NAMA's 2017 Fly-In Attracts 300 Vending Industry Advocates To Washington

Posted On: 8/4/2017

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WASHINGTON -- The National Automatic Merchandising Association reports that its third annual Fly-In grassroots advocacy conference maintained the dramatic growth rate shown by the first two. Held on July 25 and 26, the 2017 Fly-In drew some 300 members for a day of orientation and another of action. Last year's Fly-In attracted 275 industry advocates.

This year's event led off with an orientation session for first-time participants and an overview of the purpose and scope of the program. NAMA senior director and counsel, government affairs Sandy Larson welcomed the group and introduced Amy Showalter, principal of the Showalter Group (Washington), an expert in legislative advocacy, to offer informed insights into speaking with lawmakers.

Showalter explained that advocacy is not simply persuasion. An effective advocate recognizes that the task calls for "upward influence," winning the assent of someone who has the power to assist. This calls for awakening interest by relating the overall goal to the advocate's specific circumstances: the local impact and the real-world effect of a measure. "Know yourself and know your stuff," she advised. Done well, this establishes authenticity.

STRONG REPRESENTATION: The National Automatic Merchandising Association's 3rd annual Fly-In grassroots advocacy conference brought some 300 industry members -- a record turnout -- to Washington for this group photo on the steps of the Capitol. 

Effective advocacy generally involves telling a story, the speaker continued, and it's worth thinking about the nature of stories. A number of "master plots" recur in stories told in all times and places; these include pursuit, rescue, the quest of an underdog for justice and similar universal narratives. A credible account of running a business, grappling with adversity and overcoming odds can establish the speaker as someone who has worked hard to succeed; it can be inspirational. 

SHOW AND TELL: NAMA past chairman Craig A. Hesch, A.H. Management Group (Rolling Meadows, IL), discusses recent vending industry developments with LaDedra R. Drummond, a scheduler on the staff of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), at the exhibit and demonstration hosted by the association in the Rayburn Senate Office Building during 2017 Fly-In. They're viewing equipment installed by Black Tie Services (Baltimore). 

"And know what the other side is saying," Showalter continued. In advocating a particular course of action, it's important to understand the arguments being made (and the stories being told) by opponents of that program, and to counter them. Facts and sound reasoning are important, the speaker summed up; but a good story can "fly under the radar" and awaken the listener's imaginative sympathy.

The orientation session ended on a high note with a brief welcome to Washington by George Sifakis, director of the White House Office of Public Liaison.

The first day's activities culminated in a dinner keynoted by U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president and national political director Rob Engstrom, who offered an informed perspective on the present political situation.

Engstrom hailed the NAMA Fly-In's growth over three years, and the enthusiastic industry response it has elicited. He noted that NAMA president and chief executive Carla Balakgie is a member of the Chamber's Committee of 100. There are some 8,000 trade associations in the country, he said, "but few are as eager to step up as you are."

Surveying the present political situation, the veteran Washington observer offered a possible explanation for "how we got where we are." One plausible answer is that the presidential primaries have overtaken Congressional elections as indicators of public sentiment, and this process has led to greater political polarization. Candidates for the House and the Senate have to build coalitions among the various groups in their states, but presidential candidates tailor their messages to the most committed and best-organized factions of the electorate.

"We've lost the middle," Engstrom said. "In the 'old' world, the willingness to compromise was a virtue: an elected official could say, 'I've reached across the aisle to get things done; I'm effective, so elect me.' Not any more."

In recent years, the free enterprise system has come under attack. "You're not the enemy," he pointed out. "You're our country's chief optimism officers. But we've been on defense, planning to fight back against those who believe that you're the problem."

In the "old" world, most Republican and many Democratic senators and congressmen recognized that the business community is the nation's generator of value, from goods and services to jobs and revenue, and that its requirements should be taken into account when making policy. Now, the great majority of Democrats no longer express this understanding. The party's perceived policies have shifted far to the left, and this has prompted a countervailing shift to the right in some Republican circles, which also has involved weakening of Republicans' appreciation of the role of business in the economy. With extreme positions dueling in the news and social media, it is difficult to get anything done.

OUR LIBERTIES WE PRIZE: NAMA Fly-In delegates meet with Iowa's Sen. Joni K. Ernst during the annual event, now in its third year. From left are Ashley Hubler, U-Select-It; Ashilyn Sunderman and Rod Nester, Smith Vending (Clarinda, IA); Sen. Ernst; Heidi Chico, USI, who chairs NAMA's 2017-18 board of directors; Jerry Parle, also of USI; and NAMA president and chief executive Carla Balakgie.

The most important corrective to this standoff is a reawakening of common sense in Congress. People actually engaged in business -- the daily creation of value -- have a central role to play here, the speaker emphasized. Strengthening communications with elected officials in the House and Senate is a necessary first step.

"We need you to show up in their offices," Engstrom said; and this need is being met by initiatives like the NAMA Fly-In. Cordial, often-informal outreach at the state level remains important, but the situation in Washington requires a broader view and greater engagement.

And it's happening, the Engstrom continued. "Today, all levels are coming together to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. Across America, we've built engagement between you and Congress.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I may be nuts -- but I may be right! There's a realignment of the stars, and we've influenced it."

Among promising signs is a widespread new interest in reforming the tax code, Engstrom noted. "We've wanted this for 30 years, and now it's in sight. There is political pressure to get it done." Similarly, there seems to be greater receptivity to proposals for regulatory reform. The narrative is changing.

"What's coming up in 2018? Well, the House of Representatives has been 'safe,' but it's now in play," Engstrom explained. "The Democrats need 25 seats, and there's competition. Members will have to come home and explain what they've gotten done, in order to win reelection. And the Republicans have a problem -- or opportunity -- in the Senate; it's hard to net a couple of additional seats there.

"This is our chance," the longtime Washington observer concluded. "We can explain the power of the free enterprise system to grow the economy and grow jobs." With that in mind, he urged the Fly-In participants to be specific and to find the story to tell when speaking with their elected officials.

NAMA senior vice-president, government affairs Eric Dell then summarized the legislative and regulatory issues of greatest concern to the industry.

He urged the industry delegates to express their concern about three issues which remain problematic not only for vending but for small businesses in general. They are the need to revise the tax code, specifically to lower the corporate tax level and rectify the confiscatory and punitive estate tax law; to reform the procedure by which regulations are implemented; and to extend the deadline for compliance with the FDA's front-of-pack calorie labeling requirement. This last measure would free producers of vendible single-serve items from the expense and disruption of having to redesign their package graphics twice.

The next morning, registrants gathered on the steps of the Capitol and then formed state delegations to visit the offices of their elected officials in the Senate and the House of Representatives. A midday display and demonstration of the latest in vending, micromarket and office refreshment equipment and products was hosted in the Rayburn Senate Office Building for legislators and their staff members.

Again this year, NAMA supported Operation Homefront's Back-To-School Brigade, providing the children of active-duty members of the armed forces with backpacks filled with school supplies. This enables military families to use their income for household expenses. NAMA members contributed some 100 backpacks and school supplies this year. During the industry display, volunteers pitched in to stuff the backpacks with the prescribed load of school essentials, which can cost about $100 to procure.

EMPIRE STATE: Staff members from the offices of New York Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer get the vending industry's perspective on legislative priorities from their state's Fly-In participants. From left, they are John Hickey, Tech 2 Success; Jonathan Wysocki, Blue World Inc.; David Lothian, PepsiCo; Rob Gardner from Sen. Schumer's office and Denzel Singletary of Sen. Gillibrand's staff; Jeff Mayhew, Flowers Foods; and John Murn, RSA Management Group.