Interview: MIA Executive Vice President Garis F. Distelhorst

May 30, 2002
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For the first time since 1995, the Marble Institute of America has a new Executive Vice President. Garis F. Distelhorst takes over for Pennie Sabel, who announced her retirement last fall.

Distelhorst, an award-winning Certified Association Executive and former Chairman of the Board of

the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), brings an extensive background in management to the MIA. He spent 18 years at the National Association of College Stores (NACS), retiring as chief executive in 1998. He was also a vice president of Smith, Bucklin & Associates, the world's largest association management firm. He served on the ASAE board for

16 years and chaired the ASAE Foundation. He is a former President and CEO of the Convention Industry Council, and prior to joining the MIA, he served as President and COO of RecTech Association Directories, Inc.

Recently, Stone World spoke with Distelhorst to gain some insight on his plans and outlook for the organization.

SW: What are some of your short-term and long-term goals for the Marble Institute of America?

Distelhorst: In the short term, I would like to get acquainted with the industry issues and try to become reasonably conversant in the problems and opportunities that are there for the natural stone industry. The shortest-term goal was the successful move of the office from Columbus to Cleveland, OH, which we have completed. The MIA never had its own office or even owned a desk or a computer that was the property of the Marble Institute. In a way, we were starting from scratch in terms of having a stand-alone office. We now have a fully functional office, supported by computer systems and so forth. We have three staff people here in Cleveland, and of course we have two in the field. One has been with us for some time [Technical Director Vincent R. Migliore], and the other was a vacancy which has now been filled. Vince Marazita will be our education director.

Other short-term goals are to work on the Web site. We've made the online directory much more user friendly in allowing people to find what they're looking for. We also wanted to clean up the Web site; to add some information and make it more useful and functional. The long-term goal is to completely re-do the Web site.

Other long-term goals would be to be much more useful to the members.

We will be adding members-only sections with chat rooms, bulletin boards, and there will be an area where they can download technical drawings and information. The design manual will also be on the Web, and architects will be able to download portions of

this valuable publication. We'll be adding a new consumer Web site.

We already have the URL - www.usenaturalstone.com - and it will contain a great deal of consumer information, particularly on marble and granite. It will contain information on how to care for it; how to find a dealer; and all of the questions that consumers may have. That will be up and running this summer.

We are working on a marketing campaign, and our intention is to place articles in various magazines aimed at consumers differentiating stone from hard surface competition. We will be advertising some of our publications, like our cleaning brochure, to let people know that we are a source of good information.

We are working on a pretty impressive architect information program. We are a preferred provider of education for [AIA] architects, and that is currently limited to what we do at the convention. But we are planning to travel to cities with large populations of architects and have free seminars on stone. Vince Marazita will be heavily involved in this effort.

We also hope to have member seminars around the country, not just at StonExpo, but in areas where there are large concentrations of members - large cities like Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and New York.

Also, we'll be looking at a number of member services that will allow them to be more profitable in their businesses. We are currently looking at an industry freight management program, which will allow members to take advantage of the total amount of freight being shipped around the country and even overseas. In other words, we will be using the collective clout of our membership to save members money. The first option there is freight, but there are undoubtedly other areas that can benefit our members in terms of savings or in other ways.

SW: How would you define the role of the Marble Institute of America?

Distelhorst: The Marble Institute has a dual role. One is to promote the industry and the industry's image in the mind of the users, whether they are residential or commercial. The second is to support and enhance the business of our members, which can be done through technical information, projects and other programs. We have not had to be active in the legislative arena, but that would also be a role that the MIA would fill if needed - legislative and regulatory matters.

SW: Will the MIA continue to hold its annual convention in conjunction with StonExpo?

Distelhorst: That was negotiated and decided before I came on board. There is a five-year contract that will continue through 2007. I'm sure everyone will review the options at that point and make a decision. We will try to make our role in that meeting more valuable from an educational standpoint and also from a social aspect. The trade show stands on its own and is obviously a great tool and resource, but there are other reasons that people want to come - educational content, networking and social. A lot of the benefit of a trade association is who you know, and the more people you meet, the better.

SW: There has been a lot of discussion about merging the various stone associations, specifically the MIA with the Building Stone Institute. What are your thoughts on this subject?

Distelhorst: At some point in time, I'm sure the market will drive a decision. Mergers of associations occur daily, for lesser reasons than it would appear that we have here. My interest is in the MIA, and we'll let everything else speak for itself. I'm looking to build the MIA into a much larger and more powerful organization that serves the industry and its members in ways that no other organization does.

SW: A few years back, there was some discussion on changing the name of the MIA to better reflect the scope of the association, since it goes beyond "Marble" and beyond "America." Is this a consideration for you?

Distelhorst: I've decided not to make an issue about the name at this time. We have a new logo that will be released this summer. It has a much more modern look, and we'll have a new tag line which is more powerful. But we're not going after a name change yet. Name changes work best when you do not change the acronym. But changing names is not on my priority list right now. The logo was something that we could tackle right now, and our new logo will say something about our industry.

SW: What is your assessment of the stone industry right now?

Distelhorst: I am very pleased to be a part of this industry. It is very dynamic right now. Consumer acceptance of natural stone has obviously been increasing. It has been a blessing, but there may be problems that we need to understand. When you have an industry that is growing, it attracts businesses and elements that do not have the long-term best interests of the industry in mind. So I am concerned that there may be installations completed, and materials being sold, that may not function as promised, and may not be up to MIA standards. I've seen it in other industries where people are not attracted by the business, but by the dollar.

There is a huge story to tell about the advantages of stone that hasn't been told. We're up against huge multi-million dollar campaigns by the people who make hard surfaces. We're not at their level financially, but there are opportunities to generate money to make an impact in the marketplace - to support consumers' decisions that stone is the way to go, and to refute allegations about safety or sanitation issues that are not true. That's another long-term goal. How we do that will be in a combination of ways. We might have to increase our dues to support a marketing program. We might get funding from organizations like StonExpo, that has money they want to invest in the industry. We might also make the case that education of architects and promoting stone are good uses for industry funds. We are also looking to the International Masonry Institute to work with us to fund industry promotion programs. There's not enough money in the MIA budget today to do much, so we have to find ways to increase funding and increase membership.

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