The first Great War had ended and Cleveland industrialists were stars of the American business community. The entire region was experiencing growth. And, like now, manufacturers experienced employee-related problems.
To address the issues of the day, 15 members of the Union Club of Cleveland, a private organization of the city's business community and one of the oldest social organizations in town, formed the American Plan Association of Cleveland. The organization was chartered to assist businesses with employee relation issues.
As Cleveland's economy -- and its industrial focus -- has shifted and morphed over the years, the agency, which became the Associated Industries of Cleveland in 1930 and later the Employers Resource Council, has maintained its focus for eight decades.
"I really credit the foresight the previous administration had," says Pat Perry, the ERC's executive director. "There was a greater recognition of the personnel function and that employees had a voice about what was going on in the workplace. I don't care if you have three employees or 3,000 employees, whether you're in manufacturing or cloning sheep, the bottom line is, you still have the same issues.
"We're not industry specific anymore, what we are is workplace specific, which is a big difference."
Learning from the past
In its early days, the ERC was very involved in political activities. According to an entry in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, the organization fought unionization and the Wagner Labor Relations Act and took a strong role in the Little Steel Strike of 1937.
It was even suggested that the association "hired strikebreakers, provided munitions and conducted espionage in an attempt to break the strike." The accusation was so strong the organization was the subject of an U.S. Senate investigation.
While the ERC has since distanced itself from those hardcore tactics, the focus remains the same.
"We are an employers' association that supports and promotes economic growth through the delivery of HR services and benefits to Northeast Ohio organizations," Perry says.
So instead of offering employers munitions, the ERC offers programs, training and counseling to business owners in 22 Northeast Ohio counties.
The five pillars
The ERC targets its 920 members through a five-pronged approach.
1. Training -- It offers a series of public events and programming dedicated to workplace practices. From regular breakfast meetings to on-site visits to an annual conference, the ERC conducts 60 to 80 events each year.
2. Research -- The ERC conducts a series of surveys covering a variety of topics from salaries to workplace policies and practices.
3. HR support -- "In a for-profit arena, it's called consulting," Perry says.
The ERC's experts help companies design handbooks, performance evaluations, compensation systems and even recruit HR professionals.
4. The Dream Team -- These organizations have agreed to offer their services to ERC members at a discount.
"We developed one of the broadest provider networks in the United States in terms of high-end providers of HR and workplace services and benefits," Perry says. "We call that group our Dream Team. That group, in effect, we negotiated some preferred arrangements with each of those providers that are exclusive to the ERC.
"They looked at us as an organization that basically covers nearly a half a million people. When you have that kind of market clout, you're able to go to some of these providers and (form) some very formidable partnerships."
5. Partnerships -- The ERC works with a variety of organizations, formally and informally, to extend its reach further into the community, Perry says.
Focus on your clientele
It's a strategy that some in the not-for-profit community might find a little unusual, but Perry has no intention of expanding the ERC's client base. With more than 900 member companies averaging nearly 300 employees each, the organization can touch hundreds of thousands of lives.
For now, that is enough.
"We've redirected our focus in terms of being much more concerned about retention," he says. "We've made a significant change in our operations here. We no longer prospect for new members. We will not aggressively pursue new members. We want to focus on our existing group.
"I would be happier to never add another company, but be in a position to serve our existing membership, than to add another company and to have any of our service be diluted."
That said, it pains Perry when a company chooses to withdraw its membership. The ERC boasts about 3 percent annual turnover, a far cry from the 8 to 10 percent just a few years ago.
"It absolutely puts a stake in my heart when we lose a member," he says. "I personally make a call. I talk to the owner if I can, (asking) 'What didn't we do?'"
Perry takes some comfort from the fact that only one-half of 1 percent are from what he calls bad turnover -- when a company leaves because the owners weren't getting value from the membership.
The rest of the turnover comes from circumstances beyond ERC's control -- merger, sale, acquisition, closing or moving.
Perry looks at a variety of factors to divine whether the organization is maintaining its focus. Perhaps one of the most telling is attendance at its regular programs. When he started with the ERC, 40 percent of its programs were cancelled because of a lack of participation, he says. That has changed, and every program, going back at least a dozen, has been sold out.
"I think the forefathers would be very proud of this group, that we're paying particular attention to what people are saying to us," he says. "What ERC is today is an absolute reflection of what our members have been asking for." How to reach: Employers Resource Council, (216) 696-3636
Daniel G. Jacobs (email@example.com) is senior editor of SBN.