Episode 32: Gregg Balko, SAMPE
Gregg Balko, CEO, SAMPE
Gregg Balko, CEO, SAMPE. Source | SAMPE
Gregg Balko, CEO of SAMPE since 2004, is retiring on July 1, 2020. CW editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan talks to Gregg about his tenure at SAMPE, changes he led and how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the trade show and conference business — including SAMPE’s.
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Transcript of podcast interview with Gregg Balko, recorded May 7, 2020
Jeff Sloan (JS): I want to talk a little bit about your experience at SAMPE and your experience in the composites industry. But before we get into that, I'd like you to just tell our audience, for those who are not too familiar with SAMPE, what SAMPE is and what’s the role that SAMPE plays in the composites manufacturing industry?
Gregg Balko (GB): Certainly. SAMPE plays a unique role and provides a unique service to the composites community. We are a global organization. We have chapters throughout most of the major manufacturing areas of the world. And certainly our strongest emphasis is in North America, followed by Europe and quickly by China. We serve the engineers that are working in both composites as well as advanced materials. And as an association, our mission or our mantra is to be the educational resource for engineers that are trying to solve problems. And this last year we turned 75 and are quite proud of that — that we've been able to establish and maintain a brand strength, providing reliable, vetted educational solutions to composites in advanced materials problems.
JS: I want to talk about the SAMPE you discovered, the SAMPE you found when you came here [in 2004]. But first, what was your history before SAMPE? Did you have any experience with advanced materials? What was your education and work experience before coming to the organization?
GB: Well, my my entire career has really been focused around education, Jeff. My first position was a classroom teacher in suburban Detroit, I helped create the gifted and talented program there for that community. And then I left the classroom to go to work for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers [SME]. And one of the people who worked for me at SME had as a technical community — we were all assigned our own technical communities — he had composites. And they were were cooperating with this group called SAMPE on the West Coast, that I had only heard of but never met. So that's how I first heard of them, but I really knew nothing about them. When I left SME, I moved to the Los Angeles area worked for a television association for about 16 years, and this experience was really beneficial for me when I transitioned to the SAMPE organization, because at the TV group I spent a great deal of my career expanding both in Asia and in Europe. So I had an exposure to working on a global stage. That was really beneficial. And when I came to SAMPE, at that time, we were called SAMPE international, I was able to assimilate the uniqueness of the regions that were different in some ways than how things were done in North America. And then, in 2013, we transitioned SAMPE International to SAMPE Global and created the SAMPE Global Board of Directors, overseeing all of SAMPE’s branding and educational offerings worldwide.
JS: It's interesting, you're at SME and you had quasi-relationship with SAMPE while you're at SME. You left SME, you went to LA, and then I suppose the opportunity came up at SAMPE. Did somebody contact you and suggest, “Hey, you do remember this organization? You might want to check it out.” Or how did that come on your radar? It sounds like you very much left the manufacturing industry for a while, correct?
GB: Well, I left the manufacturing industry, but I didn't leave the association industry. So 40-plus years of my life has been devoted to associations. I wish the scenario you just presented, if someone had come to me and said, “Hey, do you remember us? Would you like to come work for us?” was indeed the case. It was not. After 16 years at the television association, they were making me — as my friend Bob Griffith says — made me redundant and told me that I needed to find a new job. So I saw the job posting in one of the association newsletters. I do remember this group. I don't have a rich history with it, but I had a little bit of an awareness of it. I sent my application in and they hired me.
JS: Alright, so SAMPE hired you, and that was 2004. Tell me a little bit about the SAMPE as it existed in 2004 when you walked in the door that day?
GB: Well, the one of the things about associations is that — and a lot of association-type groups struggle with this — is that they have a hard time understanding that the association community is its own community. It is its own business and has its own rules and regulations. And what SAMPE had never done before was hired somebody who has an association background. My background, starting at SME, was rich because two of my head bosses at SME when I started to work there, actually left SME and went to work for a group called ASAE, which is the grandparent of all associations in America. And those two gentlemen were hired there because of the strong association fundamentals. That was important place to me, which means that I was exposed to some really tremendous business practices. So when I came to SAMPE realized that they hadn't had anybody that had association experiences previously, it was an opportunity to bring some best practices used by other associations that SAMPE wasn't currently employing back in 2004. And fortunately, the volunteer leaders, the Board of Directors, understood the direction where I thought the association ought to go and gave me the support to start that transition process.
JS: So, what I hear you saying is that SAMPE leadership previous to your arrival mostly came mostly out of the technical ranks. Is that a fair statement?
