Movers & Shakers: Individuals in association

Four trade association leaders making a big difference

Power in numbers is such a common refrain that it can be difficult to remember the influence that one focused, ambitious person can wield. Whether it’s influencing legislation as the head of a one-person shop like Susan Zellers at the Marine Trades Association of Maryland or reinvigorating one of the country’s largest boat shows like John Thorburn of the Northwest Marine Trade Association, a single person can move mountains.

As part of our coverage for our Movers & Shakers issue, we interviewed four leaders from four different trade associations across the country that are doing the hard work of representing the industry, looking out for the environment, bringing industry stakeholders together and keeping the public excited about boating.


Susan Zellers
Executive Director
Marine Trades Association of Maryland

Susan Zellers

Susan Zellers

Few professions have as many major achievements on their resume as Susan Zellers, executive director at the Marine Trades Association of Maryland. Her legislative wrangling on behalf of the association most recently helped pass a bill capping Maryland’s excise tax on boats. After several years of work, she was able to ensure that gas taxes paid by diesel fuel sales at marinas goes back to boaters through the state’s Waterway Improvement Fund, rather than going toward highway funding.


Along the way, and in concert with many other achievements, Zellers has also made sure marine interests were represented when the state enacted new volatile organic compound regulations, and pushed back deadlines on the implementation of new regulations to allow member businesses time to comply without adversely impacting their bottom lines. The ever-shifting work keeps Zellers very busy.

“As a one-person office, my struggle is I either do work or I tell people what I’m doing — it becomes a challenge to do both,” she said. “What we do really well is the advocacy work. What we don’t do really well is tell people what we do.”

Zellers, a registered lobbyist, is very proud of the effort to cap the state’s excise tax, which many politicians labeled as a giveaway to wealthy boat owners. After it was discussed for years, with twists, turns and last-minute deal making, she was able to frame the cap as a boost to the many small marine businesses throughout the coastal state.

“It’s difficult to sell this concept without somebody saying, ‘That’s just a tax break for the rich,’” she said. “It took a lot of relationship development to get over that obstacle, a lot of marina workers calling their elected officials and saying when that larger boat pulls into this marina they spend approximately 10 percent of their vessel value on repair and maintenance, which means I have a job.”


John Thorburn  
Vice President of communications and marketing
Northwest Marine Trade Association

John Thorburn

John Thorburn

Depending on the show and whom you ask, boat shows are either the best profit center of the year or a fading sign from a passing era. Ask John Thorburn, the so-called front-of-the-house guy for the Seattle Boat Show, and he’ll tell you a show’s success is about keeping it fresh by engaging new, diverse groups of people.

Through his position at the Northwest Marine Trade Association, which organizes the annual Seattle Boat Show, Thorburn has added wine tasting event called Uncorked, a craft beer sampling night called Sails and Ales and a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic events, among many others, to maintain the relevance of one of the country’s largest boat shows.

“My primary focus is to get people into the building when it comes to the boat show, drive attendance, get the media talking about us [and] get the brand out there,” he said. “I’m the communications arm for the association. That involves the website, newsletter [and] the last 4 or 5 years we’ve really taken a big leap into social media.”

Instead of just a place to sell boats, he views the 10-day show as a celebration of boating that should excite attendees of all ages, including demographics that may be entirely new to the marine lifestyle.

“It’s become increasingly easy for people to buy whatever they need on their iPad sitting on their couch at home,” he said. “We need to find a reason for them to come and tour the show, touch the boats, climb on them, immerse themselves in boating for those days and really catch on to that passion.”


Melissa Danko
Executive Director
Marine Trades Association of New Jersey

Melissa Danko

Melissa Danko

Raising the profile of a once-sleepy association doesn’t happen without countless hours of behind-the-scenes effort. With 12 years as executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, Melissa Danko has waged countless legislative battles, increased focus and communication and built the MTANJ into a visible force with increased firepower.

Then Hurricane Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, eviscerating beaches, boardwalks, buildings and docks along its swath. Danko and her staff immediately leapt to action. Two days later, she was on the phone in her garage with the U.S. Small Business Administration and FEMA urgently trying to get information for her members. To this day, much of her time is spent aiding relief efforts, trying to funnel support to small businesses and encouraging dredging and clearing of waterways.

“There were personal issues and professional issues on all different levels,” Danko said. “And [it’s] upsetting because we love it here, we love New Jersey and we love the shore — I live at the shore, and it’s been a hard, long road.”

Beyond that critical work, Danko and the group share numerous significant victories, including an effort to extend public access to marinas as a condition of their state permits. After six years, MTANJ prevailed.

Other efforts include developing a conference for industry and government leaders, creating an online presence for MTANJ, hiring consultants to follow more legislation, conducting an economic impact study and creating the I BOAT NJ program to assist marinas with environmental compliance issues.

“I’ve spent so much time trying to demonstrate how important our industry is, how precious it is, how fragile it is and how much of an economic contributor it is,” she said.


Wendy Mackie
Rhode Island Marine Trade Association

Wendy Mackie

Wendy Mackie

A rising leader in the Ocean State, Wendy Mackie has significantly increased membership numbers and used her enthusiasm and spirit to increase the effectiveness of the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association.

Mackie was formerly a very active committee member focused on educational training, but became the organization’s CEO this past August. She has used her new position to further efforts to fund worker-training grants and showcase the appeal of marine industry employment to young people in the state.

“I love being able to tell young people that people enjoy their jobs in this industry,” she said, speaking about an upcoming ad promoting the working lifestyle in the marine business. “They’re outside, they’re talking with people, they’re working hard, but they like to be there, project-based work, they like to be in the air, and you see kids’ faces light up.”

Beyond growing membership ranks, Mackie also focused on making the association meetings more enjoyable, encouraging greater participation and attendance. Meetings in cool places, cocktail networking and better speakers have dramatically increased meeting attendance.

“We engaged … our committee members to bulk up our events to make them more exciting and flow better, more socialization and increased networking opportunities, having a cocktail with the industry,” she said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to have a cocktail with anybody in the marine industry?”

Her fun-based approach has shown results. Membership increased by 60 within the past year, 38 incumbent workers received training within the last year and the most recent meeting attracted 75 of its 270 members, a sizable increase over previous years.

“I’ll tell you, what I like best is driving into the parking lot at Bristol Marine where my office is located, and as I’m walking from my car to my door there are 12 smiling faces saying hello to me,” Mackie said. “That’s what drew me to this industry to begin with.”


See also:

2013 Movers & Shakers

2013 Bold Moves


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