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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: First Impressions of the New NWPCA Leader
New NWPCA leader faces challenges, seems to be the right person for the job.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 1/1/2013

                The most common question I get asked about Brent McClendon, the new president and chief executive officer of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA), is, “So what do you think about Brent?” 

                And my answer is simply, “I like him and look forward to seeing how he can help lead the industry into the future.” 

                My job requires me to be an optimistic skeptic, but all signs point to the association leadership making a good choice to replace Bruce Scholnick, who died of complications from cancer earlier this year.

                I wouldn’t wish association leadership on my own worst enemy. Anybody who has ever led an association or served as a volunteer leader knows the hours it takes. Associations are made up of members, and each member has his or her own mind on everything. And every member thinks he or she knows best. It is sort of the same way I feel about being a pastor. When I went to seminary, people asked, “Oh, you going to become a pastor?” I would say, “Oh, Lord, I hope not!”

                The current state of the pallet industry, including the NWPCA is no different. The pallet industry has become a tale of two dynamics. And these forces sometimes work together, and sometimes they have separate agendas. And the job of the NWPCA leader is to dance a delicate, deliberate path between these forces.

                What am I talking about? Well, you have pallet manufacturers and recyclers. You have companies in the 48x40 market and the specialty pallet size business. You have pallet companies that see themselves as merely pallet companies compared to those that are trying to rebrand themselves as logistics, recycling and transport packaging companies. There are wood only companies, and there are firms that sell everything from wood to metal to plastic to composites. Some companies want to become part of a bigger network, such as 9BLOC. Others do not and want to keep to themselves.

                Some companies are focusing on lowering pallet prices and dumbing down pallet quality. Others are trying to sell pallet users on the value of quality pallets and reuse in a pooled approach. Some rely primarily on hardwood lumber as a raw material supply. Others are predominantly softwood or moving to some sort of mix between the two. Some companies work through brokers. Others abhor them. I could go on and on. Hopefully, you get my point.

                The reality is that the new leader of the association will have to help these groups find common ground and work toward shared goals. And while that is a huge challenge, any good leader likes a serious challenge. I am not implying that I am not personally willing to tackle tough challenges in my own life. All I am saying is that it takes a special person to build a coalition within a large organization in this current political and business environment, and I am glad that my sphere of influence is not in the association world. At the same time, I am thankful for men like Brent McClendon and Bruce Scholnick because they are willing to spend the life energy to lead a cause while everybody else is busy working on their own businesses.

                Looking specifically at Brent McClendon, why do I like what I hear so far? Well, let me highlight some of the things that I have observed. Brent McClendon knows the forest products industry. I was concerned about getting somebody from outside the wood industry because he or she might not easily understand the dynamics at play. The problems in the pallet industry stem from forestry, logging and sawmill issues that can be hard for a non-wood person to pick up without lots of on-the-job training.

                McClendon has spent the past 22 years working in the industry through private, public and non-profit sectors. He has worked as a field forester for a state agency, as a hardwood veneer sales manager responsible for $35 million in international and domestic sales, and in government and public affairs, lobbying in Washington for multiple domestic trade associations, including the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association and the Hardwood Plywood and Veneer Association. Brent currently serves as a security-cleared advisor to several Department of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative advisory committees and is the current co-chair of the International Tropical Timber Organization’s Trade Advisory Group.

                McClendon has two undergraduate degrees from North Carolina State University in forestry and agriculture business management, a master’s degree in business administration from George Mason University and is a Certified Association Executive.

                Joe O’Brien, chairman of the NWPCA’s executive search team and incoming chairman of the board, said, “I was worried that finding a person with the experience and ability to lead the association through the sizable changes and challenges facing our industry was going to be impossible and that in the end we would have to ‘settle’. But that wasn’t the case at all. I was greatly impressed with the caliber of the candidates and in Brent I believe we found an extraordinary fit both in terms of experience and personality.”

                Beyond settling in any way, the search process discovered a number of qualified candidates including prospects with forest products industry experiences. Sam McAdow Sr., the interim president of the NWPCA, said that McClendon is already familiar with some of the key issues, such as ISPM-15 and the fight against alternative materials, and that was very apparent during the interview process.

                Secondly, McClendon has worked to develop coalitions to tackle tough legislative issues. At his most recent post as the executive vice president of the International Wood Products Association (IWPA), he engaged in a campaign to reform changes to the Lacey Act, which was changed a few years ago to cover lumber and wood products to attempt to crack down on illegal logging. Critics, including the IWPA, contended that once enacted the laws caused unintended consequences and trade barriers. McClendon built and managed large coalitions to advance workable solutions to the complex environmental issues involved in the Lacey Act. He also effectively represented the Lacey Act reform agenda as a spokesperson with national media and policymakers.

                McClendon explained his strategy to get things done. He said, “I will throw two words out there for you – collaboration and leverage. You are going to want to find as broad and deep a network of organizations to carry that message forward for you as possible. If you look at the Lacey Act, the International Wood Products Association (IWPA) is a group of a little more than 200 members that represent importers. This is a political environment where unfortunately some people look at the issue as if importers take U.S. jobs. Yet, when you have the National Retail Federation, and one out of every four U.S. jobs is in retail, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Homebuilders, taking that message forward, the impact is exponentially greater. We are going to look to work with all effected industry. I am a very big proponent of ‘wood is good.’ You will hear that a lot. Whether it is life cycle assessment or using new science and tools out there, we are going to take that message to the streets as well as encourage our customers to do the same.”

                Thirdly, McClendon worked with the press in his old job to enhance the credibility and profile of his organization. Some other association leaders may try to keep their cards close to their vest and treat the press as an enemy. Sure, there are a lot of things that cannot be revealed by any organization. But a leader who knows the importance of good media connections is a plus for the members and the industry as a whole.

                I for one can assure you that as the publisher of Pallet Enterprise, Pallet Profile, Recycle Record and TimberLine, my staff is ready to work with the new NWPCA leader to help develop a better future for the industry.

                The next thing I like about Brent McClendon is his answer to his first agenda item. He said, “What I want to do is very quickly get on the road and hear from members and media (I do an awful lot of editorial board visits) about what various people believe are the strengths and weaknesses of the association. I want to talk with staff as well. I have initial insight from the search committee on things that they like and want to see changed. But for me, it is really a listen, learn and then act approach. The upcoming Annual Leadership Conference (ALC) will be a great place to kick off that process.”

                When we spoke on the phone only a day after being announced as the new NWPCA leader, Brent McClendon spoke about the importance of mentoring and how he seeks to learn from people both up and down the organizational chart, including junior staffers. And I look forward to working with him on shared goals.

                McClendon is currently coordinating a transition from the IWPA and will begin his tenure with NWPCA on Feb. 1. In the meantime, he will be in frequent communication with McAdow to assure a smooth transition, and he will meet periodically with NWPCA staff.

                Join me in wishing Brent McClendon success in his new role. You can meet him at the upcoming NWPCA Annual Leadership Conference held from Feb. 16-19, 2013 at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Fla.

                Welcome Brent! See you in Florida!

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