Stepping into top spot

Before he'd even had time to settle into an office, we quizzed the new CPIA president and CEO about his plans for the national association. Serge Lavoie has been running associations for 20 years, and says he enjoys bringing an industry together for a common purpose. That's a good start.

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April 1, 2003 by Nate Hendley

Serge Lavoie says he feels “invigorated” by his new job as president and CEO of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). “Everything I’ve read and seen so far tells me it’s going to be a great challenge,” states Lavoie, who replaced outgoing CEO Pierre Dubois on March 31.

CPIA is “reassuringly familiar”

While Lavoie has no experience working in the plastics business, the 51-year-old president has been working with trade associations for over two decades.

Between 1979 and 2003, Lavoie served as executive director or national manager of the Canadian Health Food Association, the Association of Community Information Centres in Ontario, the Canadian Booksellers Association, the Canadian Telebook Agency, the Canadian Book Information Centre and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association.

Lavoie, who lives in St. Thomas, ON, with his wife and daughters when not in Toronto on business, says his previous work experiences should hold him in good stead with the CPIA.

“On one hand, [the CPIA] is in plastics and I have no background in that,” he states. “On the other hand, it’s reassuringly familiar. The challenges I see here are similar to those I’ve run across in other industry sectors.”

Target: SMEs and MPs

Lavoie already has a clear vision of where he wants to take the CPIA.

He hopes to increase membership, maintain a proactive stance on the environment and establish closer ties with elected politicians. Lavoie also plans on exploring the possibility of entering a North America-wide plastics trade association.

According to Lavoie, “membership and membership revenues [in the CPIA] are somewhat flat.”

The CPIA began 2002 with 420 members. It ended the year with 431, a slight gain.

“We have to reach down deeper and get into more of the small and medium-sized enterprises,” says Lavoie. “We need to give them a compelling reason for belonging to this association.”

Lavoie wants to introduce “a whole different approach to dealing with membership recruitment and retention” at a CPIA managers meeting in March. He suggests the time has come to conduct “a complete audit” of CPIA’s membership fees — which range all over the map — in order to streamline the financial process of joining the association.

Asked what he would do differently than his predecessor, and Lavoie speaks carefully.

Dubois, he says, did an excellent job “developing a strong relationship with public [sector officials] at a provincial and federal level.”

While he wants to build on these relationships, Lavoie hopes to cultivate closer ties with elected representatives.

“I don’t think [Members of Parliament] have an appreciation of the size of this sector, because it’s broken down into component parts. They may not recognize that plastics as a whole is a $34-billion sector,” he states.

Lavoie says environmental concerns should remain a top priority for the plastics industry.

“There’s a definite link between the public’s positive perception of us and our ability to recycle material. The more we recycle, the more they view us favorably.”

The global picture

Lavoie plans to move cautiously in other areas. He says he wants to “get a sense of the dynamics” before committing himself to the notion of a continental trade association. Such an association would see the CPIA forging close links with American and Mexican plastics trade associations.

The new CEO is also striving to bring himself up to speed on globalization issues.

“I think the major challenge is [finding ways] to deal with an industry that is globalizing. A lot of decision making is happening in places other than Canada,” he says.

Born in Quebec City, Lavoie spent much of his youth in London, ON following a family move. He studied journalism at London’s Fanshawe College then went on to own and operate a weekly newspaper in Sarnia, ON. In the late 1970s, Lavoie also helped run a series of bookstores with his wife. Through the latter job, Lavoie ended up heading the Canadian Booksellers Association, the first of several trade associations he worked with over the decades.

“I didn’t go out pursuing a career in association management. It just happened,” says Lavoie.

Lavoie says his experience as general manager of the Canadian Telebook Agency in the mid-1980s marked a turning point in his career. As manager, Lavoie was put in charge of developing an electronic data interchange program to record thousands of English language book titles. “I helped bring a sector kicking and screaming, forward into a new technology and a whole new way of doing business,” he says. “I really enjoyed that process.”

Nate Hendley is a freelance writer based in Toronto.