A Cup of Coffee with… J.D. Harper

Cup of Coffee with...

  1. Who, What and Where: (Your name, and your role/job title at what organization or firm)?

J.D. Harper
Executive Director
Arkansas Manufactured Housing Association

  1.  Your Background?

I’m a native Arkansan, age 47, born and raised just outside of Little Rock. Graduate of Arkansas Tech University with major in Communications and minor in Business. Wanted to be ‘the next great newspaper reporter’ when I started college, but was more inclined toward creative and descriptive writing than the ‘Who, What, When and Where’ of journalism. First job out of college was sports editor of a weekly newspaper, which led to an offer to write for trade association publication.

Entered association management in 1987 as editor of monthly magazine for Arkansas Bankers Association. Joined Arkansas Grocers / Retail Merchants Association in 1988 as editor of publications and later, vice president. Got my first taste of lobbying with Grocers / Retail Merchants, and was immediately ‘hooked on’ government relations work. Was named Executive Director of Arkansas Manufactured Housing Association in January 1994.

  1.  What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?

As the father of three, my biggest interest is my children. My oldest son (now age 20) played high school football, and my youngest son – a high school junior – currently starts at defensive tackle for an all-boys Catholic school in the state’s highest athletic classification. My daughter – the most natural athlete of the three – has played basketball and currently plays fast-pitch softball for an all-girls Catholic school, and hopes to continue playing softball in college. Most of my non-work time is spent traveling to games, practices or tournaments – to support my kids, their teams and their dreams.

I love the outdoors, and most enjoy the winter days spent duck hunting with my kids and, in warmer weather, playing the occasional round of (very bad) golf. I consider myself a pretty decent barbecue chef – so on weekends when we aren’t attending some sporting event, I’ll normally be smoking or grilling something for dinner on the backyard grill.

  1.  How do you personally like to respond to challenges that come up for you professionally? (In other words, how do you try to tackle problems and arrive at effective solutions?)

My father taught me at an early age that challenges must be met ‘head on’, without reservation or trepidation. I believe that a ‘direct approach’ is often the best approach. I believe that every challenge offers an opportunity as well – for growth, for improvement, and for success.

In association management, coalition building is an important ingredient in responding to challenges. When a greater number of industries, businesses or members stand to benefit from (or suffer without) the resolution of a problem, more players get involved and want to help. And as the old adage says, ‘Many hands make light work.’

  1.  What are some of the biggest issues for the industry in Arkansas? Are they the same as issues nationally?

Finance, finance and finance… Arkansas is an ‘import state’ (state without a resident factory) – so the retailer perspective is very strong in discussions among our Board of Directors. The most talked-about challenge to a rebound in sales in Arkansas is the lack of adequate financing for manufactured home sales.

In my opinion, financing is the tide that raises all boats in this industry. Improved access to finance would have an immediate effect on all segments of the industry – factories would build more homes, retailers would sell more, transporters would ship more, installers would set more… The benefits would be felt by finance and insurance sources, suppliers, and affiliated businesses (heat and air companies, title companies, skirting installers, plumbers, electricians, etc.).

Finance is also a national issue, because it affects the entire industry – and certain possible solutions rest with our lawmakers and regulators in our nation’s capital.

Without some immediate solutions to the industry’s lack of adequate finance – factories will continue to shut down, retailers will continue to close their doors and our customers will be left without the option to choose manufactured housing as their gateway to affordable home ownership.

  1.  What is one of your proudest accomplishments or the achievement of the Arkansas Manufactured Housing Association?

There are a couple that immediately come to mind. Having then-Governor (later-Presidential candidate and now Fox television show host) Mike Huckabee and family as the nation’s most high-profile manufactured home residents during our Governor’s Mansion renovations some years back was quite an accomplishment for this Association, and the industry as a whole. Being featured in The New York Times, on The Today Show, on CNN and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno brought manufactured housing into focus for a huge audience during the Huckabees’ stay in a Champion ‘triple-wide’. While some naysayers worried about negative stereotypes for the industry and the state – the overall experience was overwhelmingly positive for all parties involved.

