Comment by BVAA CEO Rob Bartlett

20 years balancing optimism with realism

Published: 30th October 2023 | Issue 88 Share article:

LinkedIn reminded me the other week that I’d reached my 20th anniversary working for the BVAA.  I’ll admit it was very heartwarming – and humbling - to be congratulated from far and wide. 

I was asked to reflect on those 20 years, and I found it exceptionally hard to do that in such a short piece.  Clearly, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Board’s interview panel who saw in me something that they liked, and I’ve striven ever since to repay their vote of confidence.  I should also thank my first Chairman, my ever-patient guide David Caines, and indeed all those people that occupied that important chair over the years – their role is particularly unsung. 

As to the Association itself, my goodness how it’s changed and yet, weirdly, feels in many ways the same.  Even so, many of the member companies of the time have either disappeared or been changed beyond recognition.  Some of the people are the same, but often now work somewhere else.  

Looking back, I recall that the Association’s name-change was announced as I arrived - from BVAMA to BVAA – something the panel neglected to mention!  Also unsaid was the change in scope, to become much broader than the previous ‘manufacturers-only’ focus.  I later found out this was not universally popular, but undoubtedly was necessary for us to serve effectively, indeed to survive.  

Another surprise was the fiscal position…  after covering the overhead, I had just £20k of discretionary spending to making a difference.   Not to mention that the membership list I’d been handed had significantly over-stated the fee-paying membership.  Clearly a ‘hearts and minds’ tour of all the members was needed, along with a massive recruitment drive!  

I’m pleased to say that 20 years later we are well over three times our previous size, and the finances far, far more robust.  However, I’m especially proud of the BVAA Secretariat Team we now have working hard on behalf of members, and the enormous difference in the service level that we can now provide. 

I’ve mentioned in previous reports that trade association finances are notoriously challenging due to our ‘not-for-profit’ status.  Members understandably don’t want us to make profits and give their money to the tax man.  Neither however do they want us to run perpetually at an unsustainable loss!  It’s effectively Micawberesque, knife-edge economics, where even one small event’s failure can make the difference between annual profit or loss.  

With prudent management and a lot of experience at the secretariat, we make it a more tolerable ‘corridor of uncertainty’ but nevertheless we have to be really careful about what we commit to, on members’ behalf.   I liken it to naval gunnery, with all its fiendishly-difficult mathematical variables, but with time travel thrown in for good measure, as we are trying to predict members’ wants and needs some years hence! 

Essentially running an association is the epitome of the Stockdale Paradox:  Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.  Or more succinctly, balancing optimism with realism. 

The best thing about the last 20 years?  The wonderful people I’ve been travelling with on this journey.  They have been the most amazing friends and colleagues that you could ask for, and a lot of our triumphs at BVAA owe their success to the amazing support of the members.

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