Wednesday, December 19, 2018
WERC lifetime member and former Executive Director revamped Annual Conference as foundation for organization’s success
When the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) initially launched in 1977, a handful of dedicated volunteers ran the organization and planned its signature event: the Annual Conference. Just seven years later, the group had grown to more than 1,200 members and the volunteers—busy with careers in the warehousing and supply chain industry themselves—were quickly becoming overburdened by their success.
The Board of Directors decided it was time to hire WERC’s first “official” full-time employee, an Executive Director. At the top of their required qualifications list was successful conference management experience. Yet, after a nationwide search in 1984 drew nearly 300 applicants, the hiring committee still hadn’t found the right candidate. That’s when WERC member and former Board President James Robeson reached out to Thomas Sharpe to inquire as to his interest in applying for the job.
“I had been working for Associated Equipment Distributors, an association of construction equipment distributors and manufacturers, for more than eight years as their Director of Educational Services,” Sharpe recalls. “I was not actively seeking a new position, but Dr. Robeson knew about my background in event management.”
That background included spearheading the development and implementation of numerous educational seminars and training programs for two different associations, as well as planning Associated Equipment Distributor’s convention and exposition that annually drew more than 3,500 participants.
Even though he wasn’t looking to make a job change, Sharpe was intrigued by Robeson’s inquiry.
“I met with the search committee on two occasions, once in Philadelphia and once in Chicago,” he recalls. “It was clear that WERC had great potential. But at that time, the organization’s most significant challenge was the development and implementation of its Annual Conference, which lacked continuity and professional management. Well-intentioned, but very busy, volunteers were thrown into an unfamiliar arena where they were expected to develop and stage an increasingly complex event.”
Impressed with Sharpe’s association background and proven event management expertise, the Board offered him the job. He joined WERC in March 1985, and immediately began establishing and implementing controls, processes and procedures across a variety of areas—including membership recruitment and retention.
Additionally, he began restructuring the Annual Conference by making major changes in the venue and format. His goal was simple: Take over all operational details and on-site management, while redirecting volunteers’ limited time toward identifying trends that should be addressed. Instead of planning the event, WERC volunteers provided input and advice regarding topics that should be considered, and recommended colleagues who should be recruited for making presentations and leading discussions. The model Sharpe established for the event is still in place today.
Sharpe also expanded the breadth of WERC membership benefits to include educational seminars and courses, research projects and publications jointly sponsored with colleges and universities, plus the regular distribution of newsletters and technical papers addressing all aspects of warehouse and facilities management.
“In the early years I handled every facet of the Conference—including promotion, hotel negotiations, food and beverage selection, script writing, audio/visual modules and presentations, and identification, selection and recruitment of major speakers and session presenters—and I was responsible for on-site management as well,” he explains. “Because the Conference was, and still is, such a core event for the organization, I stayed very involved with its annual development and implementation until the organization grew to the point where I could no longer serve as both Executive Director and Conference Director.”
With the creation of a new Conference Manager position, Sharpe recruited his first employee in his tenure as WERC Executive Director, which ended with his retirement in 2000. The occasion was marked by a gathering of the Board of Directors and 14 past WERC Board Presidents who honored Sharpe’s service with a surprise retirement party and lifetime membership in the association.
“I’m so proud of what the organization accomplished during my 15 years with WERC,” he says. “Within a few short years, the Annual Conference gained national recognition by becoming one of the best education programs available in warehousing and distribution. Equally important, the event went from being a risky financial proposition for the association to contributing significantly to WERC's bottom line.”
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