Building a Flexible Culture from Chaos

By: Samantha Whitehorne

An inside look at how National Association of Catering Executives CEO Bonnie Fedchock transformed the organization in four-and-a-half years, creating a culture that's collaborative and flexible and puts members first.

In the late 1950s, directors of catering from hotels in New York City, some of the first such professionals in the country, began seeing an increase in business. They realized that in order to keep up with demand, they needed to not only build relationships with each other but also increase the professionalism of this new industry. On June 3, 1958, the Banquet Managers Guild (BMG) was formed to do just that.

Then, in 1980, the association changed its name to the National Association of Catering Executives to better reflect industry job titles and the increase in off-premise catering. And now, 53 years since it started as BMG, NACE is again in a different and better place. Today's association represents its more than 4,200 members in more than 40 chapters in North America.

But when CEO Bonnie Fedchock walked into her role four-and-a-half years ago, things looked a whole lot different: NACE had 42 chapters but not a single staff person dedicated to chapter relations. The work of the association was mainly done by volunteers. "Today we have nine staff people [eight full-time employees] dedicated to working for our members first," Fedchock says. "That's what we all believe here and that's what our members know."

Fedchock says a perfect storm took NACE from where it was to the place it is today. "Catering was the fastest-growing segment of the food industry at the time, the professionalism of the industry was raised due to the success of cable TV shows, and my staff and members and volunteer leadership had this energy and dedication I'd never seen before," she says. "I was just very lucky that everything came together and that I was along for the ride to help create a culture of collaboration, support, flexibility, and networking."

Where to Focus First

NACE had its trouble spots when Fedchock first walked in the doors of the association's Columbia, Maryland, offices in 2006, and she saw some things that immediately needed to be done. The staff structure didn't give people clear responsibilities, there were no financial resources, and the print pieces were, according to Fedchock, "really, really old school."

When asked to describe the office at the time, Fedchock uses one word: library. "It was quiet. There was no collaboration. No discussion. No one talking to one another. People were not flexible," she says. "The culture had to change or NACE would not survive. And that's scary. Truthfully, I had to understand the culture as it was to be able to change it. I soon discovered that members weren't being put first, and that had to start to bubble up.

"The first thing I asked myself is, ‘Where do I start?'" she says. "I realized this was an opportunity to really redo everything, but I had to pick that first thing, and since there were some open staff positions, for me it was staff."

With only five staffers, including herself, Fedchock saw the urgency in having a chapter-relations position. "They never had a staff person dedicated to it, and they had 42, yes 42, chapters," she says. "I was surprised to say the least, but I brought Kim [Grimm] on as our chapter-relations person soon after I arrived, and she's been here ever since."

Together, Fedchock and Grimm soon realized that no one had looked at the chapters and their reporting structure in a while and the reports required from each chapter were tedious to complete. "I told Kim to go figure it out and come back to me. If we don't need it, why are asking them to do it? I told her to turn everything upside down," Fedchock says.

"I started calling chapters," says Grimm, now director of membership and marketing. "When they picked up the phone, they asked me what they did wrong or told me their reports were on the way. When I told them I just wanted to talk to them and say hi, they didn't know how to react because it never happened before."

"When we walked in, it was both a blessing and a curse," says Fedchock. "There was so much that wasn't happening that it was frustrating, but it was also such a blank slate, so there was an opportunity for anyone who wanted to own something."

Governance Turnaround

With Grimm taking the lead on the chapter-relations component, Fedchock started to look at NACE's governance structure. "My initial impression was that the structure back then didn't allow for success, and at the same time, the board was also reviewing the structure," she says. "And on top of that the board was divided on a number of issues, and those conversations had to happen for things to move forward."

When Fedchock started, the board had 18 people, with board members holding specific titles such as vice president of marketing and vice president of membership. "I knew the board was too big, and the other thing I noticed was that it was pretty much exclusively focused on executing the annual conference," she says. "And I get that, it's what they do, so that's what they gravitated toward." But the big problem with that setup was that the board was running the conference without a budget, and it wasn't making money.

"I had to ask the board the hard question: Why would you have a conference that doesn't make money?" Fedchock says. "They told me it couldn't make money, so I had to lead them through these conversations where I showed them how they were taking money from members to support only a few people. I had to change the way we worked."

Fedchock also streamlined the financial statements sent to the board. Previously, they were about 60 pages long and board members didn't understand the statements, so they shut down. "Decisions were made with no information and no financial background," she says. Fedchock started sending them a six-page document that separated out the event expenses and revenue to show the board where it could make money.

"My board members are very passionate people, which I love, and I'm very logical," she says. "So I asked them three questions: What are we trying to do? What resources do we have currently to help? What resources do we need to get there?"

Today, NACE's board is made up of 12 people, representing the core association, its foundation, and chapters. Three of those 12 are at-large board members who aren't necessarily NACE members. "I know some people are shocked by this, but to get a view from someone outside the organization is priceless and so important. These members are hard to recruit, but our focus is centered around what expertise we are looking for and not whom we are looking for," she says. Another struggle is finding a culture fit between NACE members and non-NACE members. Board training has been important to help with this.

"At the beginning, no one trusted one another—from board committees to staff to members," she says. "It was pervasive, and it was holding NACE back." The first year of training focused on Stephen M.R. Covey's book The Speed of Trust and how surrounding yourself with good people in all aspects of your life will allow things to happen faster. The second year focused on fierce conversations that would be uncomfortable but necessary for the board to have in order to help move NACE forward.

