Bezos will do with The Post. There’s lots of speculation about the changes that he might make. Whatever he does, it will become a journalism distribution system, not a newspaper. I’m sad about the end of newspapers, but these are powerful market forces that can’t be stopped.

For a thoughtful discussion of the weaknesses of most business models in today’s environment read Geoff Colvin’s “Your Business Model Doesn’t Work Anymore” in the February 25, 2013 Fortune.

I’m not saying that the business model of trade associations is broken; but associations face incredible competition from the for-profit world. Being a tax exempt organization doesn’t exempt your organization from competition for your members’ time and money. Association members are inundated with offers of information and opportunities to join groups and events. This space used to be reserved for the association.

What this means for associations is that they must focus on their unique advantage, whatever that may be. What does your association do for its members that they can’t get anywhere else? Is it a certification program, advocacy, a trade show? Whatever it is, as an association executive it is your responsibility to identify it and protect it. Don’t let the competition harm your association.

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Something I Didn’t Know About Hotel WiFi

WebI just learned something new about hotels and WiFi.  The current system isn’t just a money grab, it’s also a capacity issue.

I’m annoyed when hotels charge high fees for WiFi in conference meeting rooms.  I’m not talking about guest room or lobby access, I’m referring to a strong WiFi signal during meetings so that attendees can research and multitask during sessions.

I have a sense that things are changing quickly in this area.  I hope the current system of sometimes making groups pay for meeting room WiFi access is on the way out.  I wonder what it was like in the early days of tap water.  Did the hotels charge extra?  WiFi is so essential for traveling professionals that I think it is silly to charge groups extra for it.

It’s considered a requirement now in the dozens of meeting contracts that Verto Solutions negotiates for our client associations every year.  Times have changed; most meeting attendees now bring laptops or tablets to meetings and they need WiFi access.

I had the chance to discuss this issue with representatives of two major hotel chains recently.  I asked them about the state of complimentary WiFi under hotel meeting contracts.  My friend who’s a senior facilities and infrastructure executive with one of the large chains surprised me when he said the current system isn’t just about revenue, it’s also about capacity.  He said most hotels are racing to upgrade their bandwidth and that the current systems in most hotels would be overwhelmed if meeting WiFi access was free.  In other words, the current system of making groups pay has the effect of reducing the number of people using the system.

For a better explanation of the technical side of this issue, (“bonded T1 vs. 10 meg symmetrical pipe”) see Andy Abramson’s post at MuniWireless.com.

Both of my hotel friends said that WiFi in meeting rooms included in the contract without additional charges is only a matter of time.  But for now, and until the infrastructure is upgraded, we need to continue to negotiate the best deal that we can.  This is another example of The Association Management Advantage, because association management companies negotiate so many hotel contracts we have the knowledge, experience and leverage to get the best deal possible for your association.

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Association Management and Board Reports: “Done is Better Than Perfect”


The Beautiful Trees at Highlands Swim and Tennis Club – McLean, VA

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is in my stack to read.  My wife was inspired by it and quickly passed it on to a friend.  Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s and now head of ConantLeadership recently shared one of Sandberg’s simple yet powerful suggestions – “done is better than perfect.”

Good regular communication between quarterly in-person meetings with your board is critical to the success of any association executive.  Board communications come in a variety of forms and titles.  The association executives at Verto Solutions even have different names for them.  One association receives a “Monthly Board Report” while another gets a “Headquarters Update.”  Whatever you call it, it is critical to publish a regular (monthly is best) update on association activities for your board to review.

I have learned the hard way what can happen when an association executive doesn’t adequately communicate with their governing board or board chair.  I once believed that my board chair was too busy for detailed updates on what the staff was doing for the association; big mistake.

Always remember – It’s not possible to over communicate with your board.  If you under communicate it can cause lots of problems.

Writing a good report – well written and focused on the proper depth – is a critical requirements of association leadership.

Regular Board Communications Should Be:

  • Well written – The sentences should be short and error free.  Use lists and bullets whenever you can.
  • Concise – Be brief, too much detail discourages your board when they’re deciding whether or not to read something.  Let’s be honest, your board members are busy professionals, this report must be succinct to get and hold their attention.  They can always call you if they want more detail.
  • Be complete – Make sure every department is covered in the report.  Some staff are inclined to share more/less than others; it’s your job as the association executive to produce a consistent snapshot of activities across departments and projects.
  • Be honest, if a project is running behind say so, your directors will appreciate your honesty and if you don’t report on your progress then they might assume the situation is worse than it really is.

Just remember – “done is better than perfect.”

