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THE RIVER RAT REMEMBERS Episode 20 Pulling AWSA Out of the Past


BKistler
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Episode 20 Pulling AWSA out of the Past

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When I came to AWSA, I found that in many ways it was stuck in the past. My most gratifying work involved modernizing the organization in ways that I could. The examples that I relate below happened over a span of years and not necessarily in the order discussed.

The most visible example of what I mean is the AWSA logo, which featured the silhouette of a skier within a ship’s wheel. The model for the skier, incidentally, was Bruce Parker, one of the first water skiers to gain national prominence. The logo made sense back in the ‘30s when powerboats often had spoked steering wheels with protruding handles that resembled a tiny ship’s wheel. I felt strongly that the logo stamped us as a stodgy outfit. It was a turnoff for the young skiers that we were trying to attract. After a good deal of badgering, I persuaded Bill Clifford that we needed a new look. We hired a graphic designer and provided her with photos of skiers in various poses. She came back with a few concept sketches and we immediately keyed in on one featuring a slalom skier in full reach. We requested several modifications, one of which was to align the towrope with background sweep lines. I took the final product to the Board of Directors and AWSA had a new logo.

Other relics in the closet included merchandise items. Some of our instructional booklets were antiques. We dropped several titles and, over time, I worked to update others. In another example, we were still selling oak water ski handles and canvas toehold straps. These were strong, inexpensive—and outmoded. I convinced Clifford to drop such items from the inventory. Incidentally, the only time I was ever dragged was when I borrowed a trick handle with one of those AWSA canvas straps. It was a dangerous piece of equipment. Before manufacturers started making tournament quality towropes, AWSA was the go-to source for skiers. All of AWSA’s lines were hand made by Larue Osborn, Mike and Joker’s dad. They were eventually phased out. During my tenure AWSA sold slalom buoys. Actually, they were not buoys but rather children’s playground tetherballs. Initially, the tetherballs were shipped inflated. I unloaded many a semi-trailer load of them. During the Arab-Israeli conflict, an AWSA member from one of the warring Muslim nations ordered a set of buoys. It took half a day at the post office to ship that special order. Postal clerks scratched their heads, going back and forth between the postal regulations and the purchaser’s specific labeling instructions that were intended to allay the fears of nervous customs officials. I wonder if the guy ever got them. When I became Executive Director, we reworked the entire merchandise program with many new items featuring the new AWSA logo, new colors and a new theme: Hit It!

Then there was The Water Skier. From the very beginning the magazine was a small digest-size publication. I, and others, argued that the publication should be upgraded to standard magazine format. Bill Clifford and Tom Hardman resisted to the very end. Part of their reasoning was the higher cost of the larger format. However, when I became Executive Director, the new editor convinced me that the numbers would work, and AWSA had its first full size periodical.

By far the most significant change to AWSA operations was not apparent to the membership. The membership list was maintained on an antique Addressograph system which required two machines that looked like they belonged in an industrial machine shop. The first was essentially a stamp mill. The operator pressed a letter on a keyboard and, with a loud bang, that letter was stamped onto a metal plate. The embossed address plates were stacked in trays which were loaded on another machine which pulled out the plates one by one and an inked roller pressed the image onto the mailing piece, similar to an old credit card imprinter. Jane Osborn spent hours each day at this noisy, messy operation, mailing out renewal notices and The Water Skier.

It took a lot of doing, but I eventually convinced Bill Clifford and the Board that we needed to computerize the operation. It was a major challenge. The pre-DOS computers had limited capability and software was practically non-existent. After much research, I recommended that we purchase a CompuPro system running dBase II and WordPerfect. The system had one server with 8 ½“ floppy disk drives and a 20 Mb (!) hard drive that was the size of a pizza oven. In addition to the main station, the server also powered two remote terminals and printers that were used primarily for correspondence. As the system administrator, I learned the basics of dBase II. I also blessed the day that I finally got the hang of WordPerfect. What a joy to be free of typewriters.

The computer database made maintaining the membership list a much quicker and easier task. Now any of us could look up information on individual members instantly without having to manually flip through trays of Addressograph plates. Now we could sort the file any way we wanted and run custom reports. With a simple sort, we could generate the next month’s renewal list. Renewal notices were printed on continuous forms, allowing us to run the big dot matrix printer overnight. I designed a form with a bold red “Final Notice” across the top that increased our renewal rate.

Magazine fulfillment was our biggest challenge. To qualify for bulk rate, the magazines had to be pre-sorted according to USPS regulations but at the time there was no software on the market that could do it. By some miracle, I came across a guy who was developing such program on dBase II. Our database was dBase II, and I convinced him to let us be a beta test site. We got the program free of charge in exchange for helping him fix any bugs. It worked. Applying the labels was another problem. Our job was too small for a commercial fulfillment company, so we applied the labels in house. It was tedious work but far easier and far quieter than putting each magazine under the Addressograph roller.

I don’t mean to imply that I was the only force trying to modernize AWSA. There was, of course, the towboat certification program. The Executive Committee also authorized the hiring of IMG, a top sports marketing company, that worked to improve the marketability of the AWSA brand. IMG laid the legal and financial groundwork and helped us land our first contracts with sponsors. At any rate, by the time I left AWSA, it was a more efficient and more modern organization.

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