The Cabinet Makers Association has come a long way since the icy day in January 1998 when four shop owner/managers met in the offices of CabinetMaker magazine to initiate the organization. Formed specifically to address the needs of small to medium size woodworking shops, the association has now grown to more than 600 members with representation all across the country.

Past and present leaders of the CMA acknowledge that climbing the rocky path to that success was not easy, but they are no less committed to a solid future for the association.

Helping small shops

Jim McDermott was one of the original organizers of the CMA. He became its first vice president and went on to serve as president. He led a tireless early marketing campaign to promote the association and build membership. He recently has returned to active involvement with the CMA as its new executive director, and he has a clear idea of the direction and mission of the organization.

"The mission is twofold," he says, "to provide the industry in general and the members in particular opportunities for professional development." He says that includes anything shops need to be profitable. He notes, "The industry has a low-tech image, but it has become a high-tech business."

Sean Benetin, the current president of the CMA, echoes those sentiments. He says the mission of the CMA is "education of fellow business owners, primary, and secondary, having a voice for the small shop in the industry. We speak together as a common voice."

Growing an organization

McDermott and other original organizers of the CMA remember some of the early struggles to get the group going. "At the time, we didn't realize what we were taking on," he says, adding that he expected much faster and greater membership growth.

Another past president, Brad Phelps, agrees. "It was a harder sell than we thought it would be," he says. "It's hard for shop owners to admit they don't know everything."

But Phelps said it was a thirst for knowledge that attracted him to the organization in the first place. He had encountered sage advice in online forums from people who were involved in the fledgling association, such as Keith Hill, Mark Poole and Bob Buckley. He figured belonging to the association would put him in closer touch with these and other forward-thinking shop owners. He sees the long-time benefit of the association as simply "successful people helping others who want to be successful."

Building a brotherhood

Phelps and other CMA stalwarts also point to the friendships they have formed through the association. "The CMA is a bigger brotherhood than I thought it would ever be," says Phelps, and he remarks about the many enduring relationships he has forged through the association.

McDermott agrees. "I've developed so many lifelong friendships with people in the industry through the CMA," he says.

Some of the most visible benefits of the CMA are the many public seminars the organization presents at major and regional trade shows across the country. Benetin says education is crucial to the association's mission and is a key benefit of membership. "To generalize, you're talking about learning from others' mistakes instead of making them yourself," he says. "It's the cheapest education out there. It's a real world business education."

Adam Rose, another past CMA president agrees. "To me the biggest benefit of the CMA is the education." He notes that his shop located in a rural and isolated part of Colorado would not have grown and prospered as it has without the resources and friendships he has acquired through the CMA.

From its earliest days, the CMA has given a priority to networking, hosting roundtable discussions and regional meetings to help put small shop owners face to face with each other to better solve their problems and educate them to build their businesses. Benetin says one of his key goals as president, looking ahead, is to "expand value to members by putting on more regional events."

Future plans

CMA officials are focused on continuing to build their organization and the benefits it provides the industry. "I'm looking for an explosion in growth," says Rose. "There are over 600 members now, but there is no reason we shouldn't have 6,000 members."

Benetin says the primary tool to achieve that growth is building more activity across the board. "I want more interaction with industry associates, growth in membership, and growth in activities," he says "If we can do the activities, members will come." He recently hosted a regional event at his shop in New Jersey, and he wants the association to foster more such regional events. Rose adds that the association wants to provide more support for members to host their own regional events, perhaps creating a template for a successful regional meeting to help guide members in planning such activities.

Benetin is also specifically interested in reaching out to other industry partners to take a bigger view of benefitting the industry. "All the segments of the industry need to work better together," he says. "We have the opportunity right now to paint our own future. We need to sit down and create a master plan for us all."

Volunteers are key

But all of the past and present leaders of the CMA agree that much of its future hinges on the involvement of the membership. It depends on the efforts of volunteer members to do the lion's share of work. Still, Rose and others believe strongly that involvement in the association has its own rewards.

"As long as you put the effort in, your return is tenfold what you put in," says Rose.

That return can be dramatic. "I've seen how much good we've done," says McDermott. "There are guys who have turned their life around because of membership in the CMA."

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