After several years of planning, debate and education, members of ISSA (formerly the International Sanitary Supply Association) have voted to open the association’s membership to building service contractors and other facility service providers (FSPs).

For decades, Lincolnwood, Ill.-based ISSA had been a distributor- and manufacturer-only organization. The topic of FSP membership has been debated for more than a decade; in 1999, the association took a small step in that direction by inviting BSCs and in-house cleaning professionals to its previously closed trade show.

That decision was not an easy one – distributors worried their customers would meet with manufacturers and be tempted to purchase supplies directly from them.

“There were concerns about BSCs buying direct, but most BSCs aren’t interested; you have to be a big guy to be able to buy direct,” says Don Zerivitz, president and CEO of Pro Clean Building Maintenance Inc., in Orlando, Fla., and a member of ISSA’s BSC advisory committee. "With ISSA, we’re exposed to product lines that our own distributors may not carry, and then we’ll come back to the distributor and ask them."

The annual convention and trade show has now been open to all members of the cleaning industry for several years, and distributors’ concerns about losing customers to manufacturer-direct sales have been assuaged.

The move toward inclusion didn’t stop there, however. With distributors more comfortable with BSCs in their midst, the ISSA board of directors took another look at opening membership to FSPs. The association wanted to expand its membership and provide “one voice” for the cleaning industry, says Garfinkel, but also wanted to make end users feel more at home at ISSA events.

“When we opened the trade show, and building service contractors and in-house service providers came to the show, they didn’t feel totally comfortable,” says ISSA executive director John Garfinkel. “ISSA is a membership organization, and they felt like outsiders. We wanted to welcome them on an equal basis.”

The board didn’t jump for a vote to change membership bylaws right away, however; they embarked on an educational campaign and waited until they were reasonably certain the vote would pass by a wide margin, says Garfinkel.

"If we had done the vote a couple of years ago, it would have passed, but the dissenters wouldn’t have accepted it," he says. "We felt there was a need for distributors to understand why we were doing this. The board of directors decided to go among members — we went to meetings of distributor groups, and did personal visits over the last couple of years."

The strategy paid off, as 73 percent of those voting elected to open membership; additionally, the measure had broad support from distributors and manufacturers alike.

"I actually was surprised [at] the lack of opposition," Garfinkel says. "When we opened the show, there was far more worrisome feedback. "This time, the feeling I got from most was, ‘let’s wait and see if we understand what we’re doing.’"

Members wanted
Contractors and other FSPs have begun joining ISSA. Interest has been strong, says Garfinkel; the association has received more than 500 membership inquiries so far. In the first week, 120 FSPs, about evenly divided between BSCs and in-house providers, have applied for membership. Garfinkel is optimistic that ISSA will meet its recruiting goals.

ISSA membership isn’t intended to replace FSP involvement in their own, industry-specific associations, Garfinkel says. In fact, ISSA has many alliances with FSP organizations, including those for providers in health care, higher education and hospitality/lodging facilities.

"Our goal is to become a cleaning industry organization that brings one voice to the table, and tries to bring the industry up a notch in prestige," Garfinkel says. "The industry is best served when everyone is involved. Everyone wins if everyone is working together."