AASP-MN: Starting with a Strong Foundation and Scaling Up

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Building a home that will withstand the wind and rain requires establishing a strong foundation by erecting a firm structure that will support the construction that is developed atop that foundation. That steadfast structure offers support for the growing building, providing it with the solidity needed to safely expand.

Likewise, an association that begins with a strong foundation creates the potential for growth and advancement. AASP-MN stands tall as a perfect example of the type of inspirational structure that can be developed on such a formidable base.

So, what’s the formula this organization uses to generate such success and strength?

“It’s our people,” lauded AASP-MN Executive Director Linden Wicklund. “We enjoy really strong participation from our member shops on both the automotive and collision side all across the state, and receiving their active feedback on what’s shifting and changing within the industry allows us to create programs and goals that are extremely relevant; we’re running on facts, not assumptions.”

In addition to soliciting feedback on a local level, Wicklund has joined members of the association’s Board of Directors in meeting with industry leaders regionally and nationally to further those peer-to-peer conversations and ensure that AASP-MN is “illuminating the day-to-day factors that really inhibit productivity and profitability as well as the larger scale elements that impact our members,” she shared. “We want to identify how we can support these businesses in making practical changes now while also keeping an eye focused on where we need to go in the future as we contend with the ‘new normal’ – supply chain issues, recovering from COVID-19, emerging new technologies and other disruptions, such as this year’s hailstorms.”

As AASP-MN prepares for the future with the introduction of the new year, many of the goals being chased will focus on maintaining and growing the association’s strength and expanding on the groundwork already laid.

“We piloted several ideas in 2022, and after spending some time really figuring them out, we’re now planning to formalize those programs and scale them up,” Wicklund said. “We hope to build upon what we’ve started and make these initiatives even larger and stronger as we continue them in 2023.”

Networking and education are two of the largest benefits that any successful trade association provides its members, and last year, AASP-MN began hosting monthly meetings in St. Cloud that drew as many as 80 industry professionals who came together for training and “sharing their thoughts. Some content was presented, but a large part of what made those events so beneficial was the communication and empowerment between shops. Those discussions really reinforced that we’re all in this together; no shop should feel like they’re going it alone.”

Two separate monthly Zoom calls – one for mechanical shops and another for collision centers – offered yet another opportunity for members to “swap ideas and evaluate what success looks like for different organizations,” according to Wicklund. “Sometimes, we’d get five shops on a call that would have never talked to each other otherwise, and it gave them a chance to explore their similarities and differences. It was surprising how often radically different shops would find many things in common, though their areas of expertise varied greatly.

“Even when certain practices were not directly transferable, those conversations often elicited new ideas and perspectives,” she continued. “We were happy to see more involvement from shops that are in less centralized markets and have historically been less engaged. Providing them with a low-effort means of obtaining high level education benefits those shops directly, but it also benefits the industry as a whole by elevating the standards by which vehicles are repaired. For 2023, we’re having fun exploring how we can make things immediately applicable and relevant in a more casual way that speaks to a larger number of our members. We’ll continue providing formal training of course, and our leadership team is really excited about our annual conference, but we’re focused on meeting members where they’re at so we can engage and learn from everyone.”

Wicklund views that level of camaraderie and training as some of the most valuable benefits the association provides its members, but AASP-MN also offers access to discounts on a variety of business needs, such as insurance, uniforms, credit card processing and more (check out the full list at aaspmn.org/savings). Of course, some shops already have standing relationships with these vendors, so “even when those vendors aren’t the right fit for some of our members, they may still be a useful resource to help shops learn more, so we’re bringing them in as educators to make sure we’re having dialogues on all those areas that impact our members’ businesses.”

Yet, the benefit that stands out as the most important aspect of belonging to AASP-MN is the same for most trade associations: “We provide strength in numbers, whether that’s from a buying perspective or when it comes to legislation,” Wicklund explained. “Members’ businesses need to shift and grow, and by having an awareness of one another, there’s a certain strength in that. When you’re so focused on the day to day operations of your own business, it’s easy to feel stuck and alone, but the size of our network allows members to tap into each other as a resource whenever they need to.

“Because we have so many member shops, we know who your competitors are and can connect you with a shop like yours, a shop that you aspire to be like or a shop struggling to catch up with you,” she added. “We offer that ability to connect with one another because our network is so vast, and we promote all our member companies on our public-facing website for consumers to see. AASP-MN stands out from a lot of other associations because, with nearly 700 members, we have a high percentage of market participation…We truly represent the state of Minnesota!”

With such a wide reach, the association is currently developing its strategic plan on the legislative front. “How do we widen our lens?” Wicklund asked. “What priorities and topics are other organizations focused on that matter to our members too, where we can participate to support them and to project our voice? In addition to building partnerships, this strategy will help us create awareness of our organization by being in front of legislators more regularly. Then, when we approach them with a highly focused, specific request, they recognize us and know we’re participating in other spaces because we’re a regular part of the conversation in a way that’s relevant to all our members – mechanical, collision, suppliers and other service providers.”

AASP-MN saw a lot of progress in 2022, but it all started with one HUGE change at the beginning of the year: a change in leadership when Wicklund replaced long-time Executive Director Judell Anderson. “Linden hit the ground running and has done a great job,” AASP National President Dan Sjolseth (Superior Service Center; Eagan) pointed out. But Wicklund credits her predecessor for providing a solid structure that has allowed her to expand and strengthen what already existed.

“Judell grew AASP-MN to a place of health, stability and maturity with a strong foundation that we can now stand on top of to look in new directions. The strength of that groundwork allows us to be agile and forward-looking, instead of needing to be reactive, because of everything that has been done to grow this organization. Without that strong foundation, we wouldn’t be able to see the possibilities or take risks to keep that momentum going, and that’s exactly what’s going to make us even more successful in the future.”

Want more? Check out the January 2023 issue of AASP-MN News!