Dennis at CONEXPO-CONAGGWhen AEM President Dennis Slater announced his retirement earlier this year, the decision was met with a great detail of support and gratitude from association staff, member company representatives and industry peers. For nearly 40 years, Slater has worked on behalf of equipment manufacturers and the customers they serve, and his efforts and accomplishments have left a firm and lasting footprint across AEM and throughout the industry at-large.

Now, as his retirement draws near, AEM caught up with Slater to discuss his earliest years with the association, his hopes for AEM’s future, what his role as President has meant to him and much, much more.  

AEM: How did you get your start with AEM, and what were your earliest years with the association like?

Slater: My time at the association began working as a publications editor – writing press releases, writing the newsletter that has since transformed into the AEM Industry Advisor and talking to the media.

It was a job I held for about three years, and then, one day, the gentleman who ran the CONEXPO trade show left the association. Even though I have never even attended CONEXPO before, I went into the boss’s office and asked if I could be the person to run it. Well, he laughed at me, and so I went home and told my wife, “I think I made a major career mistake.” Then, the next day, he gave me the job. From there, I really started learning the business of trade shows. That was 1985, and my first CONEXPO was two years later – in 1987.

And when I think back to my early years, I’m always reminded of the fact that we were such a small group. When I started with the association in 1982, we employed 15 people and one person in Washington, D.C. Our work primarily dealt with statistics, technical work and meetings. And, of course, we had the CONEXPO show. But in those days, it was held once only every six years and, as amazing as this sounds today, it was the only show we had.

As I gained experience in running CONEXPO, I really learned to like my role and worked to bring in additional people to help. I also realized a once-every-six-year trade show wasn’t good for the industry, and so I worked to develop the merger that eventually formed what is CONEXPO-CON/AGG today. It’s a long story, and there’s certainly more to it, but that’s how I went from being a writer to being someone who runs trade shows for the organization.

Dennis CIMAAEM: You've spent the last two-plus decades as President of AEM. What has that role meant to you, and what are you most proud of accomplishing?

Slater:  One thing comes to mind above all others. It was about two years into my presidency at the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association (CIMA) that the effort to form AEM really got traction. Being one of the architects of forming AEM is something I am really proud of, as it required bringing together two organizations in CIMA and Equipment Manufacturers Institute (EMI) to form AEM as an organization that represents the entire industry. So, to me, when you consider everything that’s happened in my career, the formation of AEM has to be the biggest accomplishment.

However, I also have to mention our advocacy work. For us as an association to evolve from just reporting on policy to actually affecting policy, that’s been critical to our growth and development. We took an office of one in Washington, D.C. and turned it into an office of 10, one which engages members in ways we never did before. And now, we really have a voice in D.C., one which weighs in the policies that impact our industry and has become a major force in advocating on behalf of the 2.8 million men and women who work in equipment manufacturing.

AEM: As you prepare to head in retirement, what can you point to as the most impactful thing you’ll take away from your nearly four decades spent with AEM?

Slater: First, I have to say the time really does go by so fast. You really have to enjoy the journey, and in the end, it’s the people you meet in this industry – and it really is such an important industry – who impact you the most. I’ve always been amazed by the talent and passion of all the people I’ve met along the way, and I’ve also really enjoyed being a part of telling the story of our industry and how it contributes to our overall economy.

AEM: What are your biggest hopes for AEM in the future?

Dennis StaffSlater: I feel really good about where AEM is headed in the future. First, we have a very talented staff, and (President-select) Megan (Tanel) is going to be a great leader for the association. Second, and most importantly, everyone at AEM is very engaged in what they’re doing. To me, it’s always been about looking to improve and get better. AEM is doing just that, and it’s something I’m confident will continue.

The other day, I was telling my wife about how there are so many exciting things in AEM’s future, and how it’s going to be hard to miss out on them. But at the same time, there’s always new and exciting things on the horizon. And it’s time for others to take them on.

AEM: What do you think you’re going to miss the most?

Slater: It’s definitely the people I’ve worked with over the years. Members and volunteer leaders – I have spent so much time with them, and what I will miss most won’t be the time spent with them in meetings. Instead, I’ll miss the time spent traveling with them, in airports hanging out or having a drink with them after a show or an event. And while I’ll still be able to do some of those things and, of course, we’ll remain friends, it won’t be the same.

And then there’s the team at AEM. Having spent such a long time here, I think we’ve built up a great culture over the years. The camaraderie and casual conversations are great. I like to think anyone at AEM can come up and talk to me, even though I’m the President. But I’m just one person on a team, having come up the ranks here and worked in just about every position that we have at some point.

AEM: What is your first day of retirement going to be like?

Slater: That first morning of retirement, I’ll have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper – in print. What I won’t be doing is looking at the clock and needing to hurry on with something else in my day, and I think I’ll really enjoy that moment.

Dennis TanelFor me, though, it will really be important not to get involved with too much, too early. If I wanted another career, I would have stayed at AEM. I want to find a project or something I’m passionate about, but I’m not going to get too engaged too early.

AEM: For some of the younger people who are starting their own journey into the industry, what advice would you give them to make the most out of their early opportunities?

Slater: Do what you love and be really passionate about what you do. Make the extra phone call or complete the extra task that others won’t because you can fall back on that passion.

And I always say this… It’s not a destination. It’s a journey. There is no end, and things are always evolving. So, with that in mind, assess yourself every year and compare it to the one prior. But most importantly, keep after it. Because you’ll never lose in the end if you keep trying. That optimism has guided me through everything during my time with AEM.

AEM: Anything else you want to add?

Slater: I have a group of longtime baseball friends, and we made a bet regarding who of us would end up working the longest. Well, we met up not all that long ago, and I found out it was me. I’ve been able to see them go out and enjoy their lives in recent years, and that really makes you look forward to retiring yourself.

That being said, I’ve really enjoyed this journey. It went by so fast. Going to my first CONEXPO was a long time ago. A lot has taken place since, and I’ve enjoyed it all. Now, being at the end of my career, I can finally look back and say, “We accomplished what we set out to do, and we did the best possible job we could.”

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