Plumbing Manufacturers International held its first virtual PMI20 Manufacturing Success conference Nov. 10-12. PMI decided to pursue a virtual event for the conference after gathering restrictions postponed its annual Legislative Forum earlier this spring. The digital experience was broken up to a few hours a day over the course of three days. 

“Our primary concern was we want to protect our members’ health and safety,” notes Kerry Stackpole, executive director and CEO of PMI Many of our member companies were restricting travel at that time, and many of them still are. We did a lot of work to condense the conference. Normally, we host a 24-hour conference, and this year, we hosted a seven-hour version. We had to make some tough choices in terms of who the speakers would be and the timeframe we would have. Our goal was to give our members —knowing they are working from home, with perhaps other responsibilities such as tutoring kids —an educational experience for just a few hours a day while staying on top of their typical work and life responsibilities.”  

That format did the trick, as PMI had 76 manufacturing company executives attend the virtual conference —20 of which were first-time attendees.

“That was really great for us and certainly exceeded our expectations in terms of attendance,” Stackpole says. “We tend to get a high-level industry executive who frankly, probably doesn’t have a whole lot of time in their schedule. So we were pleased to pull together that type of crowd.”


Leveraging communication

Rachel Hanfling, president and founder of RH MediaWorld and an Emmy-nominated former producer for Oprah and Anderson Cooper, gave the opening keynote address on the importance of communication.

“Communication is the single most powerful thing somebody can do as a leader,” she says. “In fact, I often hear about communication designated as a soft skill, and every time I hear that, I couldn't disagree more strongly. Communication is the biggest PowerPoint if you know how to leverage it.”

Hanfling discussed her No. 1 principle of effective communication: “Meet people where they are, to take them where you want them to go.” 

“The first part is meeting people where they are. It's human nature to walk through the world and be thinking about our own agenda, our own thoughts and our own needs,” Hanfling explains. “We all do that. I get that. I do that, too. But if we want to be effective communicators, and if we want to get the results that we want, it is incumbent upon us to meet our audience, whether that is one person or millions, where they are. That means thinking about what they care about, what they want, what they need — what they don't even know they care about, want or need. If we don't understand our audience, we cannot be effective. That's the meeting people where they are part.

“I think most of us have an easier time with the second part, which is understanding where we want people to go,” she adds. “But the challenge is in how we articulate it. And the key to moving forward is learning how to articulate where you want to go in a way that your audience can hear it and understand. When you become good at meeting people where they are and taking them where you want them to go, and you find the intersection of those two points, well, that is when you are the most effective.”


Trade policy update

Day two of the conference brought a discussion on global supply chain disruption with Robert Clifton Burns, senior counsel in Crowell & Moring’s Washington D.C. office; Evan Chuck, a partner in Crowell & Moring’s Los Angeles office; and David Stepp, also a partner in Crowell & Moring’s Los Angeles office. 

“We've all experienced multinational supply chains that are under enormous pressure as a result of both COVID-19 and the seismic changes in international trade policy between the world's leading economies,” Chuck says. “From our perspective, the COVID pandemic really simply threw gasoline on a smoldering fire that's really shaken up the world trading system of the past 20 years. From Brexit in Europe to the Trump U.S.-China trade war, China's aggressive road and belt and Made in China 2025 policies.”

What worked before is no longer working today — and the U.S. is unlikely to see a quick change in trade policy as a result of the elections, Chuck notes. 

“In the past three and a half years, we have seen a combination of presidential and congressional action on China specifically ranging from the aggressive imposition of tariffs on products coming from China, as well as other measures taken off into the name of national security that can potentially impact the development and distribution of technology and information to flow across borders,” he adds. “As a result, multinationals are rethinking their fundamental supply chain architecture in order to achieve cost savings needed to hit business financial targets.”

Chuck went on to discuss the U.S. imposing section 232 tariffs on importation of aluminum from Canada, as well as the section 301, 25% tariffs imposed on imports from China. 

“The administration imposed tariffs of more than $500 billion in Chinese exports,” he explains. “The latest developments in this ongoing matter is that more than 3,500 companies sued the Trump administration in September, alleging that it exceeded its authority in the law, imposing some of those tariffs. That matter is before the Court of International Trade, and it's something that is being monitored closely because it could result in potentially some refunds that could be beneficial to businesses. Of course, during this period of time, many manufacturers, or their suppliers, began to move their operations and supply chains away from China. Many of them have been going to Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.”

However, Chuck notes the Trump administration just initiated another section 301 unfair trade investigation into Vietnam in October.  

Stepp spoke about companies looking to source a new country should look at not only the free trade agreements, but regional and bilateral agreements as well.

“There are bilateral investment treaties,” Stepp says. “So in thinking about where we've been, where we are now and where we're going, in the pre-Trump, pre-COVID world, and well before that, the price was really the primary consideration sourcing goods. Companies wanted high quality at the lowest price, and those were really what was driving a lot of the purchasing decisions. In China and other Asian countries, the highest quality goods at the lowest price came from those countries, especially China.