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Verto Solutions, ASAE & the Association Management Advantage

AMCGuide - Web_Page_01Association management is in the spotlight again.  ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership just published a special supplement to Associations Now that focuses on the advantages of association management.

The trend toward association management is significant, with more and more non-profits, trade groups, and professional societies turning to professional management companies to run their increasingly sophisticated operations.

Verto Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based association management and scientific services company is one of the companies included in the ASAE supplement.

April Motley’s feature story highlights one of the main advantages to association management: shared expertise, transferring knowledge from association to association.  In an earlier post, What is Association Management? I identified three association management advantages:

  • Controlling Costs
  • Eliminating Employee-related risks, and
  • Access to More Skilled and Experienced Professionals

Motley’s article focuses on the third advantage and this is perhaps the most powerful – shared expertise and leveraging collective brain power.  The association directors at Verto Solutions now meet on a regular basis to share strategies and best practices.

It is an exciting time to be in association management.

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My Grandfather, WW II Veteran, Visits DC

I’m extremely proud of my grandfather, Lt. Col. Emmett M. Cox, Jr. (Ret.) and my father the Honorable Emmett R. Cox. Both men visited Washington, D.C. for the day on Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Emmett M. Cox, Jr. and Hon. Emmett R. Cox
Lt. Col. Emmett M. Cox, Jr. and Hon. Emmett R. “Rip” Cox

“Granddaddy” and “Dad” visited Washington as part of an “Honor Flight” from Mobile, Alabama. “Granddaddy Cox” was one of the South Alabama veterans flown to Washington for ceremonies in their honor. “Honor Flights” are a national effort that has been underway since the World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2005.

Each veteran was allowed to bring along one escort and Granddaddy (94) was escorted by my father the Honorable Emmett R. Cox (78); both men have served their country with distinction.

My grandfather, Colonel Cox, was in the U.S. Army for 30 years. His World War II service was in North Africa and Italy, handling personnel on the staff of General George S. Patton. He was escorted by my father, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Emmett R. Cox. Judge Cox, my father, is semi-retired, but active as a “senior circuit judge.”

Granddaddy Cox and John on Spring Break - April 2013
Granddaddy Cox and John on Spring Break – April 2013

The group visited Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial. Members of my family were able to see one of the ceremonies but unfortunately I was returning from an important client convention in Florida. My sister provided these great pictures and I’ve also included a picture of me and Colonel Cox last month during our Spring Break visit to the Florida Panhandle. Be sure to read the back of Granddaddy’s’ t-shirt, it includes some history.

Alabama Members of Congress including U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Representatives Jo Bonner (R-AL-1) were also on hand to honor the 101 veterans that flew up and back from Mobile in a single day on a chartered flight.

Photograph of Lt. Col. Emmett M. Cox, Jr., taken in the early 1960s, displayed in my office.

Photograph of Lt. Col. Emmett M. Cox, Jr., taken in the early 1960s, displayed in my office.

I really didn’t like missing this ceremony, but I was extremely proud to be a part of the Verto Solutions team executing a great annual convention in Palm Beach, Florida for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA). The FEMA Annual Convention brought together more than 230 flavor and food industry leaders to discuss the latest issues related to food and food ingredients. This year’s meeting was a complete success due to the incredible efforts of the Verto Solutions team, both on the ground in Florida and back at the office in D.C.

Granddaddy's T-shirt

Granddaddy’s T-shirt

Thank you to Granddaddy and all of the veterans of World War II for their service.

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Speaking to Alabama Law Students about the Association World

I’m excited to again speak to University of Alabama law students about opportunities in the association world.  The discussion is next week at the Washington offices of Hogan Lovells.  Partner Mike House is the organizer of Alabama’s government relations program that brings students to Washington for a semester to work and study.

Many association professionals will admit that they stumbled into association work after doing something else first; this was certainly true for me.  Hopefully my presentation will make the students more aware of associations and non-profits so that when a door opens they will be more inclined to pursue an association opportunity.

I blogged about the ASAE Associations Now article in January on basic association law issues.  The article was written by Jerry A. Jacobs, dean of the D.C. association legal community. Jerry’s book, Association Law Handbook, is in the Fifth Edition and it’s a great reference tool for association and non-profit lawyers.

How I Came to Association WorkUofAlaw

After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1993 I worked on Capitol Hill.  First in the Speaker’s Office for Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and then in the U.S. Senate for Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  Because Senator Sessions was a new senator and a former prosecutor I’ve always assumed that it made it easier, as a lawyer, for me to understand the Senator’s point of view.  But I got impatient with politics and wanted something different, something a little more legal than political communications.  So I took an offer in 2000 to be the Director of Government Relations, for an association management company called The Roberts Group.

