1) Who, What and Where: (Your name and your formal title at the FMHA).
Jim Ayotte, CAE (Certified Association Executive), Executive Director, Florida Manufactured Housing Association, Inc., Tallahassee, FL
2) Background: (Educational/Professional snapshot before entering the factory-built housing arena.).
B.A. – University of Massachusetts – No. Dartmouth, MA
M.B.A. – Babson College – Wellesley, MA
3) When and How: (When and how you began in MH and then how you came to be at Florida Manufactured Housing Association, which can include a mention of other industry associations you’ve worked with over the years).
My first industry job was executive director of the New England Manufactured Housing Association, a six state regional association of community owners.
I then became executive VP of the Ohio Manufactured Housing Association.
I joined the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) staff in 1995 as VP of the National Communities Council and was elevated to EVP. I left the industry in 2001 to become president of the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association in Albany, NY. I rejoined the industry in 2006 as executive director of the Florida Manufactured Housing Association.
4) What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?
I run, golf occasionally and do home maintenance and landscape projects. The majority of my non-work time is spent trying to stay engaged with my teenage daughters.
5. You have a pretty unique situation in Florida, in as much as you get along well with your regulators. Tell us what you’ve done on the political and regulatory side to get your association and its members to this point.
Getting along with industry regulators is not a goal, but a by-product of the way we do business here in Florida. The Florida Manufactured Housing Association (FMHA) has a long history of legislative and regulatory success because we invest the time and resources necessary to develop relationships based on education, respect and trust.
Integrity and resources are critical to a successful government relations program. We are fortunate in Florida to have an extremely talented legislative team and a membership that understands that the industry needs to participate at the highest levels in order to sustain success. This allows the FMHA to operate effectively in an ever-changing political environment.
6) As we noted before, you’ve served for a time at the national level at the Manufactured Housing Institute. Give us a snap shot of your time working for an association at the national level.
I worked at MHI from 1995 to 2000. I started as Vice President of the newly created National Communities Council and became Executive Vice President under President Chris Stinebert.
During that time, MHI and the industry were unified, focused and energized to accomplish a single goal – enact the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000. In my 20+ year industry career, there has not been a time, before or since, when the entire industry was as focused and working in concert.
One of my responsibilities at MHI was to ensure that the Federated States understood what was happening in Washington and doing their part to support the industry’s legislative efforts. I spent a lot of time traveling to state associations to provide updates and basically cheerlead. The states were critically important in the effort to get the Improvement Act passed.
The industry is facing more serious challenges today and it is critical that the industry have the same focus and energy that it had leading up to the enactment of the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000.
7. You’ve said that if the industry can focus on two things, we’d see more progress. Please elaborate on that thought.
The industry’s best chance of success in Washington requires a limited agenda, at least for the moment.
The two most important tasks at hand are successfully securing financial reform for chattel manufactured homes and the appointment of a Manufactured Housing Program Administrator. MHI has made Financial Reform the number one priority and they have made tremendous progress in a very challenging regulatory and legislative environment. Progress is also being made on the appointment of a program administrator. It is encouraging to see MHI and MHARR working together to recommend a single candidate.
Financial reform is critical to preserving the industry as we know it. This is the most time sensitive challenge facing the industry.
It is incumbent upon the industry, especially state association executives, to push Members of Congress to co-sponsor H.R. 1779. The number of co-sponsors is directly related to the profile and urgency of the industry’s plight.
The more co-sponsors the higher the likelihood of success for regulatory and legislative relief. With the clock ticking down to January 2014, a concerted industry effort is needed now.
The lack of a program administrator has been a grave injustice to the industry and American families that depend on the industry to provide quality, unsubsidized affordable housing.
Ideally, the program administrator will be a visionary, a passionate advocate for the industry, hold HUD accountable for implementing the provisions of the Improvement Act and ensuring that the HUD building code is updated on an ongoing basis.
Longer term, the industry needs to seriously consider how it can better communicate its value proposition to American families. Our housing and communities provide incredible value, yet we continue to struggle to overcome inaccurate perceptions.
