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Like many association executives, Gary LaBranche, FASAE, CAE, did not set out to be an association executive, but he came to the field earlier than most. Led by a college penchant for leadership and organizing, and seeing the diversity of association management launched him on his professional journey, which has led him to become CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth as well as the Association TRENDS 2012 Association Executive of the Year.
“Gary represents the future of association leadership. He gained important experience and perspective during a time of change in the association community, which has led to a vision and approach with solvency, diversity, innovation and success in mind – exactly the type of professional this award is meant for,” TRENDS publisher Joel Poznansky said.
A business major at Ohio Sate University, he also served two years as president of his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon. But he was also active in state and federal elections, which led to a part-time gig doing “gofer” work in the state Senate.
It was during this time he became acquainted with lobbyists who also were association executives.
“I asked them about what they did, and how associations worked. I was intrigued with the diversity of what they did every single day. They dealt with budgeting and finances, lobbying, government relations, public relations, and meeting planning,” he said.
He found this far more intriguing than what he was learning in business school, so through his fraternity connection, he landed an internship at TKE headquarters in Indianapolis. That led to a full-time job with TKE, which he began before graduating. From there, his career path is a study in association networking. The CEO of TKE, T.J. Schmitz, CAE, was on the board of ASAE. Through this connection he met veteran association execuive and consultant Wilford Butler, CAE, from whom he would gain more insight into association management.
LaBranche found mentors in both Schmitz and Butler, who also were winners of ASAE’s Key Award, an award that LaBranche would receive in 2007.
“Immediately I was thrown into this much bigger world of not only working for one association, but being introduced to the wider association community. I felt I was the luckiest graduate of Ohio State ever!”
He wrote to ASAE about a career in associations but “got back a form letter and a brochure,” because at the time there were no courses in nonprofit management at either the graduate or undergraduate levels. Without clear direction, he started taking courses outside of his business major he thought would help in his pursuit of association management, and eventually graduated with an education degree and a minor in business. “At that time no one expected anybody to study nonprofit management.”
The networking continued. He left TKE to became the CEO of DeMolay International at the age of 27, followed by a stint as a association management consultant with Lawrence-Leiter. He took part in the very first class of ASAE’s Future Leaders Program, where he met ASAE’s CEO at the time, Bill Taylor, CAE. Two years later he met Taylor’s predecessor Jim Low, CAE. When the U.S. Chamber was looking for a successor to Hugh McCahey to head its association division, Low and former TRENDS executive editor Jill M. Cornish, IOM, encouraged LaBranche to apply. He was hired by then-U.S. Chamber CEO Dick Lesher, CAE, to head the Chamber’s association division as well as its Association Committee of 100. At the Chamber, he worked closely with Red Cavaney, CAE, and Tom Kuhn, CAE.
Later, when ASAE was looking for a VP of professional development, LaBranche was hired to fill that position by Bill Taylor. In that role, he led ASAE's education, conventions, exhibitions, conferences, certification, e-learning and diversity initiatives. LaBranche was known for innovations in programming and demonstrations of technology. He also led the first revitalization of the CAE program in 25 years, developing the Domain system and creating a pyschometrically valid exam.
Taylor, Low, McCahey, Lesher, Cavaney and Kuhn are all past TRENDS Executives of the Year.
LaBranche eventually left ASAE to head an education start-up e-company before becoming CEO at Association Forum of Chicagoland. There his accomplishments include a new print and digital magazine, a successful diversity program, and the creation of Association Week and the Forum Honors Gala.
He left the Forum for his current position at ACG. Successes under his leadership at ACG include membership growth of 20% (while the country as well as the business community suffered severely due to the recession); new international chapters; record convention attendance; a new strategy to enhance the image of private capital investment; as well as new programs and partnerships, including with the Brookings Institution.
He is a prolific author and presenter on the topic of association management, and has been a consultant to more than 300 associations around the world. He has been recognized by ASAE with the Key Award in 2007 and as a Fellow in ASAE in 1995. He currently serves on the board of ASAE Business Services, and on ASAE’s CEO Advisory Board. He is a member of the U.S. Chamber’s Association Committee of 100 and was chairman of the Chamber’s Institute of Organization Management from 2007 to 2008. LaBranche was profiled as an innovative leader in the book “Hope: How Triumphant Leaders Create The Future,” by Andrew Razeghi (2008).
As a lifelong association executive and professional, LaBranche has seen many changes, which has helped shape his commitment to diversity in the association sphere. He notes when he started working in associations 31 years ago, men occupied 80% of the management positions. Today he says that has “changed absolutely and dramatically. This was a predominantly white male profession in 1981. It’s not today.”
He also has seen what is expected of association professionals grow “exponentially higher.”
“Associations are now expected to be run in a more business-like fashion. More is at stake because we have much greater assets and face a much more sophisticated and challenging environment. At the same time, association executives are generally more well-prepared educationally, and have a higher degree of status than 30 years ago. And we are frankly much better compensated then when I started.”
Another change he has seen is in the finance arena. “Associations 30 years ago were less sophisticated and less diligent in their finance systems and controls in a less-pressured environment. The demands and requirements are significantly increased. Look at the regulatory environment; it has changed dramatically for the nonprofit community in the past several years. It requires a higher level of professionalism, and more sophisticated governance than we saw 30 years ago.”
A challenge he sees today is association professionals being regarded “even more than they are now as true leaders and executives in their respective associations and become greater partners with boards at the strategic level.”
While there are some associations where CEOs are highly regarded, LaBranche said there are “far too many associations that still consider executives as less than full partners, more disposable and less professional than they ought to be.”
Still, LaBranche stays attracted to association management by the things that drew him to the field originally: “The challenge of making decisions collaboratively and working in an environment that requires a high degree of cooperation and getting a diverse group of people – members and volunteers – to work together toward common goals. Not an easy thing to do, a challenge at times, frustrating at times, but more often joyful. And it’s never been dull.”
LaBranche lives in Chicago with his wife Karen and daughter Catie. He will be honored at the TRENDS 2012 Salute to Association Excellence, Feb. 10 at the Capital Hilton in Washington. For more details, go to www.AssociationTRENDS.com/salute.