by L. A. "Tony" Kovach
The New York Times headlines reads, “Honoring Small Business, Obamas Go Book Shopping.” The photo below shows the good optics of this, and this hits many positive themes held high at MHProNews. Leaders are readers, and small business creates the most private sector jobs.
Let's compare and contrast this with the optics of what's happening coming out of the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) offices in Arlington, VA near Washington DC.
On the optics level, President Obama gets high marks on this one. We won't delve in this article with the question: does his administration's policies fit the rhetoric and imagery?
What we will do in this article is focus on the related issue important to MH owners, investors and manufactured housing professionals. Namely - the optics, policies and messaging - coming out of MHI.
First, let's be clear. We aren’t attacking MHI, we are pro-association, a member and have been for years. There are key differences between a criticism and a critique.
Critique vs Criticism – First, the Principle then the Example
Anyone can criticize almost anything. A baby who doesn't like the taste or texture of some new food or drink may promptly spit it up.
But the adult can say about a meal - this was a nice start on your recipe, but add some salt and a pinch of garlic, and it will taste terrific. Why not try that next time?
The vomiting baby in this example is about as critical as you get! But the adult's critique provides the insights needed to move the recipe and its cook from where they are, to where he or she ought to be. We want to fall into that second category.
Before diving deeper, let me add that these issues have first been explored privately, without success. Not just by me, but by a number of other members of MHI.
That's why we'll lightly raise the examples shared, mindful that we want to be part of the solution.
The goal is that we as an industry can collectively sell more homes, make more profits and serve more consumers successfully. That's what PEP should do!
What's missing at MHI?
We won't do an exhaustive critique of MHI leadership today. As noted, the ideal would be for this column to be a good nudge that moves the ball ahead with nothing more that need be said by me or all those who are discussing these same issues.
MHI - PEP and Richard "Dick" Jennison
Ann Parman, Jenny Hodge and all those at MHI connected with producing the national association's educational content deserve credit for routinely putting out quality speakers and topics for their events. Ann heads up the way under-publicized MHEI or Manufactured Housing Educational Institute. Day by day, they and others provide continuing education content useful and necessary for many state associations and their members.
We begin by mentioning Ann, Jenny and education because there are three things that any trade body ought to do for their members, and this comes from a state association leader who shared it with me. Those three things are PEP = Protect, Educate and Promote.
Part of education is information, right? Keeping your members informed 'educates' them on events in the industry or that may impact the industry. So timely and potentially helpful news is part of that E in PEP.
"Promotion" is a weakness for many in the industry, so is MHI an exception? Hardly.
MHI website at top – No photo/image slider, mostly industry focused.
By contrast, the OMHA Welcome Home Ohio website has a modern image slider, with messages and resources easily found, all designed to attract the home buying public. Plus OMHA also provide solid content for their industry members.
That said, state associations which often have far more limited budgets, have or are in the process of improving their websites and making upgrades that can help their members sell more homes.
In other industries, it's often the national trade body that takes a lead in promotion, and state affiliates can tag-team with the national for mutual benefit. So where are MHI's parallel Promotional (PEP) efforts?
Paying for a single-use Speech?
An informed source has told us that at a prior (not last summer's) RV MH Hall of Fame event - where Dick Jennison was a featured speaker - that $1500 was spent to pay an outside writer to compose Jennison's talk.
That source, speaking on condition of anonymity, asked me, "Are they saying that no one at MHI could have written the same talk for Dick internally?" Good question!
Another source apparently in-the-know about the above, said, "It was a good talk that Dick gave. So why didn't they (meaning, MHI) use that in a published message? Wouldn't that have increased MHI's bang for their bucks on Jennison's talk?"
Indeed, I liked that thought. At that time, I suggested to Dick exactly that, please send us the copy of the RV-MH Hall of Fame address. We'd gladly give Dick and the association the free digital ink.
I never saw it, here or elsewhere, did you?
Now, in the great big scheme of things, that's a small matter, but does it reveal numerous mindsets and patterns?
Promotion is arguably lacking at MHI. Their once weekly messages are now more like every other week. MHI used to publish articles routinely with us and others. Now, getting an article from MHI that's good for the association can be a little like pulling teeth.
Another publisher has the same issue. I was asked by them to get MHI's president to send them articles again, after a long hiatus for them of routine MHI content.
Isn't free ink a no-brainer? What's up with that?
If messaging by MHI to the those in the MH Industry is weak, isn't it weaker still to those outside the industry?
Dick and I have gotten along fine for years. Ask around and you'll learn that I've stood by him when other criticized the man.
When I respectfully raise concerns with MHI's salaried leader, I have for years received very polite replies.
But on issues well beyond messaging - on issues as important to MH and MHI as financing to sell more manufactured homes - very polite replies from Dick Jennison have resulted in no visible action. Isn’t that serious? Further, the friendly-reply pattern seems to have slowed earlier this year.
So be it messaging, or selling more homes via more lending opportunities now being overlooked, the next step was this article. Raise the topic of PEP politely in public.
