Since 1995, Russ Chaney has served as the association’s Chief Executive Officer, working to promote IAPMO’s mission through the promulgation of the Uniform Plumbing, Mechanical, Solar Energy, Hydronic, Geothermal and Swimming Pool, Spa and Hot Tub Codes. Since 2002, Chaney has served multiple terms as a member of the World Plumbing Council Executive Board including the esteemed position of Chairman from 2011 – 2013. Chaney is also the current American National Standards Institute (ANSI) chairman.
In early April, Chaney shared his thoughts with CONTRACTOR about the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of the association, and what challenges and opportunities the “restart” might bring.
CONTRACTOR: So, the last time we spoke was in January at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas. Seems like a lifetime ago.
Russ Chaney: When I started the year… COVID-19 was not in my mind. It was a China problem, not unlike SARS, which we were heavily involved in in 2002-2003. That’s what I had in my mind when I started hearing in late January that there’s a problem in Wuhan and it looks like another coronavirus. I never thought that it would spread around the world and get to the degree it has, because the first coronavirus wasn’t like that…
In fact, I was at KBIS when one of my staff first told me about the trouble in Wuhan. He’s based in Beijing and was giving me an unbelievable briefing on the state of things… so we saw it coming and our biggest concern was for our staff.
When I joined IAPMO in 1995 we were much, much smaller staffed. There were only 22 of us back then and now there are 350 of us spread around the world. We’ve got multiple levels. India, China, which is now back open, Indonesia where we have test labs open. IAPMO is predominantly driven by a highly skilled, professional staff. We’re no different in that respect than say, ICC—codes development—NFPA, another good example, ASTM, ASHRAE, with some of the standards that they produce. We have to be concerned about a lot of different priorities, but right now the focus is on our staff.
Our members are in reasonably good shape. Two-thirds of them are plumbing inspectors, mechanical inspectors, contractors.... Most of our inspectors are doing just fine. Their cities and municipalities are sorting through code enforcement issues.
This is the fifth week now where the staff, 98 percent of them, are working from their homes. The vast majority of staff can do that… It’s not nearly as efficient at being in the office, walking across the hall and speaking to a technician, to an engineer, that sort of thing. But we were able to keep them working.
We’ve been very fortunate. And a large portion of that has to do with the portion of our business that’s coming out of China, and China now reopening for the most part over the past month or so. We haven’t had the cash flow problems that some of the other players in our industry have had to deal with. For the past five weeks we’ve been able to pay our staff their full wages, their full benefits, and we’ve been able to do that because our financial position is better than most. And that’s the result of many years of growth and, frankly, putting money aside for rainy days.
CONTRACTOR: Part of the work of the IAPMO Group has always been advocating for the plumbing and mechanical industry in government circles. Has the pandemic given you new problems or priorities to bring to the folks in Washington?
Russ Chaney: [First,] Dave [Viola] has been incredible, and is one of the reasons that we’ve seen such growth over the past 20 years. Dave and Pete DeMarco and Dain Hansen and Gabbie Davis, all of my senior staff. It’s impossible for one person to grow an organization and then restructure it in response to a global emergency…
Dave and I decided that if we did what was best for the industry, on a broader perspective, in the end our members are going to be fine… That fed into my and Dave analyzing what we do as we got into the end of February and into March. That’s when we got the White House to identify plumbers as an essential service. And of course we wrote to the national governors association, we wrote to Congress…
It’s been all very very well received… the plumbing industry has been deemed an essential service, and that’s important because if we ever do get to a complete lockdown—like they’re doing in India right now—our guys would have been able to get out. And PHCC’s members, MCA’s members, the unions, they have all now benefited from our collective effort so that plumbing contractors, engineers, inspectors, supply houses all understand what the deal is. So we’ve been pretty successful to date.
We’re trying to get the White House in this Phase Four funding to get C6 nonprofits—they’re not charities, C6s are trade associations, professional associations, and C6s weren’t included in the Phase Three funding, the $2 trillion bailout—we’re trying to get C6s included under phase four. I think we’re going to be successful. They’re talking about $250 billion additional package, and hopefully that will include some of the industry trade associations.
CONTRACTOR: There’s a lot of debate on what the timetable for the restart will be. What do you think the restart will be like? And what do you think the “new normal” will look like when we get there?
Russ Chaney: What is a reality here, at least in my mind, is that we’re not coming back on May 1st, at least not getting back to the way things were. Not until we get a vaccine. You listen to the same people I’m listening to, the CDC, the National Institute of Health, we’re going to be living with this thing for at least a year to 18 months… Until we get to the point of a vaccine, I don’t see the people here in our sector, in the construction industry coming back to normal. I think we’ve got to bite the bullet, get through mid to late May, and try to reduce the numbers as much as possible before we start to open things back up.
I’m concerned that we might open up too soon and have to deal with spikes throughout the summer and the fall. And that’s just going to be a hindrance, it’s going to create inefficiencies and uncertainties.
Technology has been an incredible tool in our type of business. I’ll give you an example. We send inspectors and auditors to sites around the world, test labs and factories. Well, when China shut down, a significant portion of our business was gone. I couldn’t send inspectors into China because the borders were closed.
So we started doing inspections by video. All it is is, instead of us putting a person on a plane to fly to China—or wherever the manufacturing site is—we now connect to an employee of the manufacturer, they take an ipad or a mobile phone and they walk around the plant. They do the quality assurance inspections. Is it the best? No. But it’s 90 percent, and it’s good enough to get us through this. And the most important part, our accreditors, ANSI and Standards Council of Canada, are letting us, and all of them have procedures in place, to allow us to do these types of inspections. That’s been a real key also.
[Of course] now that we’re doing [inspections] remotely, and the company sees that they’re not spending money to put someone on a plane, put them up in a decent hotel, they’re quite naturally expecting a discount because we don’t have those travel expenses that we would normally bill them for... as we come out of this, we better think about implementing these new capabilities, and redevelop the model, which will, frankly, be good for competition between us and the other product certifiers, product testers.
I’ve always said to Dave Viola, to my senior staff, over the years, when I came to IAPMO and we were on the verge of bankruptcy, then 9/11 hit, then 2008, and what I learned from all those challenges is, that when things are tough you’ve got to be smart. You have to be cautious, but also keep an open mind. Opportunities usually result when there are bad things happening with the economy or now with global health problems.
So we’re looking at some things, that I can’t talk about right now… we’re going to be changing the way we do business, and we’re learning from what we’ve had to do here… let’s simply say that IAPMO will be investigating how to change its business model, using the technologies and procedures we’ve had to put in place as a result of this global emergency. And that happens all the time.