Leaders in the world of business form a self-selecting society. They are not popularly elected like our political leaders but elect themselves, so to speak, by means of their pluck and prosperity.
This is just as much the case today as it was at the founding of the Iowa Manufacturers Association (IMA) in 1903, when some of the state’s factory owners met in Des Moines to plan an exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
They did not wait for the governor to appoint a commission. Taking the initiative, the factory leaders themselves formed a business group that is still coordinating and promoting the interests of Iowa’s manufacturers today.
The early years were hard for the IMA. Working people were forming labor unions, bringing forth leaders of their own and gaining power at the expense of the factory owners during the 1920s and ’30s. With the rise of unions came rises in wages, and many federal labor laws were enacted.
For example, workers compensation laws for on-the-job injuries were passed. The length of the working day was cut first to 10 and then to eight hours. Trade unions and collective bargaining were declared legal by the courts, and so were minimum-wage laws. Workers were exacting concessions from their bosses.
The IMA fought against every one of these gains in labor power, but they lost. On the other hand, the manufacturers association still had some notable successes during this period, such as the post-World War II passage of Iowa’s Right to Work law.
Eighty years after its founding, in 1984, the IMA rebranded itself the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), the name it still bears today. It also adopted a new slogan: “The Voice of Iowa Business.”
The new name and slogan signaled a broadening of the association’s membership to include all kinds of Iowa businesses, not only factories.
The ABI also created a non-profit arm, the ABI Foundation, which aimed to “deliver programs for the benefit of students, educators, emerging leaders and employers that expand their knowledge and enhance their individual responsibility and leadership skills,” according to the foundation’s mission statement.
With a current roll of 1,500 members employing more than 300,000 Iowa workers –a full 25 percent of the state’s workforce — ABI is today an Iowa success story, and the ABI Foundation has been equally influential.
Among the ABI Foundation’s most successful programs is Leadership Iowa, which describes itself as “a premier issues-awareness program promoting leadership within Iowa. We educate, challenge and inspire our participants to bring out their inherent quality to ‘point the way.’ The ultimate goal is to instill passion in our current and emerging leaders while fostering a high level of civic engagement.”
Leadership Iowa is an eight-month program in which 40 self-nominated individuals from across the state and from all corners of Iowa’s business world, both private sector and public sector, are chosen to participate. Admission to the program is highly competitive, and a glance at the 2015-2016 Leadership Iowa class list shows the breadth of the participants’ professional backgrounds.
Similarly competitive is the process by which communities nominate themselves to host one of the eight sessions. Deb Lucht, general manager of Minburn Communications and a 2013-2014 Leadership Iowa alum, said she and Keetah Dodson, Minburn Communications marketing manager and a 2007-2008 alum, nominated Perry as a host community for the 2015-2016 class.
“We just knew there was a lot that could be showcased here in Perry,” Lucht said. “A lot of people have assumptions about what they think Perry is, but until you actually get into the community and have an opportunity to see the culture, the arts and all the different things, you don’t really know. We really thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase the town.”
Lucht said the class enrollment is drawn from every corner of state, not only the Des Moines metro region, and the curriculum is demanding. She said she and Dodson were especially pleased Perry was chosen for the opening sessions because of its importance in setting the trajectory for the whole course.
“We were very pleased to see Perry as the first class,” Lucht said. “Kay and her staff really set the tone for the level of expectations for the new class members and identify what their roles and responsibilities are and set the stage for a great learning experience and networking opportunity.”
Kay is Kay Neumann-Thomas, ABI Foundation vice president for programs, who has directed the Leadership Iowa program for 13 years. Neumann-Thomas was joined at the Perry session by Mary Mendenhall-Core, the foundation’s director of development and marketing, and Jessi Steward, marketing and program coordinator.
“Every month has a different topic and a different community,” Neumann-Thomas said, and the business and leadership topics range from government reform to issues in economic development, workforce and leadership development, education, environment, health care, human resources, liability reform, safety and health, taxes, transportation, unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation.
The three-day sessions are focused and intensive, and Lucht is a vocal supporter and proud alum.
“I’ve always been very actively involved at the local, state and national level within the industry where I work,” Lucht said, “but what this program gave was the opportunity to build networks and relationships with people who maybe aren’t specific to your industry, but you have this resource and this wealth of knowledge that you’ve built over that eight-month period, so you know you can call on those people anytime. And then it’s not just the people in the class but because you spend three days in a community, you tend to build networks with those presenters and the individuals who are part of the activities at each of these sessions, too, and it opens up your eyes to all these hidden gems across the state of Iowa that you don’t know about until you are given the opportunity to go in and see them for yourself.”
“And that’s exactly what this class is experiencing today,” Neumann-Thomas said. “The large majority of the class members have never been in Perry before and I’m sure, when they heard the first session was in Perry, they were kind of wondering what they were going to do. One guy said, ‘I thought we were going to stay at a Super 8-kind of hotel.’ He had never heard of the Hotel Pattee and was just blown away by this community, the hotel and everything else around it. That’s what this class does. It reveals these gems, like Deb said, all over the state, month by month, and they learn from this community what they can take back to their own communities and hopefully be successful with there.”
Along with Lucht and Dodson of Minburn Communications, the Leadership Iowa participants heard presentations from Perry City Administrator Sven Peterson, Perry-Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Wilson, Iowa Realty underwriter and Hometown Heritage Director Bill Clark, Jay and Denise Hartz of the Hotel Pattee and “the awesome ladies at La Poste,” as Neumann-Thomas described Jenny Eklund and Mary Rose Nichols, owners of the restored post office.
But the Perry session was not all about classroom time. Along with regular events at the Hotel Pattee, TownCraft Center and La Poste, the participants took part in a Great Race, a kind of selfie scavenger hunt leading them on a walking tour of the Raccoon River Valley Trailhead, Ben’s Five and Dime, the Carnegie Library Museum, the Oasis Market and the DMACC Perry VanKirk Career Academy and a driving tour taking in Wiese Industries, the Perry Municipal Airport and Hartman Floral and Greenhouses.
Claire Masker of Urbandale, a Leadership Iowa participant who works for the Iowa Pork Board, said the Great Race tour really opened her eyes to Perry’s richness and diversity.
“I knew there was more in Perry than just the Tyson’s,” Masker said, “but I had no idea how much more.”
The whole class shared Masker’s enthusiasm for Perry if the words of Neumann-Thomas’ thank you letter, sent shortly after the event and published in ThePerryNews.com, is any indication.
Neumann-Thomas wrote: “The opportunity to meet with business and civic leaders and to tour your community gave us a new appreciation for the ‘can do’ attitude of Perry and the many top-notch amenities your community has to offer.”