GB: I would say that's fair to say. Yeah, they the emphasis was on technical, you know, which is a component of what associations do, no matter what type of association you're serving. For example, in the publishing world, you want people to understand publishing in your association leadership, but you also want association leadership that knows what the rules or regulations are to create the best products and to keep, for example, they keep you out of court, because you can easily cross some of those lines if you're not aware.
JS: All right, so you come into this organization that does not have a history of traditional association leadership. I know that you implemented some changes and you made some suggestions about how SAMPE might be are organized differently and behave differently. And I'm wondering if you could talk about some of those changes that you made. And what kind of feedback or cooperation did you get from the rank and file within SAMPE? Because I'm sure whatever you did was a departure from past practices.
GB: Yes, it was a departure. And part of what I really appreciated when I arrived at SAMPE was the fact that they didn't give me carte blanche. But they gave me license to suggest new ways of doing things because I could justify why those suggestions were valid. And they also saw that they knew that we needed to make some changes. We had some significant obstacles when I got here. I could see that if they kept on doing things the way they were, the path they were on did not have a long future. And so they gave me the chance to prove myself. And fortunately, we were able to make some short-term successes. And one of them was as simple as hiring a full time exhibit salesperson. Previously, they were using contracted services that did not deliver the goods as well as they could have. Jeff, you know this. You and your team are aware that if you have a good salesperson, you can create an exhibit hall that generates activity for the community, but also active generates revenue for the association.
JS: You mentioned exhibit hall. So talk a little bit about the exhibit environment that you found when you came to SAMPE. I mean, there was, I think, when you joined SAMPE, two main events a year if I if I recall correctly. There was a tech event, a smaller event in the fall, and then a larger SAMPE event in the spring. Is that right?
GB: You remember correct. The big spring show was considered the annual meeting. And then the fall event was usually in a smaller city or a second-tier city where there wasn't such a huge concentration of composites activity. And it probably started out primarily as a tabletop opportunity and then transitioned to some exhibits. And the emphasis was really on a strong technical conference, so it was called SAMPE Tech. And we worked on the professionalism of the sales on the staff side on the SAMPE side, which helped us grow both events and start the transition to get away from tabletops into a 10-by-10 exhibition experience, which we, judging by the success that we had, were able to go into some markets like Charleston, for example. Boeing had just put a plant there that we would never have used previously.
JS: Maybe you could talk a little bit more about what you consider some of the most impactful or significant changes that you either suggested or helped lead since you've been with SAMPE.
GB: One of the things that I'm a firm believer in is — and not every one of the SAMPE members agrees with me on this, and that's okay, because I'm not an engineer, and engineers, God loved them, they have attributes and cherish things that are different than what I do, which makes us a great team. But in the association space, I firmly believe that our annual meetings and our big showcases need to have a little bit of show, a little bit of an entertainment aspect to it. Even in 2004, we were living in a multi-stimulated environment — everything wasn't just black and white. And you can put a little show, you could put a little sizzle, you could put in, in essence, a little forethought to tell your guests, your members, your customers that you care about them to spend some time working on creating a little bit of a an entertainment experience, without sacrificing the educational quality of your technical programming. Again, that [technical programming] is a SAMPE brand strength. That piece was done by some other significant organizations that were in our in our space, and SAMPE wasn't doing it yet. So, when you come to the SAMPE show and you have the SAMPE experience, it's different today in 2020 than it was in 2004.
JS: One aspect that SAMPE focuses pretty heavily on is recruitment or marketing toward students in an attempt to get students involved in SAMPE. And of course, when students leave the student world they become professionals and then ideally would remain SAMPE members. When you think back on your 16 years, I just wonder what is the greatest value that a SAMPE membership provides to a person?
