Kim Heck family
Kim Heck’s three children stopped by the 2022 SFMA Awards Banquet in Savannah, Ga. before heading to Tybee Island for a family vacation. (Left to right) Jessica Reitman, Kim Heck, Andrew Heck and Madeline Heck.

Kim Heck looks back at nearly two decades of charting the course for SFMA

Sports Field Management Association (SFMA) CEO Kim Heck, CAE, stepped down as CEO of the association this month after 18 years in that role. Heck reflected upon her tenure with the association during a recent interview with SportsField Management magazine.

SportsField Management (SFM): What led to your decision to step down as CEO of SFMA?

Heck: I think the impetus for stepping down is that it is good timing! We just finished the rebranding and relaunching of the association. In addition, I was part of the leadership who participated in the development of a 10-year strategic plan, which also launched in January. It seemed like logical timing to have someone else lead the association into the new era. Together with the staff and the support of committees, I had successfully accomplished six strategic plans for the association, and the comprehensive initiatives those plans contained.

SFM: What’s next for you in terms of future endeavors?

Heck: I know I will not be able to stay away from non-profit work, and I’ll look locally for my next venture. I currently volunteer for our neighborhood association as its secretary. There are many organizations that have needs.

SFM: In 2004, in your initial message to our audience, you wrote that your pledge was to “design a road map that will lead to greater success for the individual member and for the association.” What do you feel are the biggest successes of the course you mapped for the association during the last 18 years?

Heck: Financial stability is probably number one. When I was hired, SFMA was struggling financially. We now have more than $2 million in reserves. Although the switch to engaging a financial planning firm to implement an investment strategy was a big step, the board of directors at that time set a vision to help secure a strong future for the association.

Kim Heck (left) receiving the George Toma Golden Rake Founders Award in 2020 from George Toma and the previous year’s Golden Rake awardee, Abby McNeal, CSFM.

Changes to our governance structure have also paved the way for a stronger association. The board’s terms of service were redefined and shortened, which made board service more attractive to volunteers. Previously, board members would serve 14 years; now the maximum is seven, and we have a healthy number of members volunteer to run for office each year.

Educationally, the association has never been stronger. Hundreds of educational resources have been developed and provided in different models to be relevant to a variety of learning styles. The conference and exhibition has grown each year, not only in attendance and exhibitor participation, but in the breadth of topics, outside events and in professional appearance. Our certification programs are top notch. The core purpose of our association is to provide continuing education to members to help them succeed, and that has been a focus during my tenure.

SFM: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced, and what have you learned from any moments of adversity along the way?

Heck: There are three significant challenges that stand out for me:

One is the lack of interest in the profession. Students pursuing two-year and four-year degrees in turfgrass management are declining. For a strong future for SFMA, the industry must have young people seeking sports field management as a career. Although a formal education is the better path, the board realizes it is not the only path. We are working on a variety of ways to attract and train students for an immediate impact on the profession.

The second is garnering more respect for the work of our members. We have had a strong PR initiative during the past 10 years to present members and the work that they do to the public. It is a long process, and although we have made progress, we have so much more to do.

The last is the extreme dissatisfaction of my boards with the synthetic turf industry. That angst has ebbed and flowed as board members changed over the years. Although our members definitely prefer to only manage natural grass surfaces, the original perception that synthetic fields are going to eliminate sports field management jobs has generally evolved to a grudging acceptance that there is a place in our industry for them – offering another management tool in the toolbox.

What I have learned is that there are no fast nor one-and-done solutions!

SFM: What have you enjoyed most about being part of the sports field management industry for almost two decades?

Heck: Members and those in the industry are great! They are kind and forgiving. If there is an issue they want addressed, they bring it forward with professionalism and diplomacy. I admire the prevailing attitude of members. They always push forward to be the best at what they do. They take professional development seriously, and are open to new ideas and technology. I love sports, and although I have zero training in sports field management, I have been able to be involved in sports vicariously through the excellent work of our members.

SFM: In past interviews, you have pointed out the camaraderie in the sports field management industry and how friendly and supportive everyone is toward each other. Is there anything you would like to say about the people you have met and worked with these past 18 years, the friendships you have made, as well as your staff at headquarters?

Kim Heck and the SFMA Headquarters staff at the 2022 SFMA Conference in Savannah, Ga. From left, Whitney Webber, Heck, Leah Craig, Nora Dunnaway and Kristen Althouse.

