Perspective: Michael Geary, CEO of OFA

OFA’s search for a CEO ended at the start of this year when Michael Geary, an 18-year veteran of association management, was named to the position. Geary’s experience includes serving as executive director of the American Institute of Architecture Students and senior director for the National Association of Home Builders. Now, Geary is the newly minted leader of one of our industry’s premier organizations. He recently shared his vision for OFA and the industry with us.

GG: When you were one of six finalists for the CEO position, one of your homework assignments was to address OFA’s strategic plan. Is there anything that was revealed in that process that excited you? What ideas did you share that support the vision for an association in our industry and OFA’s strategic plan?

MG: The big push is thinking about the future and who will be in this industry. We aren’t doing enough to encourage people to explore careers. There are resources out there, but as one of the major organizations in this industry, we know we need to do more.

We have a vibrant committee called the Generation Next committee that meets regularly. Its mission is to figure out how we get young people involved. It could be getting them to come to Short Course or conferences, or getting materials to them after they’ve joined OFA. We’re exploring all these things to make sure there’s a pipeline coming into the industry.

Still, generations all want information differently, and we want to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs as much as we can. Whether you’ve been an owner-grower for 50 years or you’re the daughter of one and you’re in your early 20s, there are different ways you want information–paper, electronic, vocal. We need to look at that, too.

Another thing is the industry is not the silo it used to be, as I understand it. People who are growing are also now retailers. Businesses are looking at various opportunities, and we need to think about that as an organization. While we’ve always offered retail programs, we’re exploring how we can offer additional services to people who are getting into the retail side of things or already are and want to improve their business operations.

GG: What should the role of an association like OFA be in industry advocacy at the local, state and national levels?

MG: We are already doing things. We’ve been very engaged, for example, in the Congressional Action Days that is hosted by the Society of American Florists. What we need to do is a better job of telling our story. My understanding is we have not done a good job letting our members know we do that.

At the same time, we need to know what our members’ needs are. Most of our members and most of the businesses in this industry are small businesses. So are we doing enough to support their needs with direct services? We’re not going to open a lobbying shop tomorrow, and I don’t know if we’re going to open one a year from now. But our goal is to do a better job of being involved and, at the minimum, telling the story that we are doing these things so our members realize OFA is an organization that’s represented their interests.

GG: While a new CEO brings a fresh beginning, OFA also is an 80-plus-year organization with a vibrant history. What are your thoughts on cultivating new leadership while also having a connection to and respect for what has come before?

MG: You respect the past, certainly. I respect the past. I don’t know all the stories–and I know there are stories. Every organization has been through that. This is not unique to OFA or any business that grows, especially one that’s 80-plus years old. There are going to be differences in opinion on how an organization should proceed.

The reality, however, is the vast majority of our members are not from Ohio. The organization is national, and in some respects an international organization. Because our members are from across the world, we have to respect that and ensure they’re getting what they need out of this organization–whether it’s everything we offer, just going to Short Course or just getting the (OFA) Bulletin. My mission, and the reason I was hired to be the CEO, is to help the organization move forward. When you move forward, you have to respect the past.

GG: Architecture focuses on function and design. What are your thoughts on how plants can be positioned the same way? Are there ways we can promote good design/plantings and also make these benefits accessible, within reach of most people?

MG: I’ve worked with three professional societies: architecture, home building and now horticulture. They’re all similar–the products are different and the way we go about introducing the products is different–but ultimately the goal is the same: You’re trying to improve the quality of life of the people who use your products.

So whether you’re building a home, designing a park or buying plants and flowers for your home, what every industry is trying to do is design a good quality of life or a great space for people to live, work and play.

What this industry is doing is not any different than what I’ve been doing in the past. There are obviously different products but the end result is the same in many ways. What also is very similar is we’re also dealing with small businesses.

GG: What potential do you see for our industry to expand? Is there more there?

MG: There’s more there, first, in that businesses start to diversify. Secondly, there’s growing interest by the general population in nature. People are trying to reconnect to nature in all sorts of ways, whether it’s going to parks or going to farmers’ markets or insisting on having good quality produce from their grocery store. Consumers are demanding better products, and I think that’s great for our industry.  

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