But, when asked to pick just one, I’d have to say that the accomplishment I’m most proud of would be the passage of a non-discrimination statute for manufactured home placement in Arkansas cities. After nearly a decade of effort and against some of the most powerful interest groups at the State Capitol, AMHA was able to pass legislation requiring cities to allow for placement of manufactured homes on individual lots in all cities in Arkansas.

  1.  Where would you like to see the industry go from here?

I’d like to see the industry truly unified – speaking with one voice and focused on one goal – and for now, that goal would be finance. Some people might read this statement and believe that I’m talking about a certain group or organization, but I’m not. What I mean is a true unification of the companies, businesses and state/national associations that comprise THE INDUSTRY – not the ‘forced consolidation’ of a couple of groups that represent the industry’s interests in Washington, DC.

If the elected leadership of our national trade groups agree on a goal or a message for the entire industry, I believe that lawmakers and regulators in Washington DC would work with the industry to respond to the challenges this industry is currently facing – from finance to regulatory matters – to make manufactured housing a relevant segment of the affordable housing market again.

  1.  How can the industry best work together to face its current challenges?

In preparing to answer these questions, I looked back at a few other ‘Cup of Coffee’ interviews posted on MHMSM.com. One interview featured the following statement:“I would like to see industry meetings of representative leaders of all factions of the industry sitting down and hammering out a common addendum for state and national associations to follow. This could be through MHI, but I would suspect it would have to be outside of their aegis in order to get some of the important players to the table.”

I agree with the statement above, and have been directed by the folks who sign my paycheck to work with others in an attempt to facilitate just such a unification effort. In keeping with my self-professed ‘head on’ manner, I’ve been reaching out to industry members across the nation to generate support for a ‘one voice’ approach for the past several weeks. One industry blogger seemed to take offense with the idea, not-so-subtly questioning my motives and my outreach (or lack thereof) to a certain segment of the industry. While I’ve apologized to many of you for getting in touch with you ‘so late in the game’, the limited number of hours in a day (and days in a week) have kept me from being able to reach everyone. Suffice it to say that state associations, key elected leadership of both national associations, and other industry players have been asked to consider and participate in an effort to bring the industry’s voices together, and to focus on key issues which need and deserve our undivided attention NOW!

With all of the recent changes and developments affecting the industry, I believe that it is crucial that the industry unify immediately, prioritize its core goals, craft its message to those who regulate us, and deliver this message (with identifiable solutions) to the highest levels within government. Toward that end, a number of states, producers, and other industry members have entered into discussions to unify what is known as a fractured industry together to speak with one clear and strong voice for improved financing and for workable solutions on other select regulatory issues.

In another ‘Cup of Coffee’ interview, the chief staffer of one national MH association said, “I think the industry is almost there, but we need to perfect speaking with a unified voice. This is critical in ensuring the industry is advocating from the strongest position possible.” I agree wholeheartedly, and believe that the industry must continue to seek to speak with that one voice – in order to be heard at all.

  1.  Why is membership so important?

Your state manufactured home association is THE ONLY business or professional organization your company can join and support that works exclusively on issues of interest to your business. Without your support and active participation, your association cannot fully engage on these issues and the industry becomes vulnerable to attacks from other interest groups that may be advocating legislation or policy that could harm your business. Your membership is an investment in the future of your business – ‘It doesn’t cost. It PAYS to be a member!’

  1.  Any other advice or comments?

One of my favorite quotes about advice is “We give advice by the bushel, but take it by the grain.” But, sometimes being unable to resist the temptation to offer advice, I use the same advice for most things in life that I use on my golf swing, “Take it slow. Keep your eye on the ball. And, always – remember to follow through.”

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