Heck: From day one I have felt a connection between our members that is unusual in most membership organizations. No matter what level of sports a member represents, or the stature of an academic, everyone is very approachable and willing to share. I feel I can pick up the phone or turn on Zoom and access 2,500 people I call friends – even if I haven’t met them previously. Our conference environment showcases this fellowship so clearly. It sounds corny, but every year it is like a family reunion. Staff has those same relationships with members and with each other. Almost all our staff have been employed for as long as I have: Leah came on board a few weeks after I did; Nora has been with SFMA 16 years; and Kristen, 14 years. Although Whitney is the newbie at two years, it feels like she has been with us a long time, too. The culture of the association makes SFMA work fulfilling for our headquarters staff.

SFM: Major efforts you just helped see to fruition are the association rebrand and SFMA’s new 10-year strategic plan. What are the keys to both of those initiatives being successful moving forward, and/or what advice do you have for whomever leads SFMA into the next decade and beyond?

Heck: Strategic planning has always been the hallmark of each SFMA Board. Once the plan is developed, they use it to guide their work. The 10-year plan is exciting, and the new CEO will have some major initiatives to steer. I would imagine each future board will continue their meticulous attention to advancing the strategic plan. The plan can be summarized by one word – growth. Member numbers, recognition of the profession, and greater diversity are the three platforms for growth. These are long-term initiatives, and will require a strong focus to accomplish. Our headquarters staff and our board always have more ideas than available resources!

Parting Words

In her letter to SFMA members, outgoing SFMA CEO Kim Heck, CAE, stated, “I am incredibly proud of what I’ve accomplished during my tenure and the legacy I leave behind. Above all, I’m honored to have worked with so many talented and passionate people in this incredible industry.”

We asked some of those talented and passionate people with whom Heck has worked to share their thoughts about Heck and her legacy.

Kim always put the association and its members first and had their best interests at heart. She was the 2019 winner of the George Toma “Golden Rake” Founders Award, which goes to someone who emphasizes the importance of everyone involved in sports field management. Kim was always willing to go the extra mile in elevating the professionalism of the members and this industry.

– Kristen Althouse, education manager, SFMA

There is just no way 18 years have passed since Kim Heck accepted the challenge of managing STMA. The leaps our association has taken from her first day to now are even more mind blowing. Not sure what we did to deserve her. Kim’s first task – I now see in hindsight – was to teach our board to be visionary, strategic and transparent. All who served on the board or on a committee during Kim’s tenure know they received a doctoral level education in how an association should be nurtured and managed. The strides SFMA made during her leadership have been beyond any dreams I had when she was hired. She inspired elected leaders to dream big, to be inclusive, and to be strategic. Her commitment to facilitating strategic planning provides SFMA with continuity, helping ensure our positive momentum continues regardless of who the elected leaders are or what obstacles stand in our way. Kim did not use tricks or magic, she simply worked extremely hard and efficiently to get us to the position we are in today. It is impossible to quantify what she has meant to SFMA. With a lump in our throat, we all rejoice in and are grateful for her SFMA legacy. Congratulations Kim!

– Mike Andresen, CSFM, director of grounds maintenance, Kirkwood Community College

Two words immediately come to mind to me regarding Kim – consummate professional. She knew how to properly advise the board, and remind us of what our responsibilities were as individuals and as a group; and she could do that in a friendly, non-combative manner. Every board member that served during Kim’s tenure would also refer to her beyond the SFMA relationship as a friend because she took the time to get to know about you and your lives/families/jobs as well. Her passion for KU basketball rivals mine for UK, and has provided us plenty of things to “discuss” over the years – including an annual wager where the loser of the KU/UK basketball game must don the opponent’s jersey for a day. I join many in thanking Kim for so skillfully applying her expertise and talents toward the growth, recognition, and value of SFMA as a professional organization, and I wish her continued good health and nothing but the best.

