Just three years into the job, OFA’s and ANLA’s Michael Geary is tasked with leading the consolidation of two powerhouse green industry organizations. It’s time you got to know him.

Photos courtesy of OFA The Association of Horticulture Professionals

If you haven’t met Michael Geary, you will soon. Geary is the chief executive officer of OFA – The Association of Horticulture Professionals, a position he accepted in 2010. Earlier this year, he also assumed the role of executive vice president of the American Nursery and Landscape Association upon the retirement of Bob Dolibois, who had held the position for 21 years. In this dual role, Geary is positioning both organizations for significant change. It’s an historic development for the associations and the industry, and it’s an enormous assignment for Geary and his staff. But as you’ll soon learn, there’s no doubt that this is the man for the job.

First, a bit of background

Geary says he didn’t start out to work with associations – at least not intentionally. But he was active in Delta Chi, his fraternity at the University of Florida, and when he graduated he was offered an opportunity to serve the group as a leadership consultant. “My job,” he explains, “was to travel around the country and visit with many of our chapters. The core of my responsibilities was to work with the volunteer leadership – students and alumni leaders – to help them develop their chapters. We focused on leadership development, chapter management, basically doing organizational development consulting, but focused on the collegiate level organizations.” It was ideal training for a position in association management.

“I really enjoyed that experience,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, certainly, traveling around the country, meeting lots of people. But helping people be successful, helping those organizations be successful, brought a lot of meaning … it was very rewarding to help people and organizations in that way.”

After about four years, an opportunity with the North American Interfraternity Conference allowed Geary to continue his work, but on a broader scale. His family, however, lived in Washington, D.C., and Geary was eager to move to the nation’s capital himself. “Because I had already worked for a couple of organizations,” he explains, “I thought, ‘OK, I’ll look for jobs with an association and that will get me to D.C.’.”

Uniquely skilled in organizational management, Geary landed positions as executive director for the American Institute of Architecture Students and senior director for the National Association of Home Builders.

“After a few years I had built a career around working for associations, doing a variety of things,” Geary states. “I’ve basically done anything and everything. And if you talk to executives of other associations, you’ll find that they’ve done everything from meeting planning to cleaning up rooms to governance and budgeting, marketing, website development – the works.”

Then came the opportunity with OFA.

Joining the green industry

In February 2009, the association community and the green industry were stunned by the sudden passing of John Holmes, executive director of OFA. Bobby Barnitz, president of Bob’s Market and Greenhouses Inc. in Mason, W.V., was president of OFA at the time and was asked to chair the search committee to find a new executive, a responsibility that continued through his transition to the post of past president in July. “That was probably the most time-consuming experience in all my years with OFA,” he says, “but going through that process was probably also the most rewarding. We hired Michael out of that process, and I can say he was hands-down the most qualified.

“He was the perfect fit and the right candidate at the right time,” he continues. “Now, currently, with OFA and ANLA [becoming] one new national organization, I still think he’s the right guy.”

That’s because Michael Geary gets it.

Ask nearly anyone who’s worked with Geary in the past three years, and they’ll tell you he understands what it takes to run – and grow – an organization. “For someone being outside our industry, he immersed himself into the industry as if he’d always been there,” Barnitz says. “He came into it eyes and ears open, ready to learn.”

Marvin Miller, market research manager for Ball Horticulture Co., has worked with Geary both through OFA and America in Bloom, for which Miller serves as president. “Michael came to OFA as a professional executive, not as a horticulturist,” he explains. “I think that brings so much strength to the organizations, for the organizational leadership, and just for the evolution of the organizations that he’s leading. I think he brings a lot of positive background.

“He is very bright,” Miller continues, “and he’s very aware of his strengths and limitations and is not afraid to challenge staff and others with whom he’s working to step up to the plate and be responsible for managing a project. He’s been good with staff in that regard. He’s also very sensitive to understanding the people he’s interacting with, sensitive to conveying a positive impression about the organizations he’s leading.”