GB: It all depends who that person is because each person that comes to SAMPE is really expecting an individualized experience with us. You mentioned students; one of the activities that was already there when I arrived at SAMPE was the bridge contest, where you've got hundreds of young students working in teams to produce a project. My experience is that the students are getting soft skills and experiences that they may not necessarily get in the classroom. You know, learning to work on a team is difficult for some people to do. And you've got some leadership characteristics that you've identified and established when you're teaming on a project, especially as a young, young person, and I think it serves them well. When they graduate and enter the workforce, because they have had that experience, the students value the interaction they have from one student group to another student group. But also it gives them the opportunity to get a job because we've got hundreds of thousands of people that are looking for new talent to hire. So, it benefits students as well as it benefits the professionals who are trying to find that next young star that they want to hire to add to his or her team. For the professionals, things are changing. Jeff, here we are in May of 2020, and so much of what we used to be able to do we used to rely upon has all been changed for us [because of the coronavirus pandemic]. And the same is true for SAMPE. We recently released a new multi-part tutorial on thermoplastics by Arnt Offringa, free of charge — we had taped it at the CAMX event in Anaheim last year. But there's 17 episodes and we're putting out one week, you know for the community. So while they are at home, they can get a bit of education from SAMPE on a topic that is of interest to many of our professional members, as well as our students. We also have a new project we have not yet announced that will launch in three weeks, repackaging some of the SAMPE spring content that we did not have a chance to present in Seattle that we think is going to be exciting. It's going to be free for members so that they can have some education and some interaction with the speakers as well. We are still in planning for this brand new event, which is probably going to surprise you because I haven't talked to you about it yet. So but that's a launch date is the first week of June. Another benefit for SAMPE I think, as we transition in this new environment, is the importance of our chapter meetings is going to become more and more valuable. Because some people may not want to jump on a plane and fly for a while, but they still need to education, they still need information. They still need to have peer interaction, and having the strong chapter system established like we do with SAMPE, globally, not just here in North America, I think will benefit our chapters and benefit our members in those chapters who are looking to meet up with some peers they probably haven't seen for a while.
JS: You mentioned the Seattle show. And just to be clear, that was the SAMPE spring event that was supposed to be in Seattle. Let's see this week, right?
GB: Yes, I wasn’t supposed to be available for this because I was supposed to be in Seattle working the show.
JS: Obviously one of the advantages of SAMPE events is there's a networking component, there's an education component, there's a sales and marketing component with exhibit exhibition space. And, of course, none of that is happening this week. You noted that there's still a lot of content, there are still presentations and education that are that are still in place. And so it sounds like you're making some effort to try to push that out to the community. And as you noted, chapter events could become much more important. I’m wondering if you see any of these as tools that are potentially enduring and might live on beyond the scope of the pandemic — and we of course don't know what the scope is yet — or do you see these as temporary solutions and that you would hope that SAMPE eventually would probably get back to more traditional interactions. Or maybe it's going to be a mix of both?
GB: If I had a crystal ball and could give you that answer, I would be a very wealthy man and be consulting with huge consulting contracts with a lot of association businesses. I don't know the answer. Actually, I find it exciting even though it is at the end of my career that the association business world has a chance — and this includes SAMPE — to reconfigure itself. And some of the things that we haven't done very well and we've done religiously, year in and year out, may or may not be as relevant in the next 10, 15, 20 years as they are now. Yeah, I do believe that as people get comfortable in a digital world, and again, I understand, you know, engineers need reliable data. I'd like to think that the data that they're getting from the organization and in terms of the presentations, which have been vetted and approved by their peers, will give them in a digital format some comfortable places to learn from and trust. So, I don't know the answer. But I do believe we're going to see new stuff, new products, new ways of delivering education. And really, it's a challenge for me, Jeff, as an association, our whole world is based on putting people together. And this pandemic is forcing people to be apart. Seeing people come together, whether it's five people or 500 people, or more, that's what we live for. And now that we've been told to stay apart for all the right reasons, right? This gnaws at me, as well as my peers who work in the association space, because that's a core value we all share. So, besides being in the education or educative space, we also were in the networking space. And now that's being rethought and reconfigured. And I do believe it's something that's going to be lasting a while, whatever the new SAMPE looks like, in the next 5-10 years.
JS: Do you feel like the value proposition of SAMPE has to change or — and I'm sure it’s probably impossible to answer — but do you feel like SAMPE has to be open to the possibility that its value proposition might change.
GB: No, SAMPE’s value proposition in my opinion will never change. We have the same value, we have same core, same mission. What will change is the deliverables. And a lot of people think of SAMPE, especially in SAMPE in North America, as the SAMPE spring show and the CAMX event. And those really have been the hallmarks of what we've done. I think launching the thermoplastic video series for us, and creating an audience for that, we're very pleased to see the numbers of people who have continued to log in week after week to watch the videos tells us that we've got education and information to deliver. And there are other ways we can deliver besides meeting at a convention center, or even at a chapter meeting.
JS: I want to talk more about the future in a second, but you just mentioned something I'd like to explore. And that was CAMX. You know CAMX is, at least relative to other composites industry events, relatively new. I’d like you to just walk through for us how CAMX came to be. And how do you assess the success of the CAMX event?
