Feature Stories

75 Years of GAWDA: GAWDA’s Executive Committee reflects on where the association has been and where it is heading

By Steve Guglielmo, John Ospina, Abydee Butler Moore, Bob Ewing, Gary Halter and Robert Anders

We have spent 2020 celebrating GAWDA’s 75th Anniversary. We have shared fun memories, reflected on GAWDA’s founding, its road to independence and everything in between. But 75 years is not the end of GAWDA’s story. Not by a long shot. As we near the end of 2020, we asked GAWDA’s current President Abydee Butler Moore, Executive Director John Ospina, and the next three presidents in line, to answer some questions about GAWDA’s history and what they expect to see as we continue our march forward. We thank John, Abydee, Bob, Gary and Robert for their help in putting together these thoughtful answers and look forward to continuing to work with you to make GAWDA an indispensable resource for all members.

Welding & Gases Today: What do you feel has been GAWDA’s legacy over the first 75 years of its existence? How has GAWDA made a tangible improvement on the gases and welding industry?

Abydee Butler Moore: GAWDA is a networking powerhouse. We have gotten really good at throwing value-adding, content-rich, trade show conventions. This focus on networking and business relationship-building has left us with an industry that is a family. When people travel and learn together, they bond. GAWDA has bonded the industry.

Bob Ewing: GAWDA makes its members stronger, more resilient. That is our primary legacy. Despite all the huge changes in our industry, we’re still standing!  We have seen a lot of disruption – consolidation, technology adoption, new business models, even a pandemic. But, we continue to thrive. Trees grow in stands for a reason. That is why GAWDA is so valuable – it’s tough to grow a business alone. I also think our association has helped its members operate safely, which is one of the key reasons our industry has such a good reputation in the communities we serve. It’s like every member of GAWDA, regardless of size, has a safety director, a quality director, a lobbyist, and an attorney. That’s a lot of value contributing the strength of our respective businesses.

Gary Halter: Without GAWDA, there would be no standardization, no industry-wide accepted “Best Business Practices.” Because GAWDA has brought educational programs to its membership, all members, regardless of size can maximize profits, minimize risks, and run their businesses as efficiently as any member company. When I first started in this industry, there was much less “sharing.” Some companies felt that if they shared their “secret sauce,” their competitors might overtake them. But GAWDA has proven that the more our member companies practice smarter tactics, the entire industry benefits.

Robert Anders: When I came into the industry, in 1984, we were the NWSA and there were many more independents in the U.S than there are today. I quickly learned that, although there was spirited competition between the companies, there was also a strong sense of shared benefit for each of us to operate safely and reputably. NWSA then and now GAWDA now have provided the mechanism for distributors to share best practices and explore solutions to the mutual challenges we all face on a daily basis. This organization has always been about its members – that’s why it has remained an integral part of our industry.

John Ospina: From the beginning, GAWDA has been working to strengthen relationships between fellow distributors as well as between distributors and suppliers. Together, the members have evolved these relationships to proactively discuss and address changes affecting things like supply chain issues, inventory management, transportation, education, succession planning, consolidations, safety and best practices, expanding regulations and much more. These relationships have helped guide many member companies to expand and strengthen their businesses over the past 75 years.  

WGT: What does it mean to you to be on the Board of Directors as GAWDA celebrates this milestone anniversary?

ABM: I am honored to serve this Association that has meant so much to our family and our business. This has been a humbling year – not quite the 2020 VISION I imagined when I addressed the group in Washington, D.C., in fall 2019. Helping steer the GAWDA ship this year has tested our creativity and adaptability. The skills we learned and resources we deployed this year will bear fruit in the industry hopefully for years to come. That should be what Anniversary milestones are all about – if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.

BE: It’s an honor to serve on the board. So very many folks in this industry have provided help and guidance through the years, and this is a meaningful way to show my appreciation for that. We have great volunteers that help the association in many ways. It’s so much fun to work with them and learn from them. It’s awesome to reflect on what those before us have built, and you naturally feel a great sense of accountability to keep it going.

