Nov. 16 2015 06:32 PM

When Deborah Hamlin accepted the position of executive director of the Irrigation Association (IA) in 2006, little did she realize the challenges that lay ahead. But the association soon found out that they had hired just the right person to meet those challenges.

It is often said, “It’s not only you, but the team you develop that gives your company its true strength.” A trade association, like any other business, needs skilled leadership; one doesn’t just become head of a trade organization overnight. Most people entering the field learn these skills along the way up. Being the executive director of any trade association requires more skills than some might think. And that brings us to Deborah Hamlin.

Hamlin was born in Delmar, New York—a suburb of Albany, the state capital. Her father owned an association management firm that managed New York State and northeastern trade associations. Her mother and older sister also worked in the family business, so it was natural for Hamlin to help out, even in her pre-teen years.

All during the summers of her high school and college years, Hamlin worked in the family business. Upon graduation in 1986 from what is now the State University New York- Oneonta, Hamlin went to work in the family business, where she stayed for about three years.

In 1989, she was offered a position with the New York Nurses Association as director of organization services. She agonized over whether she should take the job. The salary she was offered was more than one-third higher than she was earning and she knew her dad couldn’t compete. Still, she was hesitant. She felt that if she left, she would be abandoning her dad. In the end, she said, “I knew Dad was very proud of me.”

Because of the multi-management experience she gained at her dad’s firm, Hamlin was qualified for the job. The firm handled large associations, small associations, did trade shows and sent out newsletters, but still, this was her first job outside the family business. Since she had never had anyone working for her prior to this, “That was my biggest learning curve,” she said.

Just as Hamlin was starting the job with the Nurses Association, she got married. She had been on the job for five years when her husband got a job offer in Kansas City. They moved to Kansas City, where Hamlin went to work for the International Association of Plastics Distributors (IAPD) where she met and got to know a few people who were also in the irrigation and landscape business. While in Kansas, Hamlin completed her MBA. “I found it helped me better understand my members’ businesses,” she said.

Hamlin was selected as a fellow of the American Society of Association Executives in 2000, and was awarded the Association Executive of the Year award in 2003, from the Kansas City Society of Association Executives.

After 10 years with IAPD, Hamlin decided it was time to leave, but she wanted to do it on a high note. Her parents were getting older, her sister was not healthy, and she wanted to be closer to them. She gave her executive committee one year’s notice. “I love this association so much, I want to help you find my replacement,” Hamlin told them.

She chose to look for a position in Washington, D.C., because it was closer to the East Coast and her family, and there were many trade associations located in the area. “Doug York, the president of Ewing Irrigation, was on the executive committee of the IAPD. He walked me down the hall and said, ‘I’d like for you to apply for the Irrigation Association job, though I can’t guarantee you’ll get the position, because we’re doing a national search.’” Hamlin got the job and in 2006, she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C.

“There was a lot to learn. We had to figure out how to provide more consistent content in the education and the certification programs,” she realized. “Not only do we have to do all the right things, but we have to explain to people why they are the right things. As I learned the business and better understood the industry, we shifted a lot of our emphasis to working outwardly, and gave priority to government affairs, and our standards and codes. Today, we need to stay focused on public affairs.”

“In 2007, we set the vision that the Irrigation Association should be the authority on irrigation. The IA also changed its mission to ‘promoting efficient irrigation’. “We have the best management practices, and the best model ordinances; this entire education base has given us the tools we needed to succeed in government affairs and in the standard and codes world,” said Hamlin. “I don’t think we knew at the time how much we were going to rely on it.”

“I think we’re just turning a corner of always being reactive to being more proactive, with all of this information that we now have. It’s not just about how to teach an irrigator how to install an irrigation system, for instance, but it’s creating the correct way that everything should really be done, and then taking that and delivering it to policymakers.”

Over the past nine months, especially in California, irrigation has been taking the spotlight. Almond growers and other farmers were attacked in the media for using too much water to grow their crops. Turfgrass, trees and shrubs didn’t fare much better.

“I believe we’re well poised for the future, and that future is going to bring more and more regulations around water. It’s complex, because so many rules are made on the local level, and different municipalities want different things,” she said.

“It’s gratifying to know that our members are helping to feed the world and, with proper watering of the landscapes, make living a little more enjoyable,” said Hamlin. “I realize and appreciate the contribution our members are making to mankind.”

This past September, Hamlin was honored as an Alumni of Distinction from the State University of New York-Oneonta. The program honors alumni who have distinguished themselves through their careers and have made significant contributions to society. The irrigation industry is lucky to have Deborah Hamlin, a woman of distinction.