To wield political influence, you need an association

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With representative from all segments of the industry gathered in Washington today for the American Boating Congress, it gives us reason to pause and consider just how boat dealers can really affect what happens to them politically.

The hard truth is that as small business owners, dealers have very limited ability to influence public policy. Small-business owners simply don’t have the deep pockets of the big corporations that can hire their own lobbyists. But when dealers unite, the picture suddenly changes. Enter our industry’s marine trade associations.

I chuckle at the position of the Federal Trade Commission that business associations exist to fix prices and restrain trade. Duh! Ranked highest in virtually every survey of trade association members is the role the organization plays in addressing legislative and regulatory matters. Dealers recognize they can’t get it done alone.

It’s easy to imagine every dealer wishes he had the expertise and contacts in local, state and federal levels of government. But the influence is limited at best. And there’s obvious reason for that. Dealers are addressing the myriad issues in their business every day and time to consistently run off to their state capitol, never mind Washington, and knock on doors is just not realistic. However, that doesn’t reduce the urgency to get something changed or something new or simply prevent lawmakers and regulators from adopting damaging policies.

It all calls into play the real importance of being a member of both your local/state marine trade association and your national association which, for dealers, is the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. Look at it this way: we go to a doctor when we’re sick. So when we need to affect laws and regulations, we need to turn to and support our trade associations. It means setting aside any competitive business interests to get things done not just for your dealership, but something better for the industry as a whole.

It’s important to note that while you might hold memberships in the appropriate trade association, you work is not done. While your organization might have a full-time staff and even lobbyists on retainer to carry the ball for the team, there can still be an effort you might need to put in. Sending letters or emails or making phone calls when directed by your lobbying team are things every dealer should be prepared to do to support the lobbying effort. In effect, you are a lobbying partner with you association team.

It’s also important to realize that legislation and regulation are often incremental things. These processes can move slowly and in pieces. So lobbying isn’t for the short haul, it takes time to effect change, especially when you’re talking about government. This reminds me of the tourist who was standing next to a park ranger looking down into the Grand Canyon. The park ranger said: “It took three million years to make this canyon.” The tourist looked at him and asked: “Government job?”

Maintaining or renewing your association memberships is the kind of commitment that’s needed these days to make things happen.

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