A fond farewell

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Olivia Holcombe retires from WEDA

It’s hard to believe Olivia Holcombe ended her career with WEDA with a quote from the classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Mathew Broderick played Ferris Bueller and said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Well, said Holcombe, “I’m going to take this opportunity to stop and look around.” She started looking around at the end of February when she retired after 27 years with WEDA. But you have to start before you finish. Here’s a rewind of her career and a job well done.

Olivia Holcombe started working with associations in 1976 after spending three years working for a company that specialized in printing association journals. Knowing what an association was, recalled Holcombe, probably helped her land that first association job. 

“Association work is rarely a calling, but it does become a mission, at least it was for me,” said Holcombe. “Associations are all about helping members and that’s what I’ve loved about this profession. Whether it was an association health insurance program, advocacy efforts, or a conference, everything we did was for the members. That appealed to me. On a personal level, each day was different and I learned something new every day.”

A nice turn
Holcombe recalled the day her association career took a turn, a nice turn. It’s the day she met former WEDA CEO Jeff Flora.

“I met Jeff Flora at a Kansas City Society of Association Executives meeting. We hit it off, and in 1994, when Western’s association management business was growing, Jeff offered me the opportunity to join Western, and bring in the association I was then managing as a client.” That client was the Professional Lawn Care Association of Mid-America.

“The association management division grew a lot in the next few years,” said Holcombe. “We added both clients and staff. Jeff was a great boss. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with him. He was a true visionary and had an entrepreneurial spirit. He encouraged me to develop professionally and gave me many opportunities to try new things and work with our association clients.” Holcombe earned her CAE (Certified Association Executive) designation and completed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organization Management program while at Western.

Flora also recalled his first encounter with Holcombe during that meeting. He said he quickly realized her potential and he recruited her to join the association, which was then the Western Retail Implement & Hardware Association.  

“My decision to hire Olivia was one of the best moves I made as the CEO. Olivia’s dedication to her profession, her ability to multi-task, while performing at the highest level with a smile on her face, was something to be envied,” said Flora.

“Olivia became our office manager in Kansas City as our territory grew and much of the staff – including me – was often out of the office conducting area meetings and visiting dealers, etc.,” continued Flora. “I never once was concerned when I was gone about our members receiving the type of caring and responsive service they expected when they called the office. I knew Olivia most often had the answers and if she didn’t, she knew where to go to get them.” 

“Any job is easier when you love what you do and like the people you work with,” said Holcombe. “Even though we worked hard, it was fun and fulfilling because the members were great to work with and appreciative of our efforts.”

Speaking of liking the people with whom you work, the feeling was mutual, said Jane Male, director of association management and executor director at WEDA. Like Jeff Flora, Male also met Holcombe at a meeting of the Kansas City Society of Association Executives.

“When an opportunity was presented in 2000 to join Olivia (and Curt Kleoppel and Jeff Flora) at WEDA it was too good to pass up,” recalled Male. “The last 20 years were great working with Olivia, a dedicated association executive, someone who’s professionalism, love and passion for our dealers was demonstrated every day. It was a pleasure learning and laughing with someone who I consider one of my dearest friends.”

Another former coworker is Joanne Olson. Olson is office manager and managing editor of association publications. Olson met Olivia shortly after the former SouthWestern Association merged with the Canada West Equipment Dealers Association in 2014 and created what is now WEDA.

“When I first met Olivia, I was actually nervous to meet her. She was known for her meticulous attention to detail, knowledge of the association, relationship with the dealers she served, and running a tight ship in the office,” said Olson, who works out of the association’s office in Calgary, Alberta. 

“Little did I know then that Olivia would be someone I could rely on, learn from, and become a dear friend. Her knowledge and wisdom are insurmountable. She is trustworthy and honest to a fault and appreciated and respected by so many. She has a gift of making others better,” concluded Olson.

Changing roles
Holcombe’s duties, not all of which were expressly defined on paper, were always in motion and expanding.

“In 2003, as Western was merging with the Southwest Association, I moved out of the association management department and became SouthWestern’s marketing and membership director. That was an exciting time. We traveled to Texas and Oklahoma, holding meetings and becoming better acquainted with members there,” said Holcombe.

Getting better acquainted with members and meeting their needs are the hallmarks of Holcombe’s 27-year run at the association, noted WEDA CEO John Schmeiser.

“Olivia’s contributions cannot be overstated. She filled a necessary and critical role during her tenure with our association,” said Schmeiser. “For a lot of dealer members, she was their first point of contact and quickly would take care of their issues or concerns… or ensure that they were dealt with in a very timely manner. She enjoyed the daily interactions with members and our members also relied on her experience, knowledge and insight.”

Lasting impressions
Retirement is but one side of a revolving career door. As one person exits, another person enters. The hope of most employers is the person entering is as good as the person exiting.

“WEDA is a successful dealer association due in large part to a legacy of dedicated employees and a commitment to serving our members first and foremost – Olivia Holcombe set the example for that attribute for the rest of the staff for many, many years,” said Flora. “I know she will be missed by the members and staff at WEDA.” 

“My coworkers were absolutely the best. We relied on and learned from one another. I was part of a winning team,” said Holcombe. “Each person brings their unique skills and talents, and together we make the world a better place. I know the WEDA staff will continue to do great work for members, and I have no qualms about members being well served after I leave. The biggest surprise is that I’m retiring – it happened so fast.”

And careers do go by in a hurry. However, meaningful and unconditional friendships generally last longer than a person’s professional life. Noted Holcombe’s former coworker, Jane Male, retirement doesn’t end relationships. “I look forward to continuing our weekly, now virtual lunches. I wish Olivia all the best life can bring her in retirement. She deserves it.”

Added WEDA CEO John Schmeiser, “I know Olivia will treasure the many fond memories and relationships that she developed with the staff, current and former board members and our membership.”

But the final word belongs to Olivia Holcombe whose professional life started strong, stayed strong and finished strong.

“I’m not quite sure how I feel about retirement. There’s so much I want to do and I’m looking forward to that – but I’ll miss working with members and helping them to solve problems,” she said. “The members who worked with me on planning the Dealers of Tomorrow programs, as well as my friends at JDUG, will always have a special place in my heart. I hope I’ll be remembered as someone who made a difference for the members.”

You will be remembered… and you really did make a difference, Olivia. Enjoy looking around at life.

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