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The ASTM Ambassador

ASTM Vice President Bob Meltzer Retires

by Maryann Gorman

The pace of change in information technology has exploded in the last 10 years. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, prior to the widespread use of CD-ROMs for data storage and retrieval and the use of the Internet for commercial purposes, veteran publishers found themselves afloat in unfamiliar waters. Hype about electronic publishing and the “information superhighway” dominated discussion in the information business, although few knew exactly what shape these future technologies would take and how their customers would respond. The decisions about electronic publishing that executives would make in the next several years would have important implications for their companies’ abilities to serve their customers’ rapidly changing needs.

There weren’t many such complications when Bob Meltzer first walked into ASTM in 1974. For years, people had used standards and related materials in book or booklet form, and that was in some ways about as complex as delivery decisions got. But ASTM and its members and customers can count themselves fortunate that Meltzer stayed to lead the Society into the world of electronic publishing. And now, having positioned ASTM at the forefront of electronic standards delivery, Meltzer bids us farewell, having retired from his position as vice president of the Publications and Marketing division as of April 30.

Finding a New Home

When, in his early 30s, Meltzer answered an advertisement for an associate editor position at a non-profit standards developer, little did he know the job would take him away from his hometown, New York, N.Y. The ad didn’t specify that the employer was based in Philadelphia, Pa. But when Meltzer, game for anything, visited ASTM Headquarters for his interview, he says what he saw convinced him to make the move to the City of Brotherly Love. “When I got to ASTM, it looked like a healthy organization,” he says. Having been employed with another non-profit publisher that was constantly flirting with deficit, Meltzer recalls of ASTM, “I was impressed that a non-profit was being run with business sense.”

In the business model of standards developers based in America, the line between serving the public-service needs of standards development and the needs of the organization in terms of fiscal survival, is a notoriously fine one. Legendary ASTM President Bill Cavanaugh and Director of Publications Al Batik were Meltzer’s mentors in those early years. “I can’t stress enough how impressed I was with Cavanaugh and Al Batik,” Meltzer says. “Those two really taught me about ASTM — Al Batik in terms of giving me an overview of the entire publishing program. Cavanaugh was just a very dynamic person. He had a great sensitivity for the members and an equally good sensitivity for the business side.”

Meltzer says his position as editor in chief of SN, which he took on shortly after his arrival at ASTM, gave him more insight into the standards development side of ASTM. “My experience as editor in chief was great because I got to know what was going on in the committees, what was going on in the president’s office, and what Cavanaugh was thinking. I really learned the philosophy of ASTM. I discussed the content of all my editorials with Cavanaugh, and that was a terrific learning experience.”

The ASTM Ambassador

In 1977, when Batik left ASTM, Meltzer took on the responsibilities of director of publications (eventually the position would be renamed vice president of publications and marketing). His understanding both sides of the standards developer’s task — the creation and the delivery of high-quality technical documents — stood Meltzer in good stead, as he soon went on to become among the first of ASTM’s staff “ambassadors” to standards developers and industry representatives around the world.

Meltzer’s international experience began with his realization that ASTM standards and related publications, while in demand in Europe, were not easy for European customers to acquire. So in 1980, ASTM, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the American Society of Metals worked with a British publishing professional, John Shipley, to form American Technical Publishers, based in the United Kingdom, in order to provide a European base for the distribution of ASTM standards. To this day, ATP constitutes ASTM’s European Office and markets and distributes its standards.

Making it easier for European customers to acquire ASTM standards wasn’t enough for Meltzer, though, and he went on throughout the 1980s to develop cooperative distribution agreements and camaraderie with standards bodies in the Pacific Rim, South America, India, and eventually the Commonwealth of Independent States after the breakup of the Soviet Union. And this is where the education he received from Bill Cavanaugh in both standards development and distribution benefited Meltzer most. “National standards bodies in developing countries were often as interested in developing standards in the ASTM style as in distributing our standards. They wanted to know about our business model, our technical committee structure and procedures.”

Meltzer is nothing if not a long-term cultivator of relationships, and nowhere is this more evident than in his work with China and the China Association for Standardization. Since the early 1980s, Meltzer’s efforts have laid the groundwork for ASTM’s ongoing and successful efforts to promote its standards in China. Through his leadership, ASTM has gone on to work within China through direct mail campaigns, participation in book fairs, hosting Chinese delegations to the United States, and giving seminars. Perhaps most notable among these efforts is the continuing publication of an annual Chinese-language version of SN, which Meltzer founded with his counterparts at CAS.

Electronic Publishing

It was during his early visits to European standards developers that Meltzer first began to hear about the promise of electronic publishing. In the early 1980s, he says, a publisher’s idea of electronic publishing was a bit vague, and lay primarily with hopes for the data formatting and storage end, rather than in distribution to customers. But Meltzer kept his ear to the ground, even conducting a study of ASTM standards users to see what their needs were. (And at the time, their needs were to continue to see the Annual Book of ASTM Standards stay the same reliable hard copy product it had always been.) In addition to the foresight of his counterparts at other organizations, Meltzer also credits ASTM’s Standing Committee on Publications and board of directors for their vision and support in terms of electronic publishing, even in these early days. “Not that we were sure what to do at that time,” Meltzer jokes.

Available technology finally caught up with the visionaries, though, in the 1990s, and the heat was on to choose among various forms of data formatting, storage, retrieval and delivery — all while keeping the needs of ASTM customers in mind. Meltzer guided ASTM’s publications staff through a minefield of technical innovation from SGML (standard generalized markup language) formatting of all standards, to the Society’s first CD-ROM (featuring scanned copies of all 10,000-plus standards on over a dozen disks), to the launching of ASTM’s Web site and true e-commerce in 1995. All the while, Meltzer could only trust his gut instincts and measured his goals against the standard “Is this what the ASTM customer wants?”

“I don’t think anybody realized what a big change it was,” Meltzer says, “to go from a typesetting environment where you have a vendor doing the typesetting and all the production, to actually creating the files yourself and providing them to the printer. It took us a year and a half to install the hardware and software and three years to convert to SGML and format all 10,000 - plus standards. The ASTM staff involved with this, as well as all the staff I’ve worked with over the years, made an exceptional commitment to the successful completion of this project. It was a lot of work and a lot of mistakes, but if I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same way.” Relaxed about making mistakes — that may be the main hallmark of a great teacher.

ASTM is grateful to have had Meltzer teach us how to innovate through risk-taking. As we go to press, the ASTM ambassador is planning his next big move — to Tucson, Ariz., and a life populated by friends, family, and golf. From all of us on ASTM’s staff, its members and satisfied customers — thank you, Bob, for nearly 30 years of helping to make a good standards developer a great one.

Copyright 2003, ASTM