A fond farewell

March 1, 2006 By    

Among the many mementos that Chuck Brandon soon will be packing up is a plaque that hangs on the wall of his Kennesaw, Ga., office just outside Atlanta. Those who know him best agree that it pretty much says it all:

A warm, genial and honest man who has, with modesty and attention to detail, made the Southeastern Convention and International Trade Show one of the fastest growing association shows in America. Given with gratitude and appreciation.

The plaque was given on behalf of the National Propane Gas Association in 1997. That year, Brandon was named a finalist for the Organization Planner of the Year award sponsored by Event Solutions, a trade magazine for the trade show industry.

After 20 years at the helm of the NPGA’s lone remaining trade show, the 56th annual Southeastern Show in Atlanta this year will be the last for Brandon, 67. He and wife, Ruth, are retiring with plans to travel to the few places they haven’t already been.

 Chuck Brandon reviews booth placement with one of the Southeastern Show exhibitors.
Chuck Brandon reviews booth placement with one of the Southeastern Show exhibitors.

It won’t be easy to let go for the couple that has worked hand-in-hand to build the popular show.

“To me, its like raising your children and sending them off. Its scary not knowing what’s ahead,” admits Ruth.

Like the propane industry he serves, Brandon is a throwback. He never has had a written contract for his services with NPGA. He is genuinely excited about the new-fangled computer program that helps him manage details of the trade show floor, but he’ll take a firm handshake over a Blackberry any day. For Brandon, the job has always been about the people.

“We build relationships with the members. We do our best to treat people the way we want to be treated,” he says.

“I have never felt like an employee of NPGA, I have always felt like a member. It has been 20 glorious years.”

The Mississippi native never is at a loss for a story or joke. He bounces among trade show vendors and attendees, dousing operational fires while proudly welcoming new and old faces to the industry’s annual three-day family gathering.

Atlanta is the place for propane industry members to renew acquaintances and do business.
Atlanta is the place for propane industry members to renew acquaintances and do business.

“Chuck always said the Southeastern was more like a family reunion. And it was. And it is,” says former NPGA president Dan Myers, who witnessed the demise of two other association shows. “One of the things Chuck did early on was to recognize the importance of the family atmosphere. He maintained that as it grew. Chuck always tried to maintain that feeling of family reunion, a time for the industry to renew acquaintances.”

Brandon dabbled in several professional ventures before his affiliation with the propane industry.

A two-sport athlete in college, he graduated in 1966 from Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss., with a degree in elementary education. He taught sixth grade and coached at several schools in Mississippi before leaving to work in the human resources department at the state mental hospital. That work got him involved promoting a mental health program for the local Jaycees.

Attendance* Totals for NPGA Southeastern
Attendance* Totals for NPGA Southeastern

Brandon eventually worked with that group’s national headquarters to help develop what would become the Special Olympics, and for the last 16 months with the Jaycees served as vice president of administration for the 300,000-member organization.

“The Lord has blessed me. Everything I’ve ever done I’ve really enjoyed,” Brandon says. “For a guy who never grew up, I’ve had a great time.”

Brandon later struck out on his own for a short time, running a management company. When he saw a NPGA newspaper ad for a regional manager, he replied in hopes of securing the association as a client.

The late Jack Capps hired Brandon in 1985. When Myers took over in 1989, Capps offered this bit of advice: Don’t tinker with the Southeastern Show.

Chuck and Ruth Brandon, the faces and muscle behind the Southeastern Show.
Chuck and Ruth Brandon, the faces and muscle behind the Southeastern Show.

“I remember he told me, ‘Chuck has it under control. Give him his lead like a good horse and just let him run,'” Myers recalled.

Back then, the show was stuffed in a basement with small, crowded aisles. Industry folks heading home from a winter in Florida would stop by and spend their season’s earnings and line up supply contracts. Many got the same rooms every year. Year after year, they just couldn’t miss the Southeastern Show.

Today, the Southeastern has become the largest LP-gas trade show in the world.

“Chuck built the show from a modest event that was held in a basement ballroom of a Radisson Hotel to a grand show with 3,000 attendees and over 300 exhibitors,” notes NPGA President Rick Roldan. “His management style focused on good, personal customer service which helped to build greater cohesion in the industry.”

Brandon’s job title is director of field services for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee state associations. But there’s a good reason that only 15 percent of his time is spent on duties outside the trade show.

“I’ve got the best state executives in the country. I’ll put any one of mine up against any 10 others,” he says proudly.

Changing of the Guard

Brandon’s retirement could mean a dramatically new face for the show. The venue will remain, but already there are discussions about seizing untapped opportunities. NPGA has hired Jennifer Tomb as its new director of conventions and meetings. She previously worked as the director of meetings and expositions at the American Logistics Association, and spent four years with a trade show management company.

“With new people on the ground come new value opportunities,” Roldan says. “I have great confidence in Jennifer’s work to implement new and innovative ways to grow attendance and traffic on the trade show floor. We are looking to perhaps include some training opportunities that will stimulate greater attendance by those who actually kick the tires.”

NPGA also has formed a task force that is studying additional suggestions, many of which deal with ways to add revenue.

The show has generated consistent revenue growth for NPGA the last five years. In 2005, it provided $894,000 in revenue, of which $275,000 fell to the bottom line.

“Profitability is always an issue, particularly when trade show revenue is a key tool used to keep overall NPGA dues as low as they are. However, traditional identity and profitability are not mutually exclusive objectives. Both are essential to the success of the trade show; neither should be pursued at the expense of the other,” Roldan says.

“It is easier to embrace change when something is not working. It is much harder to do so when the event you may change is working well. In the end, however, change is a fact of life. It should not be something to fear if the goal is worthwhile, especially if the goal is to create more value for customers who are both attendees and exhibitors,” he adds.

Myers agrees NPGA should take this time to examine the full scope of the show’s operations. But he feels it also needs to be careful not to destroy what has been built.

“As I look back in hindsight, I could admonish myself for not pushing the association to take a more business-like approach to the show. But I am not so sure that would have been the right thing to do. From a business sense, maybe. But at times you can be too smart,” Myers says.

“It’s a different industry today than it was, so perhaps it is time for that era to move on and the show to change its approach. We shall see. Chuck certainly was the right man for the time; he ran the show the way the industry wanted it to be run.”

Brandon agrees the show can use a kick in the pants. He thinks the main challenge is to retain its credibility and personality.

“It needs to move on,” he concedes. “The highest compliment would be if they come in and take it to a new level. I’ve built the foundation.”

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