It takes a good listener to be a good manager, and by all accounts, Geary is both. “He likes assessing a situation before he opens his mouth. The learning curve has been steep, and what better way to learn than to listen intently and then speak,” states horticultural economist Charlie Hall, professor in the horticultural sciences department at Texas A&M and holder of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture. “He’s got a big heart – a heart as big as both associations,” Hall claims. “I’ve seen him working with the staff, and he’s a very good consensus builder. He’s not afraid of getting into debate, furthering the discussion … he’s a very good listener. He weighs and contemplates the issue and makes the decision, but he empowers his people. Michael’s style of management is more of a team approach; he leads by example. And that’s the sign of a good general – he’s willing to get in the trenches and lead the charge.”

Leading the transition

In addition to managing the operations of OFA and ANLA, Geary and his staff administer America in Bloom, the Nursery and Landscape Association Executives of North America and the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association. Then there’s the matter of consolidating two major organizations, each with its own membership, volunteer leadership and rich traditions.

Since January of this year, Geary has served as chief exec of both OFA and ANLA, splitting his time between Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. Assuming the consolidation is approved by the memberships of both organizations and a new association is formed, staff will continue to function in their current locations.

Charlie and MiChal Hall visit with Michael Geary. Says Hall about his friend: “Michael’s got a heart as big as both associations.”

“We’ll have two offices,” Geary explains. “In D.C., our staff there will be focused on regulatory, legislative and research activities. And then the Columbus-based staff will be focused on operations, events, marketing … . We’re increasing our use of technology online, like using Skype so that we can chat with each other, we can have video calls; we don’t need to be in person all the time to do the things we need to do. Just like our members, we don’t have the time or money to get on planes and fly around just to have a meeting. So we can do those things virtually.”

Geary stresses the importance of maintaining communication with staff and with members, and he intends to make good use of emerging technology to do so. Whatever the means, however, connection with people is key to building a strong organization.

“One thing I learned early on: Organizations are about people, ultimately,” he emphasizes. “That gave me a lot of perspective on the importance of making sure that you’re providing the personal experience for people. That’s why they want to be engaged – or that’s certainly why they continue to be engaged. … If you can help people be successful, that’ll help their businesses be successful and that feeds the organization, as well.”

Owning it

There’s a lot of responsibility resting on the shoulders of one man, but business owners understand just what that means. And running an association is like running any other business, according to Geary. “In fact,” he says, “every day I come in to the office and I feel like I’m a sole proprietor here in a way; I’ve got to make sure the lights get turned on, and at the end of the day I’ve got to make sure the lights get turned off and the doors get locked and the bills get paid. And while I’m not literally doing all these things, that’s my attitude of ‘I own this business’ in some respects; I think of it that way. And so it’s running a business, whether it’s a garden center or an association. The things that I’m doing are very similar to the experiences of an owner of a garden center or a nursery. Making sure every day that business is being done, business is being managed, you’re making money in order to reach your goals, your people are taken care of, and the toilets get cleaned.”

After only three years on the job, Geary is well-prepared to move the associations – and the industry – forward.

“I appreciate and am humbled by the trust that people put not just in me, but in the people who work for our organizations, whether they’re employed or they’re a volunteer,” Geary offers. “Our members can go about day-to-day running their businesses and know that there are people looking out for their best interest. That, to me, is a very powerful thing to say.

“I totally respect that and I appreciate that people give us that trust. And I’m really grateful that I’ve been asked and put in the position to be one of the leaders of that effort to build our business, to build the industry – all those things we’re trying to work toward. I don’t take that lightly, and every day I think about: ‘What am I doing today to move this industry forward?’ I’m not satisfied with my day unless I’ve done something to move our needle, even if it’s just a little titch. We can’t do it overnight, but just a little bit of something every day makes a difference.”

Melding the culture of two very distinct organizations is a real challenge, says Bob Lyons, president of Sunleaf Nursery LLC in Madison, Ohio, and past president of both ANLA and the Horticultural Research Institute. “I’m convinced that [Geary] has got the understanding and the background to pull this off,” he states. “He gets it.”

For more on Michael Geary and the green industry organizations’ historic consolidation efforts, go to www.amerinursery.com.

Sally Benson is editorial director of American Nurseryman magazine. She can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com.