Suggest publicly and respectfully that there are reasons why there seems to be - as others tell me - a "revolving door" at MHI for staff, and supposedly frustration on the part of staff who work in the Arlington office.
What's missing? More serious Issues than these...
These are significant issues, that go to the core of what an association is meant to do.
That said, there are far more serious issues than these, and that's precisely the point in doing this comparatively lighter column now.
We don't want to hit the biggest, more pressing concerns publicly yet, and hopefully, they will never need to be published in a column like this.
This is expressed out of a mix of loyalty and concern to the national organization to which I pay dues, volunteer time and sit on one of the boards.
If you don't get movement on serious issues privately, then the next step might be to go public.
Ronald Reagan urged Republicans in his era to re-take their party.
We are saying something similar. We as MHI members and as an industry need to see action on issues that members routinely call for: such as promotion, more lending, better communications, etc..
Look at NCC Chairman Steve Alder's interview this month, the latest in a long series of industry leaders who say that we need an image campaign.
With supposedly some $2 million dollars – per a highly placed MHI source – in the bank available, can't they use some of that for promotion?
Dick Jennison Video
I'm going to make a few more points before closing this column. When you watch this video interview with Dick Jennison, please listen carefully to what the gentleman says about shipment levels of new homes.
With major MHI members saying we could be doing 200,000 to 300,000 or more new home shipments in MH a year, why did Dick opt to say we should be happy with under 70,000 new homes shipped?
What message does that send to the CFPB? What does it say to potential investors? Or to a wide variety of industry pros?
Don't get me wrong, Dick made a number of fine points in this video! For example, he correctly points out the expansion in new MHCs and the efforts to develop new ones. These are indeed good news and good signs in MH.
That said, I've told MHI privately for years - and we've said publicly in digital print - that investors and public officials are among those groups on our pages routinely. If you are an investor looking at an industry whose national association president is saying, let's not expect big things anytime soon, are you going to be inspired?
As a person being interviewed - when you know in advance what the subjects are going to be - you have the opportunity to gather your thoughts and express them well.
Because when we do video interviews, we routinely do an off-camera discussion before starting the on-camera video interview. We did so with Dick Jennison too. He knew days in advance we'd be doing an interview.
We at MHProNews want the person interviewed to give their best thoughts! Our goal is to give the industry and the person interviewed a positive outcome. We do so precisely because we are pro-industry.
Our incentive is to make the industry look good, while still being accurate and balanced.
With that backdrop in mind, why would MHI's president say we in MH are not returning to robust new home sales levels for manufactured housing? Isn't that the opposite of promotion (PEP)? In a trillion dollar a year housing market, with an affordable housing crisis growing, why are we in MH not doing far more volume?
I can use the word 'alleged' to cover these topics, yet suggest that careful research by you or others involved in the background of what is shared should confirm what I've stated.
Again, the purpose is to advance the "good of the order," the MH image as well as sales, and thus the good of the industry. That should be good for everyone in the mix.
Last topic for today, the Suppliers Division video project
MHI's Suppliers Division voted to do promotional videos. There are members and a fine MHI staffer that have spent quality time working on this project. So why has the video not been robustly advanced by MHI's salaried leader?
By contrast, when a single seminar for helping communities was proposed with a $20,000 budget by a member who is a community owner, why was that rapidly put into motion? That MHC focused seminar was held last summer in Indy. So why has the previously desired Suppliers Division MH promotional videos languished?
The proposed video budget discussed was less than the MHC legal seminar, it would have been done by a third party and the value of videos could go on for years.
For that matter, why didn't MHI video that MHC focused seminar, so it could have been used by members who didn't attend?
When you look at the interviews and articles by some top industry people and some long time industry veterans, such as Steve Alder this month, they routinely call for an industry promotion. So why isn't MHI making that happen?
RVs outsell MHs by some 5 to 1! MHs have a far bigger potential audience and more potential sales than RVs do, but the difference is promotion! Again, “PEP.” RVs do it, MH has not.
Pro-Industry MHLivingNews homepage
seen on a laptop at a Best Buy store.
We've proven that with modest budgets ManufacturedHomeLivingNews.com and MHProNews have built sizable audiences and get a solid message out. In private talks with key people at MHI, they agree. The point is, we have evidence of success, not just theories.
So where is the action by MHI's leader to support the cause of improved image and thus more sales for all in the business?
Wouldn't good image also help the legislative and regulatory battles advance too?
Is there a parallel need to look at what the mind-set and culture are at MHI at the top staff level?
This critique - an analysis with facts and specific suggestions to fix the issues - is thus designed to be solution-oriented.
We could say much more, but again, the purpose today is to cause positive analysis, to get discussion, action and solutions moving at MHI; not to undermine their worth while efforts.
We have and plan to continue to support and be keenly engaged in MHI.
We will be more than a cheer leader, we will be the industry's eyes and ears on topics that beg for attention and action.
With some half the state associations reporting they're still losing shipments, the need for action is now.
Lifestyle Factory Homes, LLC (our parent company) will act to further fill the vacuum if MHI fails to do so. Please stay tuned as these developments unfold. ##