OFA may be turning 80 this year, but the national association of floriculture professionals is anything but stodgy or set in its ways, thanks to the passionate and assertive leadership provided by CEO John Holmes the last seven years.
Like everyone else, we were stunned when John died from a heart attack on Feb. 12 at age 45. Our staff had just dined with him and his staff in Louisville at American Nursery & Landscape Association’s (ANLA) Management Clinic.
When John was hired as executive director in February 2002, it marked the beginning of a new era for OFA. For the first six decades, OFA was managed by revered faculty from The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus as the Ohio Florists Association. OFA became a national organization through the spread of OSU floriculture grads along with Short Course emerging as the most important trade show serving greenhouse floriculture in the United States.
In 1992, OFA hired an allied industry trade representative Dennis Kirven to be the first non-faculty executive director. When Dennis was ready to retire, the board agreed it was time to hire a true association professional without previous ties to our industry to take OFA to the next level. I believe John truly exceeded expectations in realizing OFA’s potential as a national, profitable and influential organization.
I was immediately impressed by how much he traveled to learn the industry, visiting growers and retailers in the United States and overseas. He also was actively engaged in other industry organizations and their events. Instead of just sending in a check to ANLA or Society of American Florists to support lobbying efforts, he took part and looked for ways to support organizations that fund industry research. He was everywhere and made OFA’s presence and leadership role known.
These years of outreach and relationship building lead to more opportunities for OFA to diversify its activities while assisting other organizations. Even in the association and tradeshow business, growth is necessary to sustain and expand programs and services while developing and retaining talented staff. John was very cognizant of the fact there just aren’t enough industry dollars and volunteer hours to support redundant efforts. That is why he was always looking to partner with other industry groups.
He had a keen sense of what OFA’s strengths are–administrative management and hosting educational events and trade shows. This past year, his vision of OFA becoming an expanded management organization became a reality with the management of the Southeast Greenhouse Conference, Ball Publishing’s conferences, Nursery & Landscape Association Executives of North America and the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.
Did he make waves and enemies along the way? Sure. That’s what happens when you challenge the status quo, speak your mind and say what others may not want to hear. Last year’s showdown between past OFA presidents and current leadership over bylaws changes was very much an indictment of how they felt about John and the directions he took the organization.
John also developed deep friendships and lasting loyalties based on honesty, care and respect. His employees and colleagues valued him as a close friend and mentor. Over seven years, I really enjoyed seeing my friends on the OFA staff shine and realize their potential. John was a strong believer in professional development and providing opportunities for growth. His staff and the board benefited from training in leadership and strategic planning, which will help OFA serve our industry better tomorrow.
I had the opportunity to work with John on many industry initiatives, including America In Bloom (AIB), the future of Floriculture Industry Research & Scholarship Trust (FIRST) and exploring ways the industry could market itself collectively to grow the pie for all, locally and nationally.
One moment of truth or reality check I had with John came in December 2004 during our AIB board meeting. We didn’t have a host city for the 2005 symposium, so I proposed chairing a regional hosting in Northeast Ohio in downtown Cleveland. While the city itself had not been in the program, we had strong participation in surrounding suburbs and Akron.
John told me I had a big heart but that I was crazy. He knew I already had a lot on my plate as the incoming president of FIRST, group editor of three magazines and mother of three growing boys. How would we make this work on such short notice? The symposium program would need to be finalized within five months. John fully committed the OFA staff to planning and executing the event with our quickly assembled local steering committee and it was one of our most successful events.
For two years after that, John joked about my need for “an intervention” so that I would stop volunteering for more than I could handle. I’m happy to say the intervention was successful and that I’m cured. He helped me see the light.
John had a real knack for cutting through clutter and reining in chaos. I would say he performed many interventions and made us all better for it. Our industry’s leadership is a lot more focused, engaged and efficient thanks to my friend John Holmes.
Holmes’ Industry Vision
In December, John played a role in the success of our commemorative 25th anniversary issue as one of 25 industry leaders who forecasted the future of our industry. John, of course, wrote about the importance of industry associations. Here is his essay, in which he explains some of the ways industry associations should be supporting members and facilitating growth over the next 25 years.