Association management is an exciting and growing field.  Larger associations are independent corporations that usually have a physical presence, like offices, financial assets, and maybe other assets like intellectual property, or a certification or inspection program that the organization sells for a fee.

Smaller associations, with budgets of $100,000 – $5 million or so, increasingly use the services of an association management company.  So as the director of government relations for The Roberts Group I was a lobbyist and regulatory counsel for several associations managed by the company.  You can read more about the advantages of association management here.

After about five years with The Roberts Group, I saw an opportunity to put out a shingle, as they say.  So I created the Law Offices of John H. Cox, PLLC and began serving as the general counsel to associations.  I was still doing some lobbying, but I was also serving as regulatory and corporate counsel for several of the associations being managed by The Roberts Group.

I liked the fact that I was finally a real lawyer, or it kind of felt like I was.  What I didn’t like was the atmosphere of a solo practice – the lack of collaboration on legal questions was a big challenge for me.  But I was learning so much, and eventually I served as general counsel for six different trade associations.

My interests continued to expand and evolve, and a little more than two years ago I purchased a share of The Roberts Group.  My two partners and I rebranded the firm Verto Solutions and put a focus on providing association management and scientific services to associations that represent food, agriculture and science-based industries.

My work today is varied and I prefer it to a one hundred percent legal job.  I run a small business, with twenty-five people in cross-functional teams serving six associations.  I’m the executive director of one association and the legal counsel to another.  On most days I answer regulatory questions but I’m also involved in designing social media strategies, managing finances, recruiting new members, and planning future events.  The variety is what I like.

How Big is the Association/Non-Profit Universe?

Most of my work has been for trade associations, but non-profit corporations like bar associations, charities, foundations, museums or religious organizations are all examples of non-profit corporations eligible for recognition by the IRS under section 501(c) of the tax code.  All of these organizations present legal opportunities for new lawyers.

(c)(6) is the section of the tax code that recognizes trade or professional associations.  As of 2009 there were more than 90,000 of these organizations in the U.S.

(c)(3) is the section that recognizes charities, foundations, or religious organizations, and there were more than 1.2 million of these in 2009.

Associations and non-profits employed more than 1.6 million people in 2009.  Association jobs are found in every state, but they are primarily clustered in California, New York, Illinois, Florida, and Pennsylvania and of course, Washington, D.C.  In D.C, nearly 1 out of every 10 private sector employees works for an association.

The prevalence, spending, and overall influence of non-profits are growing in our society.  As trust in governments and for-profit corporations continues to decline this will further enhance the clout of non-profits.

What Types of Opportunities Exist for Lawyers in the Association World?

There are many opportunities for lawyers in associations and non-profits.  The obvious place is as in-house general counsel, but associations also employ lobbyists that are frequently lawyers. Legal skills are also common in association and non-profit senior executive positions, usually called the executive director or president.

Keep in mind that most legal work done for associations and non-profits is still primarily done by outside firms, by lawyers that are familiar with non-profit legal issues and understand their cultures.

There are two primary categories of legal issue types with trade associations: governance and compliance.

Non-profit governance counsel is as close to a general practice as you are likely to find outside smaller towns.  Taking a look at the table of contents in Jerry Jacobs’s Association Law Handbook will give you an idea of the variety of issues involved:  Anti-trust, tax exemption, political contributions & lobbying, contracts, employment practices, and corporate governance, are just a few examples.

Compliance law for associations is specialized and is as varied as association types.  This work typically involves matters related to the business that the members are in, some examples: food & cosmetic regulations, chemicals management, real estate, construction, energy, workplace safety.  For any area of the law, particularly regulatory and administrative law, there is an association or associations that represent the companies or individuals in that industry and their association probably has legal expertise in this area.

I applaud Dean Kenneth Randall and the University of Alabama for creating this program for students that are interested in government affairs.  Whether they realize it now, some of them will probably spend a part of their legal career working with an association or non-profit.

Key Points to Keep in Mind about Association Law

  • It’s generally not litigation.  If you want to spend time in a courtroom then an association is not a good move.
  • The atmosphere is not entirely legal, even if you are an association lawyer you will spend your day working with lots of non-lawyers.
  • People that participate in associations and non-profits are generally very nice people; they are probably successful in their professions and they care enough about their industry or field to get involved and make things better.

What’s next for me and the law is a new company called Verto Legal Solutions that will provide legal services to the association clients and their member companies served by Verto Solutions.  This will allow me to keep my hand in the practice of law while continuing to explore other areas that interest me, including association management, business, marketing & communications.  The association world is a great place to work and it is certainly full of opportunities for lawyers.

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