Wendy future of retail top

Suydam shows how to run a trade group

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Linda Suydam, president of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, will retire by year’s end after eight years as head of the proprietary medicines organization. At the association’s annual meeting last month in Aventura, Fla., her last as CHPA’s president, she received a three-minute standing ovation from the organization’s membership as she left the stage after announcing her plans to step down. It was no more than her due.

Over the past decade, there has been no more effective leader among the trade association executives that either directly or tangentially represent or interact with the U.S. retailing community than Linda Suydam. Among her members she is universally admired, respected and liked. For good reason.

Under her tenure CHPA, once a marginal trade organization in terms of its impact and influence within Washington’s legislative and regulatory communities, has reemerged as a powerful lobbying organization, a group whose opinions and positions, while not necessarily adopted, are always considered when rules are formulated and positions taken and solidified.

In at least a half-dozen instances, CHPA’s position on a critical issue involving the safety or efficacy of an over-the-counter drug product has influenced the debate, altered or mitigated the outcome, or muted the impact of that outcome, usually to the advantage of the retail health care community. In the bargain, community pharmacy learned early that it had a friend in CHPA.

So it is that, as Suydam prepares to retire, the question much be asked: Why has she been so successful in an assignment — that of association executive — that doesn’t necessarily breed success? As is usually the case in these situations, there is not just one answer.

For openers, Suydam came to the CHPA job after a career at the Food and Drug Administration. Thus, she was familiar with the territory even before she began her tenure at CHPA. She also knew the strengths, weaknesses and personality of her adversary, as the FDA was frequently to become.

As significant as where she came from was where she did not: She did not come to CHPA with a trade association resume, as so many of her counterparts routinely do. As a result, she did not enter into her new duties with the belief that she must always support — and necessarily defer to — her board of directors. While she has always respected her board, she has never let it intimidate her. Rather, she has invariably acted in what she believed were the best interests of the membership.

Then too, she is an innately intelligent and confident individual, a woman who is comfortable with who she is and what she knows. Thus, she never doubted her ability to do the job required of her as CHPA president. Moreover, she has a well-deserved reputation as both a diligent manager and a notoriously hard worker.

With that set of credentials, she has never shied from hiring capable people, then allowing them to do their jobs. Thus, people and organizations dealing with CHPA over the years have always known that the various individuals within the organization, while acting on their own, have always had Suydam behind them.

As well, Suydam came to CHPA without either the ego or insecurities that paralyze many association executives. As a result, she has often been content to be a background figure at CHPA, allowing others within the organization to speak for it. When the force of her personality, intelligence and influence was called for, however, she has always been there.
Suydam has brought other attributes to her job. When in need of assistance or out of her depth, situations infrequently encountered, Suydam has never hesitated to ask for help. In other words, she invariably knew she what she didn’t know. More to the point, she has always had enough confidence in what she did know to enable her to ask for assistance when she needed it.

At bottom, though, Suydam has succeeded because she quickly made CHPA her organization. She made difficult decisions — and made them work. On critical or controversial issues, Suydam was invariably out front of the issue, sure of her facts, in front of the news media. When she was frustrated or stymied, a not infrequent occurrence in dealing with legislators and regulators who often have little grasp of an issue, and even less grasp of the facts behind the issue, it was her loss, not because she had to confront her board, but because she took it all so personally.

So, as Suydam prepares to leave, the CHPA board has set in motion a process to find her replacement. Many of the usual suspects, or types, have already been hinted at — a congressman or senator, an association leader, perhaps a retired business executive.

But those who know best know that this remarkable woman will not be so easy to replace. One hopes, then, that at the least the board will try as nearly as possible to duplicate, in choosing Suydam’s successor, some of those qualities that have made her so successful.


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