JCKonline Exclusive: JA Makes Changes for the Future

On the fiftieth anniversary of Jewelers of America’s (JA) Charter of Affiliation, the document defining the national association’s relationship with its state affiliates, was rewritten. According to the new Agreement of Mutual Commitment JA will now require members to separately choose to join or renew their membership with the national association and/or the state group. 

Other changes from the original Charter, written in 1959, include JA national relinquishing its traditional role as a dues collector and disseminator of funds. Starting in August 2010, state groups will be in charge of overseeing their own membership drives and member database management, with the national association underwriting these administrative duties and expenses during the first year of the transition. 

JA will continue to support its members, retailers and the industry with the national association’s ongoing offerings of affiliate benefits, educational opportunities on the website and at trade events as well as its continuing lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.

More importantly, JA will continue to enhance the organization’s ability to serve its members and the industry by working more closely with other trade groups, including the association’s recent merger  with the Jewelry Information Center (JIC), a measure that passed unanimously by the Board of Directors and members in a vote before JA New York show opened in late July. 

These changes come at a time when the gem and jewelry industry is under enormous upheaval with a languishing recession. In line with national averages for other large endowments, dividend returns for JA’s endowment (the main source of funds for the association’s many activities) have dropped 8 to 9 percent in the last year.

But the original model was showing signs of financial strain three to five years ago. At the President and Executive’s Meeting in August 2006, JA’s president and CEO Matt Runci informed the 39 state group heads the relationship between the national association and the state affiliates needed to change. The following year, JA’s Board of Directors began an 18-month strategic review of the organization.

Completed last year, the Board determined that the current model was “unsustainable.” As many suspected, the findings of the strategic review proved the national association’s costs were outstripping its revenue. With over 80 percent of collected annual dues going back to the state affiliate, JA on the average only kept roughly $12.21 per store. “The resources JA spends needs to be more directly delegated to the greatest number of members,” says JA’s COO Robert Headley. “[As a national association], we wanted greater control over our resources and our members.”  

JA’s COO Robert Headley.
JA’s COO Robert Headley. 

What’s good for the national association is good for the state group. JA’s Board and leading executives want greater autonomy for the 39 affiliate groups and their 3,800 member companies. The eventual goal for the state groups is to boost their own membership, independently manage money matters, and create better state and regional networking events through increased communications.

This may be easier for the more aggressive state affiliates, but will present a challenge for the less active groups. “For the latter group this change will be a real eye-opener,” says Barbara Hight, owner of Hight & Randall Personal Jeweler. “Some affiliates have been sustained step by step by JA national.”

JA leaders realize that some state groups are either unwilling or unable to be more active for reasons within or beyond their control, such as location. Groups from rural states have the additional logistical challenge of traveling long distances to attend local or regional networking events. 

Based in Oklahoma, Vicki Cunningham, co-owner Cunningham Fine Jewelry in Tulsa and a member of JA’s national board of directors, overcomes the issue of distance by moving the two events she holds each year to different cities around the state.

For small or less active state groups, Nancy Fischer, head of the Minnesota and North Dakota affiliates as well as the Iowa group, suggests: “[to] consider becoming multi-state group, a model that has worked well for many affiliates over the years.” 

Moving forward, state associations will need to become more self-sufficient under the new agreement. Overseeing dues collection and membership recruitment and database management are the only real changes with the new Agreement. “This really isn’t that much of a stretch,” says Headley.

With the original Charter ending on August 17, joint memberships will continue until Dec 31, 2009. JA’s annual dues for 2010 have already been set at $95 with the national association’s 2011 dues expected to “stay roughly the same,” says Headley.

Some JA members have voiced concerns that the national dues plus the state group dues will force retailers to choose one group over the other. Given the number benefits the national and state groups offer its member and the industry, plus additional consumer-driven perks that come with the JIC merger, JA leaders are confident many members will continue to be members of both industry groups.   

“Jewelers will realize the benefits of the national, the state and now the JIC,” says Cunningham. “Considering the savings [if you’re a JIC member] and the number of benefits, it’s a no-brainer.”