– Mike Goatley, Ph.D., professor and extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech

Kim Heck was brought on to the Sports Turf Managers Association as it was just turning the corner in growth and professionalism. Kim took the association and expanded the reach of its message expressing the value of a sports field manager and field safety globally. Under her guidance, STMA created several strategic plans that lead to the creation of the certification program (CSFM), SAFE Foundation, and several marketing campaigns promoting the sports field manager and the industry. Raising our professionalism and value at all levels of the industry, Kim worked with the board to grow the association to where it is today, supporting safe, well-maintained surfaces for all users. Kim’s impact is the foundation upon which the next chapter of SFMA will be built. Personally, Kim made a huge difference in my career by providing support for women in the industry and professional representation. Thank you, Kim, for all that you have done.

– Abby McNeal, CSFM, CPRP, CABI, field superintendent, City Wide Operations for Denver Parks and Recreation

I feel very fortunate to have been on the board of directors when we went through the process of hiring Kim to be the executive director of the STMA. In the early days of her tenure, the association was on rocky ground, and Kim, her team, and the board understood that a new strategic plan was needed. We would not be where we are today without Kim’s efforts. Her professionalism, knowledge of the association industry, and focus on elevating our industry took a small association and turned it into a big-time association in the industry. While we had some tremendous board leadership throughout her tenure, I am sure every one of the board members and past presidents would echo how blessed we were to have Kim.

– Boyd Montgomery, CSE, CSFM, regional business manager sports fields & grounds, North America, Commercial Products Division, Toro

Kim has been the central figure for SFMA for the last 18 years, and she has always been there to meet the ever-changing needs of the membership and green industry. Her willingness to share her experiences prior to SFMA (mainly GCSAA) has brought professionalism, structure, governance and financial stability to our association. We have relied heavily on Kim and her staff to bring SFMA up to standards shared by many other green industry associations. Kim has worked with the SFMA board of directors to diversify funds and make the association more financially secure. This was done well before COVID-19, and SFMA has been able to keep up its great services to all members throughout. These additional funds have also been used to expand many member benefits, research and new publications. Kim has also been a big supporter of the SFMA on a worldwide stage as well. She helped to create our International Committee, and has been gaining traction ever since. This is really noticeable in the attendees to the annual conference from outside of the United States. These are just a few of the many inputs Kim has implemented into the SFMA. We will miss her dearly.

– Troy Smith, CSFM, sports turf manager, SiteOne Landscape Supply

Kim was always the professional, and handled herself with such grace and poise. Kim is sincere, thoughtful, and loved the work she did. The loyalty shown by her staff shows that she was a true leader – one worthy of being followed. Kim never put herself before the SFMA; the association was always a higher priority when in public, in board meetings, at conference, and any other situation. Kim made being the president of the SFMA a true joy. She was ahead of most issues, communicated quickly, and was always a great sounding board for new ideas. In short, Kim was always a bright spot within our industry. It was truly my privilege to serve my time on the board while she was our leader. I respect her as a professional, love her as a friend, and cherish all the time we spent together.

Tim VanLoo, CSFM, sales consultant for D&K Turf Products

I was on the STMA board when Kim was hired. She was such a breath of fresh air! She brought a new level of excitement and professionalism to the association. Under her leadership, the association has grown in membership, strategic vision, and professionalism. I am one of the original members of the Environment Committee and have served as chair/co-chair for a number of years. Kim has been the committee’s staff contact, and has helped to develop the Environmental Certification Program every step of the way. Along with committee members, Kim helped craft the vision and purpose of the certification program. She has been intimately involved in the development of all three versions of the certification document. I am also on the SAFE Board, and Kim oversees the operations of that foundation. Suffice it to say, I have enjoyed working with her over the years, and value her friendship.

– Vickie Wallace, extension educator, University of Connecticut

In 2004 the board of directors felt the time had come for the association to have its own executive director. After months of searching, Kim Heck was selected, and on September 1, 2004, she became the very first full-time dedicated executive director (later CEO) in SFMA’s 23-year history. I was fortunate enough to be on that selection committee when we all agreed that Kim had the vision and tools to take STMA (SFMA) to the next level of our profession. Her experience, vision and leadership brought SFMA to the forefront of sports field management industry. Kim has been an integral part of SFMA’s initiatives that include field safety, environmental stewardship, professional development, member recognition, certification, scholarships, chapters, and the SAFE Foundation, to name a few. Kim has put together a stellar staff that shares her vision and dedication in strengthening membership, advancing member recognition and promoting education. Kim, thank you so much for all you have done for SFMA over the last 18 years. I will miss you dearly.

– Steve Wightman