May 1, 2000

8 Min Read
What's in a Name?

By Khali Henderson

Posted: 05/2000

What’s
in a Name?
Evolving Industry Demands Modifying Moniker
By Khali Henderson

The Board of Directors of the Telecommunica-tions Resellers Association
(www.tra.org) has proposed changing the name of the eight-
year-old group to the Association of Communications Enterprises.

It has asked its membership to ratify the change in the expectation of unveiling it in conjunction
with its May 9-11 in Spring 2000 Conference and Exhibition in Philadelphia.

PHONE+ spoke to the association’s long-time President Ernest B. Kelly, III about the name change and the direction of the trade association.

Why is the association making this change?

Kelly: Well, let me explain the thinking behind the proposal and then address what we hope to achieve by it.

First, this has not been a sudden decision but rather one that has evolved over quite some time. It has been an issue that we have heard about from the membership consistently over the years. I can personally remember the issue of a name change having been raised at the board level as far back as 1996.

The name Telecommunications Resellers Association stems from a combination of elements of two precursor associations that merged to form TRA in 1992. They were the Interexchange Resellers Association and the Telecommunications Marketing Association. So the pioneers of the
switchless, long-distance resale industry essentially started TRA. We had about 80 initial members.

At the time of that merger, and for quite a while after that, the name accurately reflected the membership. Over the intervening years the membership has increased ten-fold. It has become readily apparent, particularly over the past two years that our expanding membership base is no longer adequately described by the existing name of the association.

So the changing membership profile is the driving force behind the name change?

Kelly: That is in large part correct. However, there is also a forward-looking piece to this decision. We were searching for a name that would not only accurately reflect our current membership base but would position us to continue growing and expanding in ways that are reflective of what is happening in the industry. We think we have done that.

How has membership changed? What has caused these changes and how have you addressed them as TRA?

Kelly: Well, the changes we have seen basically reflect the changes in our industry, but let me backtrack again for a moment. Back in 1994 we made several key decisions in an effort to grow our then fledgling organization. The first was to actively solicit carrier membership.
The second was to aggressively pursue carriers and resellers in every telecommunications marketplace we could find. We had a desire to be something different
than the traditional telecom trade associations, which were predominantly dedicated to single markets like long distance, cable, cellular, local, etc. We wanted to
be an association that cut across markets because we felt that sooner or later multiservice offerings were going to be the
only way to go. We felt we had the lever to do that because our membership was oriented around marketing and sales, which is a universal element of all
tele-com markets.

We have successfully pursued that strategy over the years, and it has paid off handsomely for us. It was the reason behind our merger with the National Wireless Resellers Association three years ago. It was the reason why, year after year, we have been reeling in so many startup ventures and small business entrants coming into these markets.

The purpose always has been to create an inclusive, all encompassing communications trade association where networking opportunities would be unparalleled. I have called this the “big beehive theory,” that is, get as many of these varied telecom entrepreneurs inside one place at one time, let them buzz around each other and cross-pollinate, etc. The feeling was that this would be great for the industry, great for consumers and users and great for the members’ businesses.

In my opinion the success of this approach is the reason why we now stand at more than 800 members, notwithstanding the yearly onslaught of mergers and acquisitions. No other communications trade association has seen this kind of growth over the past decade. We are as close to a truly convergent trade association as exists in this industry.

Where are your new members coming from?

Kelly: Over the past two years we have seen an enormous increase in CLECs, ISPs, and providers of what I will generically call advanced services, and, to a slightly lesser degree, wireless, international and prepaid services. At the same time traditional members are all upgrading their service offerings to include more bundling. Those who have not already done this are actively addressing the subject. This is a completely new breed of members when compared to the ones who started the association in 1992.

What will you use for an acronym?

Kelly: We like ASCENT. It has nice positive connotations. It reflects growth and achievement among its membership. I think we can do a lot with it from a marketing perspective.

Aren’t you afraid the group will lose the marquee value of the TRA name or that you might upset your growth by making so bold a change?

Kelly: Sure, but it’s still the right thing to do. This association is not going to stop doing the good things it has done just by changing its name. It’s only going to make things better, in my opinion. We know the name TRA has value. I am probably more aware of that than anyone. I am sure I will wax a little nostalgic when we lower the banner the last time. I’ve put my heart and soul into making it a name that is known in the telecom world. However, in this industry you must move with the changes. We have never been content to sit back and put it in cruise control. We do a lot of things differently than other associations. We are not afraid to take chances or to be the first to do something out of the ordinary, if we are convinced it will benefit the overall membership.

I think it comes down to this: We recognized years ago that our ultimate purpose is to enable commerce between and amongst our members. Bottom line, if you don’t sell products or services in this industry, you are kaput. What is more important than helping members to do that? I can assure you that other trade associations are looking at these changing markets and contemplating the same factors that lead us to this decision.

Is the term “reseller” in the name part of the problem?

Kelly: Virtually every company in the industry leases or uses part of someone else’s network or facilities. They can be called resellers or whatever you want, I suppose. To us resale is a marketing term. Nothing more, nothing less. It is clearly not the favored descriptive phrase these days in terms of how members refer to their services. Everybody wants to be an “integrated service provider” or something like that. I also think it has taken on an unfortunate connotation to certain under-informed observers of this industry as some kind of technology poor or undervalued approach to competition. I mean there are facilities-based resellers and non facilities-based resellers that are thriving and have thrived in these emerging competitive markets. Competitors may use resale as the basis for their business model. Alternatively, they may use it in part or as a vehicle for entering markets or not at all.

Terms like aggregator, reseller, full service provider, etc., go in and out of vogue. In any event, the Association of Communications Enterprises will continue to pay close attention to the opportunities for resellers, as we always have. We will continue to be their voice on all of the important issues.

How did you arrive at the new name?

Kelly: Well, it was an interesting process. At the heart of it was an extensive marketing survey we did of current, present and potential members to see how our core constituency had changed over the past eight years. We looked closely at how our members were describing themselves in their own marketing materials. We looked at our mission statement and consulted with industry gurus as to where these markets were going. We drew up some conclusions and then developed an options list. Then we locked the Board in a room, took away all their beepers and cell phones and got down to the task at hand.

It really wasn’t too hard, as root canals go. We were probably a little more limited in what we could do as an association than we would have been as a commercial company, but basically you either describe your membership or your mission in your name. Anyway, it was like the jury system. After five hours behind closed doors, a verdict was reached.

But seriously, one theme kept coming back to us. That was that our core constituency was, is and will be the startup ventures, the telecom entrepreneurs with a vision or a dream, or the small companies that keep flooding into the telecom industry year after year in search of an unfilled market niche. They have always been at the heart of this association. We went for a name that would be reflective of this particular heritage and inclusive to those who are not yet a part of us.

Does the change mean more or less emphasis on regulatory and policy work?

Kelly: We will always fight the regulatory, legal and policy fights necessary to open all the markets to competition. That is not going to change. The broader question is what do you become when these markets become competitive, as they are rapidly doing. How do you serve your members in an era of open and competitive telecom markets? We are trying to work this issue right now, rather than later.

Does it mean a change in your basic purpose or goals and objectives?

Kelly: No. We will continue to promote the interests of open and fair competition for our members in every market we can touch and do everything we can to help them otherwise to succeed in business.

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