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CEO Update honors top executives

Community’s highest recognition given in creative program featuring emcees, cameos, and a man trapped in online world by virus

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Sept. 25, 2020
By William Ehart

The ceremony was virtual, but the recognitions were real.

Nobody wanted the seventh annual CEO Update Association Leadership Awards to be remote. It’s supposed to be (among other things) a great networking occasion, not a networked occasion.  

But the association community came together in the ether Thursday evening to recognize three extraordinary nonprofit executives.

The 2020 honorees are: Trade Association CEO of the Year Matthew Shay, of the National Retail Federation; Professional Society CEO of the Year Michelle Mason, of Association Forum; and Association Lobbyist of the Year Kevin Keane, EVP of government and public affairs at the American Beverage Association.

CEO Update Editor-in Chief Lynn McNutt noted that hundreds of association executives are nominated for the awards each year, and ultimately are chosen after painstaking work by an independent panel.

“Matt, Michelle and Kevin, you join an exclusive club (of executives) who have received the Association Leadership Award,” McNutt said in introducing the program “These leaders are titans in the association world who represent the best of what we can be when we work hard, give back to our members, our coworkers and our communities and forge new paths forward in times of challenge.”

CEO Shirley Bloomfield of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association and CEO Todd Hauptli of the American Association of Airport Executives were emcees, engaging in live bantering between pre-recorded segments that included presentations and honoree interviews. CEO Update Managing Director Mark Graham buzzed throughout: In the opening skit, he became trapped in the virtual realm—like many of us—after downloading a virus. He interviewed Keane and Mason from the screen of his laptop, and Mason appeared as a hologram.

ABA CEO Katherine Lugar presented the award to Keane, by handing the ‘A’-shaped crystal trophy off-screen. Recognizing Keane’s passion for sports and his alma mater, she wore a Washington National’s hat and 2019 World Champions shirt while standing in front of a poster of University of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger.

Lugar credited Keane with helping forestall and even roll back soda taxes around the country, but also for helping create programs such as ABA’s Balanced Calorie Initiative and its Every Bottle Back effort.

“It’s relatively straightforward to align an industry around saying ‘no’ to something,” Lugar said. “But aligning an industry, especially one that’s made up of fierce competitors, around meaningful, proactive solutions to address important problems from health to the environment, that takes patience, determination, resilience, a sense of humor, and of course, leadership.”

Lynne Thomas Gordon, CEO of the American Association of Orthodontists, presented the award to Mason with another off-screen handoff, but not before sipping from a glass of Mason’s favorite beverage—champagne. Gordon is a former Association Forum board chair. She praised Mason for increased revenue and membership and for prioritizing inclusivity through her Welcoming Environment initiative.

“I first met Michelle about six years ago, when she was interviewing for the Association Forum CEO position,” Gordon said. “I was impressed with her then, and I remain impressed with her today. She’s been innovative and strategic … Anybody who is a member of Association Forum knows it doesn’t matter who you are, what your job is, where you live, you are welcome.”

American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers virtually presented the award to Shay. Sommers said he chatted with one of Shay’s old mentors, John Mahaney, former chief executive of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, where Shay got his start.

“Now in his 80s and retired, (Mahaney) said this about Matt: ‘When he walked through the door, I knew I had a winner. Matt is a man of great ethics. Matt is a man of character. Matt is very bright. Matt is good to his word.”

“These are hard times when it comes to morale and the economy,” Sommers said. “Matt’s led the retail industry through a pandemic that has changed everyday life, the way consumers shop and how American businesses operate. But he doesn’t get rattled, and handles adversity with kindness and empathy.”

Sommers revealed that Shay bears the nickname “Mr. Big,” because he does everything in a big way—including flying back from China overnight to attend his child’s lacrosse game. Shay’s wine collection numbers in the thousands, Sommers said.

You know an event can get association executives singing from the same sheet when it includes cameos by rapper Snoop Dogg and “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff. And it packs extra punch with an appearance by action star Chuck Norris.

Hasselhoff—according to Guinness, the most-watched man on TV—congratulated the winners from the shade of palm trees. Norris proposed that CEO Update’s Graham try punching and kicking his way out of the computer. Snoop tried to console Graham.

“Don’t worry ’bout things goin’ virtual. It’s going to be a’ight, it’s going to get back to the way it used to be,” Snoop assured him. “And this is from your friend, Kevin, because he loves you just as much as I do.”

During a light-hearted skit honoring Keane, Washington power player and philanthropist Heather Podesta acted miffed that her staff couldn’t help her find the right words. Podesta is founder of lobbying firm Invariant, which does work for ABA and was an ALA sponsor.

As one staffer started a litany of biographical facts about Keane, Podesta stopped him short.

“Noah, it’s an awards dinner, not a f****** funeral,” she said. Podesta finally found the mark on her own, saying, “Kevin … congratulations on being the best damn lobbyist in Washington.”

Shay was able to break Graham out of his pixelated existence.

“(Are you) stuck in a digital world? Unsure of what day it is? What time it is? What’s up, down, past or present?” Shay deadpanned. “Completely adrift if not for the warm glow of solutions-driven association consciousness, the thing that binds us all together and at last has brought you here?”

“Yeah, that’s it!” Graham said.

More coverage of the 2020 Association Leadership Awards will be in the Sept. 28 issue of CEO Update.