For the AHMA, the end of a long road

The American Hardware Manufacturers Association enjoyed a long run. Now it's history.

BY Ken Clark

The American Hardware Manufacturers Association dissolved in late 2017.

No fanfare marked the occasion, and no press release announced the decision. But in many respects, the dissolution of the AHMA was an historic move, and it brought an official end to an organization with a rich history in the hardware industry.

“Ultimately, what the membership voted to do was to dissolve the organization,” said Timothy Farrell, the group’s last president and CEO. “It wasn’t what anybody wanted, but at the end of the day, after a lot of effort to avoid it, and after a lot of consideration, the decision was made that was in the best interest of the remaining members and the industry.”

The AHMA was founded in 1901 and boasted some 1,200 members at its peak. There was a time when its lobbyists held meaningful meetings in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., including the White House. And for years, if not generations, the AMHA was closely associated with a National Hardware Show in Chicago. But when the AHMA canceled its 2005 show and announced a new direction for its educational and networking mission, it began a long, slow period of dwindling membership and a diminishing role in a fast-changing industry.

‘The Industry Advantage’

The association’s slogan “The Industry Advantage,” referred to a variety of programs it brought to members. It ran a healthy AHMA Hardlines Technology Forum, which regularly attracted the nation’s largest retailers. The association brought members to new markets through its AHMA/USA International Pavilions in places such as the International Hardware Fair in Cologne, Germany. Government relations programs and member benefit vendor programs were part of the offering.

In its heyday, the voice of the AHMA reverberated in the nation’s capital, said Farrell.

“If you go back a way, our legislative representatives in Washington had far greater access and far greater ability to weigh in on the legislative process, including on Capitol Hill and at times at the White House with senior officials and the President,” he said. “However, gradually that access was diminished. While the AHMA at one time was big and represented a lot of important, U.S. manufacturing companies, there came a point where we were too small. We weren’t tobacco. We weren’t the auto industry.”

The Hardware Show in Chicago, 1982

A turning point in the history of the association — and the National Hardware Show — came in 2003, when the AHMA and Reed Exhibitions ended a 25-year partnership of hosting the show together. With the split came competition in 2004, a show in Las Vegas run by Reed, a show in Chicago run by the AHMA, and the cancellation of the latter in 2005. (A messy legal dispute over the split was settled in 2011.)

Despite the disappointing ending of its Chicago show, Farrell says the association can hold its head high for its body of work over the decades. “We were very proud of our involvement in the hardware show for many years,” he said.

Rampant consolidation

When it announced the cancellation of the 2005 show, the AHMA pointed to a change of direction: “AHMA will proactively focus on creating alternative, optimally valuable and relevant events for its members and its industry,” the group said at the time. Ultimately, however, the AHMA fell victim to pressures familiar to many companies in the hardware industry in the 21st century – particularly rampant consolidation.

Timothy Farrell

“Globalization, mass changes in distribution, mergers and acquisitions, and advances in technology in the meetings industry certainly had an impact,” Tim Farrell told HBSDealer. “Only a small percentage of our members were the Stanleys and Black and Deckers. The vast majority were small and medium sized companies, many of which over the past 10 or 15 years have gone out of business or have been swallowed up by bigger companies via acquisition.

“We could go on and on about how the industry has changed, and how in many cases those changes had negative impacts on the AHMA and our membership, and our ability to provide value, and our events, etc,” Farrell told HBSDealer.

The Farrell family played a prominent role in the modern history of the AHMA. In the role of president and CEO, Tim succeeded his father, who lent his name to the AHMA headquarters – the William P. Farrell Building in Schaumburg, Ill. Another son, William Farrell, Jr., provided legal counsel for the AHMA.

William P. Farrell received numerous awards over the years, including the Spirit of Life Award from City of Hope, the California-based cancer research and treatment facility. He retired from the AHMA in 2011.

Tim and William Farrell Jr. today are managing directors of Longford Capital Management, a litigation finance company that, according to its web site, provides capital solution to law firms and other entities involved in large scale commercial legal disputes.

End game

In recent years, the association maintained membership of companies large and small. As an example, the list of officers and directors from a 2008 meeting includes Blue Ribbon Products, Genova Products, Red Devil, Cooper Hand Tools, Roebic Laboratories, Petersen Brands, Lavelle Industries, as well as the home improvement division of 3M.

In its final years, as participation in events waned, the association sought to provide value in the form of an AHMA Advantage Group Purchasing Organization for its members. It didn’t catch on. And explorations of possible merger opportunities with like-minded industry associations came up empty.

Former board member Bill Hudson, of the H.D. Hudson Manufacturing Co., told HBSDealer he respected how the association operated. He noted that the AHMA was a recipient of multiple presidential E-Awards for efforts to increase United States exports. One was delivered by President Ronald Reagan, another by President George H.W. Bush.

Times have changed, and so has the way manufacturers and customers choose to interact. And the AHMA made a positive difference for many years, said Hudson, a 35-year veteran of the hardware industry.

“The thing that AHMA did so well was create the opportunity for buyers and sellers to get together and talk substantively about the industry as whole,” he said. “I’m happy about the benefit that my company and other companies received over the years.”


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