GH: First of all, it is a true honor to be associated with such an outstanding organization. This is a unique organization – we all truly care about our industry, our vendors, our customers and other independent distributors and the continued success of everyone. 75 years is a milestone that many organizations never see, and I am glad to be a small part of its longevity and success.

RA: When I think back on my 36 years in the industry, and all of the icons that served on the board of directors, I am totally humbled. I would hope that they would look upon the organization that they built with pride and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to do my part to maintain their legacy of service.

JO: As Executive Director for the past 10 years, I’ve been fortunate and privileged to have served under so many amazing GAWDA leaders.  As the next generation of leaders come in, I can see huge potential for GAWDA to embrace change, grow, and provide more value to our members.

WGT: As GAWDA enters its next 75 years, how do you see the association evolving to continue to serve a rapidly changing industry?

ABM: This year, we embarked upon a critical strategic mission with CGA: Young and Emerging Professional Development. With more than 650 registered attendees for the inaugural YP Summit, the outcry of need is evident. I see GAWDA continuing to evolve in training and engaging the next generation. GAWDA being a volunteer-centric Association helps this work in our favor – it is as simple as getting more young people involved and continuing to collaborate with our sister Associations industry-wide.

BE: 75 years is an impressive milestone, but it won’t be the last one we reach by a long shot! Hard to say exactly what the future holds, but I know our association is really good at listening to our members and adapting to continue to add value. We are also learning some new tricks during this pandemic – delivering digital content and virtual meetings. It’s exciting to see us reach a broader audience of folks that might not otherwise be able to attend an in-person meeting. So, I think you will see more of that. And, of course, we need to keep doing what we do well, engaging the best consultants in our industry, disseminating timely and useful information, and hosting meetings that are packed with take-home business content and fun networking opportunities.

GH: GAWDA will have an important role in keeping its member companies on the “Edge of Change.” For example, with COVID-19, our retail store hardgoods sales dropped somewhat initially. However, our online sales jumped significantly, showing the flexibility of our industry! Is THIS the “new normal” or is it just a “blip?” GAWDA has access to the data to spot trends vs. fads. For example: one large Indiana Bank is going to be closing 125 of its bank branches over the next 18 months. Why? Because all those senior citizens who didn’t want to do “online banking” and preferred to bank with a teller, found out during COVID-19 that online banking isn’t that hard after all! Bank branch walk-ins are down and may stay down. Will that be the path for the welding supply stores? GAWDA is the best clearing house for data to interpret these changes.

RA: Most of the core issues distributors’ face haven’t changed in 75 years. How do you recruit, train, and retain talented people? How do you bring value to the marketplace to maximize customer retention? How do you stay on top of the ever-changing regulatory environment? How do you manage your finances to ensure healthy cash flow? What is changing is how we gather the data to provide real tangible answers to these questions and how do we disseminate that information to our membership. We need to embrace the technology available today but guard against the temptation to take the personal interaction that is so vital to our organization out of the equation.

JO: As the age of electronic communications and the introduction of AI evolves, there will be huge opportunities for further collaboration between members. We can all see that the speed of change is increasing dramatically each year. Without the support and collaboration between GAWDA members, you can fall behind very quickly. GAWDA will continue to evolve to keep up with member needs and provide valuable solutions for the next 75 years.

WGT: Because this is an election year, do you have a “campaign promise” you would like to make about your time on the GAWDA board?

ABM: Those who know me personally know I am apolitical, so the idea of a campaign promise gives me the creeps. To be a good sport, I’ll share this, that I promise to do my best to leave our Association somehow better than I found it. I vow to be present and to work really hard on implementing improvements that bring our members value and a return on their investment of membership.

BE: A chicken in every pot! No extravagant promises from me. I think our association is in good shape, in spite of the craziness we’ve all endured this year. Abydee, John, the GAWDA HQ staff and consultants have been amazing. True pictures of grace under pressure. I know we are all looking forward to the day that we can see each other in person. Really looking forward to that first meeting back in Nashville. In terms of my board time, I will listen closely and work hard. Fortunately, there are smarter and more talented folks on the board, and our GAWDA staff does an incredible job, so it will be hard to fail.