GB: CAMX came to be because of a person by the name of Rick Klein Jr. — who I think, you know — Rick and I were at an event in Europe, and we were in a back hallway at this event and Rick looked at me and said, ‘I think it's time to pull the plug,’ by which he meant, ‘I think it's time to go.’ We had been talking about creating an event with a partner, that partner being my friends at a ACMA (American Composites Manufacturers Assn.). And so, that was really that simple a statement from Rick — that created the impetus for us to get CAMX started. We had been told by people that they wanted a large, multi-composite — not just advanced composites but not dealing with the entire composites space event — in America. Several groups we're trying to do that, US-based associations had not been able to execute it to the level that the community was ready to acknowledge. And I think the partnership between ACMA and SAMPE is really interesting, because if you don't understand the logistics and some of the background, ACMA is very different than SAMPE. Yes, they represent the manufacturers, they represent the business side of composites. And, you know, they have a mission, in addition to playing an educative rule. They also have a legal lobbyist or governmental affairs role. That's a significant part of what they do to represent the businesses, their business members, on The Hill. SAMPE does not have that role. And we are not allowed to lobby as an educational organization representing the end users. And there's a natural friction between the end user and the bosses of the corner office. And one of the successes that I have seen with the CAMX event, which is now six years old, is that we've been able to put these two very different people together in the same room and produce a really quality event that's attracting just under 10,000 people. That tells me that the the number of people that come to our event, the fact that the numbers have been stable, and the fact that we've got two very different organizations sponsoring this event —I won't say they have differences, but they have different masters — but they set that aside to create this thing called CAMX that I'm really proud of.
JS: Just to be clear for our audience, ACMA used to have its own event in the fall. It emphasized, I would say the non high-performance aspects of composite materials and manufacturing. And in the creation of CAMX, in joining forces with SAMPE, created an event that represents the entire spectrum of composite materials in manufacturing, and creates North America's largest composites trade show. And of course, the Rick you referenced is my boss's boss, he's the CEO of the company that that owns CompositesWorld. So I'm wondering, as you as you look at how CAMX has evolved, and as you look at the environment we're in now with this pandemic and at the effect on trade shows and associations, do you anticipate there's going to be adjustment there as well.
GB: Certainly the one of the things about the pandemic that is causing all businesses is to look at is how do they allocate their resources and where are they going to maximize their investment in people in their company? There are going to be some scenarios where some companies may not be able to participate this year because of the severity of the pain, the financial severity of the pandemic. So, yes, we have no idea what it's looking like, but there has been scenario planning going on for several weeks now regarding CAMX. CAMX is scheduled for Orlando this year, and if the theme parks both in the Orlando area in the Anaheim area reopen, how will they reopen and create an environment for people to feel safe to bring their children to? And if that's if that level of safety makes sense in people's heads, I believe that we'll see more people feel comfortable starting to travel again. Associations have had threats before, but never quite as severe as this in in the 40 years that I've been working in this community. There have been threats [in the past] that the big conventions where never going to last. And that hasn't yet materialized. And I don't think this is pandemic is going to be a death knell for conventions. People have to be together. We all know when we attend a meeting, whether it's a big meeting, a little meeting, there's a hallway conversation, there's a conversation at the bar, there's a conversation in a session room, that can justify your entire time at that event in your entire expense for attending that event. And that's what associations do. So, yes, CAMX may feel a little bit different this year as we transition into, hopefully a more normal environment. But I don't think it's the death knell at all.
JS: So if I'm hearing you right, you're saying that the association industry is looking in general toward the theme parks. So you mean Disneyland and Disney World might provide some signal about how willing and able people may be to travel and assemble and larger groups again, is that right?
GB: Well, certainly a because we're in Orlando and the Disney World complex and Universal Studios is down there, number one. Number two, if something that is considered a luxury is viewed as viable, then the necessity for education and for men and women to learn from one another — which is a much higher priority and in my assessment scale — using the the benchmarks of theme park attendance, if that's considered safe, then we know that we can make accommodations at the convention center in our environments and hotel environments for meetings.
JS: I want to talk a little bit now about CAMX’s future because, since you are on the cusp of retirement, SAMPE has been searching for a new CEO for the last few months and, and in fact, this week announced it has hired a new CEO, or at least announced the selection of a new CEO, and that is Zane Clark. And I don't know if you know Zane, and in I assume you don't because I know you've not been involved in the selection of the new CEO. But I'm wondering if you're if you ever have an opportunity to interact with Zane. Have you had a chance to talk to him about this organization he's stepping into. I'm wondering if you have any advice for him or thoughts for him about about SAMPE’s role in the composites industry and the kinds of the kinds of things he might think about as he moves forward as the new leader of this organization.