"This year, for the first time, we were able to have this organic conversation where we … talked about what we should be doing and the issues we will face next," Fedchock says. "We've challenged them. We want to be transparent. I am not going to stand up there and tell the board we aren't going to make mistakes, because we are. But I also remind them that if we're not making mistakes, we're not taking risks. And I've been lucky enough to have a board that jumped on board and feels the same way."

Leslie Jones, NACE's director of education and certification, shares a similar sentiment. "We've put the board through a lot of changes, and, like most change, not everyone bought in at first. But now we're at the point where they expect us to always execute at this level. They come to us and want to talk about 2014 or 2015, whereas a few years ago, they would want to only talk about that year. It's been exciting to be a part of it."

It's a Whole New Culture

Today's NACE office is much different from the library atmosphere that Fedchock describes when she first arrived. People yell from one office to another, and laughter can be heard every few minutes. Fedchock shows thank-you notes on her desk from her chapters and members, and on a table in the kitchen is a just-delivered king cake from its New Orleans chapter. While other associations were dipping into reserves during the recession and losing members, NACE made a profit and increased membership by 35 percent in the past few years. So what's Fedchock's secret?

"You need passionate people. We need smart, hardworking staff with integrity who have a good personality and like to have a good time," she says. "This is the most amazing group I have ever worked with. I've been working in nonprofits for 26 years, and this is the only group like this."

Grimm agrees. "Right off the bat, I knew there was potential and that we needed to take advantage of it. It's not every day that you have the opportunity to walk into a job and make it what you want it to be, but I was given that and that's why I've stayed," she says.

"Before we hire someone, we are very open that it is a team. Everybody here should be backing up everybody else. It's about a community of support. We're all here for the same thing: to support each other in helping the members," Fedchock says.

"Any of us will back someone else up until we find out that you did something intentionally wrong," adds Grimm. "We worked so hard to build this culture of trust, we can't have someone betray it."

Fedchock also says diversity is key: "It's about a village. I would not hire everyone like me. … Everyone has different strengths than I do. What I'm looking for are people who want to make something of themselves. And if you're not going to serve our members, you have no place here."

"We all feel comfortable, and we all want to create legacy and pass that on to other staff members. I know I want to come to work and do that, and I know my coworkers do too. Other people tell us they want to work here," says Jones. "I think that is the biggest compliment."

Another thing that has changed the culture is getting members to see staff as a resource rather than as "these people they have to report to," says Grimm. "Once they trusted us and knew we were representing them and looking out for their best interests, we were really able to push them forward and help them shape what's next for NACE."

Predicting the Future

Only a few years ago, NACE was an association struggling both internally and externally, so it's hard to imagine where it will be in five years. "If we're not dynamic and pushing the catering industry forward, we are doing our members a disservice," says Fedchock.

On Fedchock's wish list for the next five years: meeting the needs of the majority of members in the industry, being more nimble with technology, developing a national delivery mechanism for education programs, and growing a larger international base. "The organization's never been in this position, since it was chapter based in the past. But now we're an association delivering benefits, and chapters are a part of doing that. Now it's building what's beneficial and finding the golden nuggets that are beneficial," she says.

For Jones, it's the education piece that's really important. "I want us to be an education force for the community. That piece has never been focused on, but I think if we do focus on it, our membership and the number of people certified will also grow," she says.

"I'd love to see consumers move toward our members for their needs," says Grimm. "For instance, if people are planning a wedding or party, I want them to come to us to find one of our members to help them do that. I want NACE to be recognized on that level, like the Realtors are."

"This place won't be the same two years from now, and I don't want it to be. If it is, there's a problem," says Fedchock. "Things are only going to get harder, which means you need to be smarter and ask people the right questions—that's when associations will thrive."

Sidebar: The Next Generation of Leaders

Bonnie Fedchock, CEO of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE), says you have to look to the young professionals in your association's industry to see what's going to happen in the future. "I hate to say it, but I'm not the future," she says. "If we're not thinking about our replacements all the time, we're going to be irrelevant."

NACE currently has 400 student members and nine student chapters. "They don't want to wait for change to happen. They want to make it happen," says Fedchock. "That's why it's so important to add them to the leadership path and get them on your board." While some people may say that would be challenging, Fedchock says it's refreshing. "It keeps me fresh to be around young people. I love when someone questions something. It makes everyone at the table think a bit differently," she says.

Sidebar: 3 Facts About NACE's CEO

Here are some facts about the National Association of Catering Executives' CEO, Bonnie Fedchock:

1. Her parents owned a catering business growing up, and she saw firsthand how they struggled, which she says makes her that much more dedicated to her job. "I always think, ‘Imagine if they had a place like NACE to turn to. Maybe they could have found better solutions.'"

2. Fedchock grew up in the DC area, and "like everyone else, I wanted to grow up and work in politics," she says. After graduating from the University of Maryland, she got a job in the Hill, but she soon realized it wasn't for her and moved into nonprofit work. "It didn't click. I discovered it wasn't about solving problems, which is what I love to do."

3. Her first association job was running government affairs for the Club Managers Association. "I was young, naïve, and not humble enough," she says. "But I learned a lot that has helped me in my career."

Audio Extra: Bonnie Fedchock on The Importance of Being Nimble

Click here to listen.

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.