8. Over a year ago, some of the key leadership of the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulator Reform (MHARR) and the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) sat down to work on creating a better relationship between those two national organizations.
There has been some progress on that front which almost every one applauds. But you were not too happy when Danny Ghorbani sent out a message a few weeks ago to the industry in a reaction to an email sent out by an MHI staff member. Not to be incendiary, because none of us want that, but tell us why you think the industry needs to handle such issues more privately and to work more closely together publicly.
I applaud the MHI and MHARR leadership for working together. This is not only important, but necessary for the success of the industry’s efforts in Washington, DC.
I don’t want to dwell on the past, especially during this critical time when the industry needs to be focused on securing co-sponsors for H.R. 1779.
As an association executive, I understand that industry members don’t always have the same perspective on issues. It’s the role of the association, through its volunteer and staff leadership, to create a process to work through issues and arrive at a consensus.
Not everyone is going to get what they want all the time, but I believe the industry can accomplish far more with a united voice and effort. This is consistent with my belief that disagreements are best handled behind closed doors.
9. Tell us about the background and dynamic that made the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 (MHIA 2000) a reality. What lessons can be learned from that and from your experience in Florida or at other associations?
There are several lessons to be learned from how the industry worked to get the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 enacted. One of the most memorable dynamics was the commitment of industry’s leader to stay focused, command unity and work through the sausage-making process committed to achieving a tangible result.
Tenacious would be an appropriate word to describe the industry’s effort.
Another lesson learned was the breadth of the industry effort.
Usually, when major legislation is passed it can be traced back to one or a few individuals. Many people played key roles in getting the MHIA 2000 to the finish line. This showed the strength of the industry when it is united and focused.
A third lesson was that legislation is not passed in a vacuum. Coalition building is key to success, especially in Washington. It was not just the industry working with Congressional leaders. It was industry pulling support from its regulator and also neutralizing competing interests, such as the home builders and realtors, who could have thrown a wrench in the process at any time.
The recipe for success leading up to the enactment of the Manufactured Housing Improvement Act of 2000 is the same today – united, focused, energized and undeterred.
10. Usually one of the hottest topics in manufactured housing revolves around financing. You and other association leaders are in the thick of the efforts to reform Dodd-Frank through HR 1779 and the companion bill that will be filed in the Senate. For those readers who have not yet picked up the phone, sent an email, fax or letter to the Congressman or Senators about this issue, please tell us why grass roots action is essential. What does passage of this ‘fix’ for the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank mean to the typical retailer or community operator? What does it mean to a transporter, installer, insurance, lender or other service provider?
The role of the states is to get as many Members of Congress to co-sponsor H.R. 1779 as possible. This will elevate the issue and enhance the likelihood of moving the legislation forward, either stand-alone, in a package or both. This strategy will also put the industry in a stronger position to negotiate rules with other stakeholders and the CFPB.
In Florida, we began educating the statewide homeowners association, the Federation of Manufactured Home Owners of Florida (FMO), several months ago about the negative impact that full implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act would have on home owners.
Recently, the FMO agreed to sign a joint letter requesting Members of the Florida Congressional Delegation to co-sponsor H.R. 1779. The letter was followed-up with a communication to each Member’s legislative director.
The next step is to contact each Member to schedule a meeting with industry members and homeowners in the district or in Washington.
While it’s too early to tell the success of this effort, I am confident that engaging homeowners, who have a huge stake in this issue, will help generate additional support for the legislation and help with regulatory negotiations.
11) Problem solving and team building are two of the keys that make for a successful association. What sort of process do you use in your leadership role and why? How does an organization like MHEC benefit association leaders nationally?
Successful associations have a few characteristics in common. These include: leadership, focus and discipline. An important role of leadership, especially in associations, is building consensus.
We are fortunate in Florida to have many large industry members and a number of excellent industry leaders involved in the Association. My job is made easier because our members understand what’s at stake and are willing to commit the resources necessary to protect and promote their interests.
