Q&A with PMI CEO, Executive Director

The Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) Conference is meeting in Chicago on October 27-30. With the group preparing to discuss the latest issues, technology and trends impacting the plumbing industry, Plumbing Engineer took a moment to chat with PMI CEO/Executive Director Barbara C. Higgens.

Higgens shared what’s new with PMI and what to expect for this year’s convention.

PE: What is on PMI’s radar these days? What are you folks working on?

BH: We have identified a two-prong approach to our activities. One of the two prongs is technical knowledge. That’s no surprise, since PMI has been a longtime leader of technical knowledge and representing the voice of the industry in codes and standards and negotiations. But, the part that we’ve realized has equal value is the second prong of advocacy and outreach. In recent years is we’ve assigned a full-time person to manage that side of the house just as we have a full-time person on the technical side, because both are equally important.

While the plumbing industry has made important contributions to health and safety, people either don’t give us any credit or they don’t recognize the value of what we’ve done.. We’re trying to send the message that plumbing should not be taken for granted. Just look at all these great strides. There is a distinct parallel between increased life expectancy throughout history and advances in plumbing and health and safety. The bottom line is, we’re trying to impress on people that we’re not to be taken lightly, both from our contributions in to improving health and safety but also in consultation when new laws are being enacted. Given the great track record we have, we have proven ourselves to be a valuable resource as a consultant in the area of legislation regulation.

PE: What drives PMI to get involved with legislative issues, like you did with the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act?

BH: Our experience positioning ourselves as an expert gained us respect on Capitol Hill. What we learned from that was the importance of coming out in front to deliver the facts and dispel some of the myths. We have a lot of good technical knowledge to share and when we share people do start to recognize us as a resource, which makes for better legislation and regulation because it’s better informed. The bill is better because we’ve had input in developing it.

Part of it, too, is that we’re good and trustworthy people to work with. I think in some circles, there’s an image of industry being a stumbling block to progress, and that’s not it at all. In the event that products are going to change, we want to provide information including cautions about unintended consequences as well as offer up some realistic time frames. We need to explain to people outside the manufacturing world that it takes a cycle or two, not only for the manufacturers but also for the supply chain to purge the products being replaced and develop and test new materials. So, I think PMI is successfully breaking down walls of prejudice or preconceived notions.

A great example is Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who, when PMI began talking to her to support the national lead bill, was scratching her head.. Now, she gets it and knows that we are concerned with the greater good. We’re good stewards of the Earth, we’re good stewards of health and safety, and all we’re asking for is time to convert. After the experience of the lead bill, she reached out to PMI for a better understanding of the issue of Hex Chrome. Most people wouldn’t align Barbara Boxer with manufacturers, but in this case, not only are we working together, we also gave her PMI’s Legislator of the Year award a couple years ago. We need to dispel this notion of good guys and bad guys. Nothing is going to be accomplished unless we learn to work together. This makes the product better, too.

We’re engaging in proactively building relationships with legislators and making sure that we are visible and offering them collateral. For example, we’ve created a timeline document that helps position the plumbing industry as a really wonderful partner. As I’ve said, we’re on the side of health, safety, and water efficiency. In fact, in the works right now is another updated myths versus reality document on water efficiency. There are misconceptions like, “I’ll have to flush twice with the new generation of toilets, right?” “The new generation of toilets are that much more expensive, right?” “Lower is always better, right?” We’ve consolidated our responses to these questions by creating a repository online at safeplumbing.org. We’re trying to provide the truth above all the hoopla and the political agendas other groups may have. We stick to the facts so that the story is balanced for the folks that are writing our regulations and legislation. PMI also has a smart phone app with an icon for policymakers. That’s an efficient way to get our message in the hands of the gatekeepers who tend to be the 20-year-olds on Capitol Hill. Instead of coming in with the traditional binder full of hand-outs, we’re communicating electronically with them through this smart phone app. Stay tuned for the October launch of our new website, too.

PE: PMI has been central to initiatives like the Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition (PILC) that bring different players in the plumbing industry together for common purpose. What value do you see in efforts like these?

BH: As you know, it was Russ Chaney (IAPMO), Jim Kendzel (ASPE) and I who founded the PILC, and that is absolutely an out growth of the need to work together. It’s strange to me that there have been so many silos in this industry. While some groups do have interests that are unique, at the end of the day it makes sense to work together on universal issues, like water efficiency, that overarches a number of different trade associations. PILC is designed to bring those groups together and has paid great dividends. For years, PMI has encouraged members to participate in letter-writing campaigns to congressmen on industry issues. So, PILC embodies the same idea. One person can say it, but if 50 people say it, it’s much more powerful.

PE: This year’s PMI Convention is taking place in Chicago at the end of October. Can you share a little about the event?

BH: This is a bit of an experiment. We’ve never had our conference in Chicago before; we’ve never offered expanded sponsorship opportunities before. We’ve got 12 sponsors that are supporting the convention with a sponsorship table and advertising coverage. We are brining back the Executive Panel for the second time. There are seven plumbing industry executives who will provide their insight on a variety of industry topics. The panel will be moderated by media icon Bill Kurtis. We’re excited about the panel and it’s attracting a lot of attention. In addition to the executive panel, there are panels on life cycle analysis (LCA) [moderated by Plumbing Engineer editorial director, Jim Schneider] and the future of water. So, we’ve pulled together a contractor, the head of a local water utility, a representative of a neighborhood water group in Chicago, and others.

The Conference features the same format as years past, and is made up of a series of committee meetings and presentations. The technical and advocacy teams will break into dual tracks for part of the meeting, and then everyone will come back to the meeting to discuss the common themes. It is another action-packed, topic-heavy event. Starting next year, we’ll only have a single conference each year, so there will be no PMI spring conference in 2015. That may contributing to the robust attendance numbers here. The 2015 all conference will be in San Antonio under the leadership of president Fernando Fernandez of TOTO USA

I continue to be inspired by the work of the association and this industry even into my 17th year at PMI. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here forever, but we’ve been through a lot of changes and challenges, and there is always something new on the horizon.

Five Questions

To get to know the real Barb Higgens a bit better, we asked her five non-plumbing questions.

1.) What is your favorite movie? Casablanca. And, Wizard of Oz is right up there, too.

2.) What’s on your music playlist right now? I love bluegrass. So there is the Kruger Brothers, who last year won the Steve Martin Award for banjo. I have their greatest hits CD playing on “repeat” in the car. I am a big Elvis fan, too.

3.) What’s your favorite place to travel? I love Germany, but I also had a wonderful time in Turkey at an international conference a few years ago. My husband and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary this year in Tuscany and Rome. So Turkey, Italy and Germany are on my list, though “there’s no place like home!”

4.) What was your first job? My first-first job was working in a hardware store when I was 16. My boss was a feisty little Irish guy called Danny Malone. He once told me that I should always remember that he was the fountain of knowledge and I am but a trickle. And that has stayed with me over the years. I’ve seen him since and he still sticks to that philosophy.

5.) What’s the best part about working for PMI? It sounds corny I suppose, but each day is different. We are in charge of our own destiny here, and the job is never finished. I believe that manufacturing contributes very much to this country and our success. It is important to help manufacturers be understood. In some circles, there is a misunderstanding about manufacturing jobs and the focus and values of manufacturing companies in general. As I’ve said, manufacturers are good, thoughtful stewards of the Earth. If I can help them be better understood, I’ve done my job.

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