GB: Well, actually, I spoke with Zane yesterday. I won't say too long a call because he's still not ready to start his onboarding process with us yet, but it was welcome to SAMPE and glad you're here conversation. I know of him. I've met him a couple of times previously at association events. But I don't know him well. His organization has a sterling reputation for producing some extraordinary education tradeshow and foundation events in the automotive aftermarket space, which is where the group he’s with works now. He's been there, I believe, 20 years. He's got a certification in association management. So he's got the skills, the basic skill sets that a good executive director should have. We talked briefly about the CAMX show yesterday, but definitely without great specificity. We'll do that when he comes on board. The opportunity that I told him I thought he had is that here's a chance for him to come into the SAMPE family and create a new legacy. We talked a little bit earlier about what our SAMPE products look like. What should our product offerings be? How is it that we can meet the needs of people who may not feel comfortable traveling? And that's going to be some of his some of the things he's going to focus on once he comes on board this summer.
JS: You know, you've been at SAMPE for for 16 years, which is, I think, a relatively long time for leadership of an association like this. And I'm wondering, as you look back on those 16 years, what kind of things stand out? Were there particular events that you remember sharply or are there accomplishments or challenges or surprises that you remember? Finally, I'm not looking for tales to be told out of school here, but in your experience, what kind of things stand out to you? What do you what do you think you'll walk away with remembering most significantly?
GB: Well, for people who had the title of CEO or CEO and executive director, the average is 10 years, seven to 10 years. So the fact that mine is 16 does put it on the other end of the curve, as you suggested. Certainly there are stories, and some of those will not be shared without a cocktail. But those that that can be shared, one of them that I lived through, and I think some of your staff went through a little bit, was attending the JEC show in March of 2010, when the Icelandic volcano erupted and we couldn't get home or we had a challenge to get home. I think your team got home faster than I did. The second thing that I'm proud is the reconfiguration of the organization to make us more relevant on a local level. And that's when we became SAMPE International. The other piece that we live through and which gives our staff great confidence was the CAMX show in Orlando three years ago when we got delayed because of Hurricane Irma. And one of the things that misunderstood, I didn't expect, was the toll it was going to take on both the ACMA and the SAMPE staffs in rebooking that show for December of that year. So, for those people who aren't familiar the show was scheduled for the third week of September, I believe. We’d been having morning conference calls with our partners at ACMA every day at 8 am Pacific, 11 am Eastern time trying to figure all we knew and didn't know, trying to figure out when the insurance policy was going to kick in or wouldn't kick in, working with the authorities in Orlando, who had been great partners, so we could not have done it without them. And then making the calls to cancel the event on the Thursday before CAMX was scheduled to start, which meant the staff had to go through and reproduce the entire technical program. And by staff I mean the CAMX staff of ACMA and SAMPE, who had to reproduce all the exhibits for new show, redraw the floor plan, recreate that floor plan for December event, and at the same time, we were in the process of selling the show for the following year in Dallas. That took a toll on the staff. I was so proud of how well the staff did. There were some scars on both sides of the of the country, but they stepped up in ways that truly amazed me. And that lingering toll was something that I underestimated. And the only thing that gives me some confidence regarding the experience that we went through in Seattle this week is the fact that — there's the cliché, ‘We've seen this movie before, we know how it ends — so we know what we have to do now. Not a lot of associations have that experience, and fortunately we were well positioned to make that change. And I think also to come up with some creative alternatives that you're going to see from us in a couple of weeks. We're getting some technical stuff. So that's another vivid memory of mine. Obviously those are the most, the most vivid and it's been a great run. And I've been really blessed to be part of the organization. And hopefully I've delivered value for them that they will appreciate.
JS: Well, I think you have for sure. And I do remember that hurricane show. The thing that struck me was when the show was postponed to December and I showed up, the thing that struck me was how seamless it seemed. And I'm sure behind the scenes that it was it was not like that. But at least to the show-goer, and to the conference attendee, it appeared that the entire event had just simply been picked up from September to December without any adverse effect or without any noticeable effect. And, as you said, that is attributable to the staff, the staffs of both organizations that made that happen, so it was a remarkable thing for sure.
GB: Well, thank you for that observation, Jeff, because one of the things that I was impressed with was how not only how much the community appreciated it but also the hospitality community in Orlando appreciated the fact we didn't bail on them — that we came back through and we were able to deliver revenue for them. Because if they don't make money, they can't stay in business. So it was a win-win all the way around. And the overall feeling of that December show was that people really were glad to see each other again. And that gives me hope for future events as we come out of this situation that we're in now because of the need for people.
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