After 20+ years, I’m clearly an industry guy, but I have always considered association management my profession. I’m passionate about both. The FMHA has been a great fit for me because my Board respects my management abilities and insights into the industry.
I don’t have one particular leadership role or process. Leadership is like tools in a tool box. You use the best tool for the job.
Sometimes I advocate passionately for a program or activity, other times I push my Board from behind to make sure we are all heading in the right direction and still other times I sit quietly and let my Board or committee members hash things out between themselves.
At the end of the day, it’s about doing whatever it takes to move the industry forward.
I appreciate having the ability to speak my mind. I don’t think my Board would want it any other way. I also understand that the association is a membership organization. Members, through the Board of Directors, have the prerogative and responsibility to decide policy. My responsibility is to implement policy.
State association executives, individually and collectively through MHEC, are part of the industry’s leadership. One of the most important roles of state executives is to support the industry’s federal legislative initiatives.
Many Members of Congress start at the local level of government, progress to the state legislature, and then on to the U.S. Congress. State associations and their members have long-term relationships with these individuals and are in the strongest position to educate and influence them.
MHEC is very important to me as a state association executive. I have the opportunity to learn from people that do what I do. Association issues are different than member issues. Association executives get to compare notes with each other on such topics as membership retention, non-dues revenues, member education and government affairs strategies. This information and the relationships I have with other association executives are invaluable to me.
12. You said before we started this interview that you think our industry has tremendous potential that is not being tapped.
You know Sam Landy, who in an interview with MHProNews said that given the need for affordable housing in the U.S., he can see manufactured housing return to shipment levels of 300,000 to 400,000 a year. Others inside our industry think we ought to be happy to return to shipments in the 60,000, 70,000 or 100,000 annual shipment levels. Tim Williams from 21st Mortgage said in another interview with us that if federal subsidies to conventional housing went away, we could see shipments return to 300,000. What say you? Why? And do you see merit or value to an image and education effort such as Manufactured Home Living News has started to improve the public perception of our product and services?
I don’t know what the industry’s home sales potential is, but my guess is that it’s much greater than today, but less than is was back in the day when credit flowed freely. The important point is there is plenty of opportunity for sustained long-term growth.
I believe one of the best ways to increase sales and occupancy is through consumer education and marketing. Manufactured Home Living News has done an excellent job and is generating measurable results. Northwest Pride was a hugely successful program several years ago and had a major impact on changing the industry’s image and promoting homes sales.
The FMHA has had a consumer website for well over a decade and has done an excellent job educating consumers and generating sales leads for its members.
The FMHA is nearing completion of a redesigned consumer website, including an MLS-type service. I can’t wait to launch the new site and market it to potential home buyers in the U.S. and beyond.
Florida is a great place for families and retirees. The association is in a strong position to educate consumers and market the industry because we are not selling a specific product. I am confident that the redesigned FMHA website and an ongoing consumer marketing program will be extremely beneficial for our members and advertisers.
13) You’ve said that land lease communities are a great business model, but that the industry has often not done a great job of expressing that value to the public. Tell us more about that please, since land lease communities make up so much of your association’s membership.
I have been hooked on the industry since my first job interview with the industry in the late 1980’s. At the time, I didn’t know what manufactured housing was. That day I learned about the industry’s value proposition. Provide customers quality homes that cost less than comparable housing and then further reduce the cost of homeownership by providing an opportunity to lease a home site rather than buy land and pay for site improvements. What an amazing value proposition.
Manufactured housing and manufactured home communities appeal to a large cross-section of American families; for individuals seeking the most affordable shelter options to retirees looking for the best housing value and a great lifestyle.
The financial benefits of living in a manufactured home community are only part of the story. There are many social advantages as well, especially here in Florida where many communities have amenities such as swimming pools, club houses, even golf courses. We have a great story to tell and the FMHA is committed to telling this story to as many people as possible.
14) Closing thoughts or comments, sir?
I appreciate the opportunity to share my perspectives on the industry and the ongoing success of the industry in Florida. ##