GH: Due to COVID-19 and changes made within the timing of GAWDA leadership, I have five more years on the board, as 2024 is my year to become GAWDA president. I pledge to commit the necessary time to be active in the role I am currently in and to participate in activities to hopefully impact positive changes needed within GAWDA and the industry.

RA: I promise to do everything in my power not to screw up.

JO: As Executive Director, I want to affirm that the GAWDA board will continue to provide up-to-the-minute information to help members navigate through whatever changes come out of the elections and the proceeding months.  

WGT: What do you feel is the biggest benefit to GAWDA membership?

ABM: GAWDA membership gives the independent distributors a network of resources collectively that we otherwise would not be able to commission or afford individually. The access to safety consultants, economists, legal counsel, online training courses, equipment manufacturers, and technology suppliers, as well as to each other, is unrivaled. GAWDA makes our industry a community.

BE: Relationships, without a doubt. Good friends, mentors, business partners. In that respect, GAWDA pays back what you put into it 10 to 1.

GH: Accumulating and sharing data to keep all GAWDA members abreast of things happening in our industry at this very moment! Networking is a critical way to share and learn. GAWDA provides the very best platform to promote networking.

RA: I think that it is the ability for our members to draw on the collective experience and knowledge of the incredible team of consultants provided by this organization. GAWDA provides the expertise and support once only possessed by the largest of distributors to all members equally.

GAWDA provides a great forum for the open exchange of ideas and best industry practices in an environment that is open and comfortable. I am always so impressed with how freely and enthusiastically our members help each other. Getting to interact with some of the best people in the world is our greatest benefit.

JO: GAWDA’s biggest benefit is the strength of our member relationships and the common goal of improving the economic vitality of the industry. All of our member benefits are built with that premise in mind.

WGT: What would you like to say to GAWDA members as we enter the next 75 years?

ABM: Get involved and show up. GAWDA is an independent, volunteer-driven Association and we need you. Our industry has the most incredible people; bring your company’s incredible people to GAWDA. Attending GAWDA meetings and engaging in its resources enrich all of us; our industry and our companies are safer because of GAWDA.

BE: Thanks for supporting your association. There will always be work to do and challenges to overcome, but it’s nice to know there are really good people in the foxhole with you. 

GH: With the pandemic that the world is experiencing, change is definitely in the air and it is here to stay. If we have not been flexible and nimble in the past, we are being forced to be now. Decisions that once took months, and in some cases, years to make, we now have to make them in days and sometimes hours. With the technology we have today, and it will only continue to improve, change is constant. Success at almost anything rests upon this single principle – do the basics, do them well, and do them every day, even when you don’t feel like doing them. The owner of our company, Wally Brant, offered the following piece of advice that I wanted to pass on to membership, “To the independent distributors or vendors: “Don’t Sell the Farm!” Whether you are an owner or a top executive outside the family, there is uncommon value and pleasure in nurturing a multi-generation reputable company. If you’re not the owner, there is tremendous gratification in mentoring the upcoming generation to ensure success for the next 25 years. There are countless examples of owners who have sold their businesses because they thought the value of the company had hit the top, only to realize that the $125K car or beach house didn’t fill the gap from the respect earned by guiding a community-leading company to greater success.”   

RA: I would say, “Hold on- it’s going to be a wild ride!” If the industry changes half as much as it did in the last 75 years, you better be ready to adapt quickly and understand that paradigm shifts will come – those that see those shifts coming and position their companies to change with the times, without compromising their core beliefs, will grow and prosper just as the forward thinking companies of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s did.

JO: I want to encourage members to continue to get more involved in GAWDA meetings, both virtual and face-to-face. Review all our services and see what makes sense to you depending on your company role. Get involved in our volunteer committees. Finally, continue to build your network. The more industry relationship you form, the more resources you’ll have when you need them most.   



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