“So the supply chain diversification was really not a priority, but with what's going on today with COVID, with the trade wars and other things going on, companies are reassessing their supply chains as you know just as well, if not, better than we do,” he adds. “They're realizing that price is not the only consideration for sourcing. They're looking at other suppliers in low cost countries to move the origin outside of China and other countries where section 301 duties are not going to be applied. Then they're also going to be leveraging their free trade agreements.”

Stepp adds that supply chain folks are having daily conversations with company presidents because of the rapidly changing international trade issues having impact on company bottom lines.

“We all keep the various news outlets up on our computers all day long because the advice we give in the morning can be impacted by what happens in the evening,” he says. “We just think it’s very important to stay on top of this. There are a lot of challenges with what’s going on, but there are a lot of opportunities. And with the change in administration, there always comes a change in policies and enforcement policies, but also other opportunities that might be out there.”


The new norm

Day three opened with a panel on “COVID-19 and the New Norm,” with market researcher Brad Farnsworth, president of The Farnsworth Group; Laurel Farrer, founder of Distribute Consulting and the Remote Work Association; and Brad Hammock, co-chair, Littler Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Practice Group.

“I think the main thing from a market opportunity standpoint is what COVID-19 has proven in terms of the change of the role in the home,” Farnsworth says. “The home has become so important, both in terms of space needs and time being spent, not only from a work standpoint, but also sheltering at home during this pandemic. The role of the home has changed over the past few months, and in our industry, that has been very positive.”

Hammock notes the need for companies to prepare for things people think will never happen.

“I remember working with clients through H1N1, Ebola, even the measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019,” he says. “I told them you’ve got to be prepared, you really have to figure out your playbook and what’s going to happen when something really disruptive occurs. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that until COVID-19. And now, I think every organization realizes the importance of thinking about these worst-case scenarios.”

Hammock says one downside to the pandemic is most employers didn’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with employees working from home, and they had to scramble and divert resources to build the foundation. 

“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” he notes. 

Farrer agrees, but also notes governments also don’t have the correct infrastructure to support a workforce working from home.

“ Prior to COVID-19, only about 3% to 15% of the workforce worked from home,” she says. “We exploded that number to 86%, and then post-COVID-19, it is anticipated to remain about 40% to 50% working from home permanently. Those are incredible numbers that affect millions of people. We don’t have regulations or legislation to protect the employers or employees at this scale, so there’s a lot of catching up to do both in private and public sector.”

However, Farrer notes the industry has learned how to mobilize its workforce to be able to serve a greater level of clientele and adapt workflows and processes to be more innovative.

“It’s an exciting time in general for any industry, but specifically for this industry — there are some big barriers that have been broken,” she adds.


Rich content

Additional presenters included Dr. Andrew Persily, chief of the Energy and Environment Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Steven Buchberger, Ph.D., professor, College of Engineering and Applied Science Department of Civil & Architectural Engineering & Construction Management at the University of Cincinnati.

Persily recently co-authored a paper on the measurement science research needs of premise plumbing systems and discussed the long history of plumbing research at NIST and the outside interest for NIST to re-engage in premise plumbing system research. 

The report identifies 59 research needs; however, NIST will not be undertaking all 59 needs, Persily emphatically notes. 

“We’re going to keep getting the word out on this report, and keep learning together about what is happening and what needs to be done,” he says. “We are engaging stakeholders such as yourselves in converting research needs into action.”

Persily did note NIST was able to get some new internal funding to pursue only six of the areas identified in the report, including: Measurement of pressure-flow relationships of plumbing fittings, enhancing simulation tools to predict plumbing system performance, prototype buildings with designed plumbing systems so people can use their own analysis tools to predict plumbing system design, water heater temperatures and opportunistic pathogens, standardized terminology, and planning a commercial building water usage survey.

Buchberger’s research focuses on urban water resources and hydrology, with recent emphasis on estimating peak water demands in buildings through the development of tools such as IAPMO’s Water Demand Calculator. He discussed the usage of Hunter’s Curve to determine peak demands in premise plumbing systems.

Steven Soifer, Ph.D., president of the American Restroom Association and LCSW-C Professor, Social Work at the University of Mississippi, gave a presentation on bathroom design, COVID-19 protocols and user compatibility issues. 

Dr. Leanne M. Gilbertson, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, discussed the impact of silver embedded in shower fixtures and pathogen resistance and water disinfection. 

Finally, the conference ended on a bit of a lighter note with a presentation from Steve Rader, deputy director of NASA’s Center for Excellence for Collaborative Innovation and HeroX co-founder and CEO Christian Cotichini about the NASA Lunar Loo Challenge contest, which annually seeks new designs for a toilet that will work in both microgravity and lunar gravity.


Member reactions

Joel Smith, director of faucets product engineering at Kohler Co., and immediate past president of the PMI board of directors, says PMI had high hopes for this first virtual event, but wasn’t sure what to expect.

“A virtual conference just isn’t the same as an in-person event,” Smith says. “But I think it went extremely well — even better than I had hoped. The speakers delivered great content in an engaging style, and the length of the event (three two-hour sessions on consecutive days) turned out to be the right balance of providing in-depth content with allowing people to keep up with the demands of their jobs.”

Smith points to Hanfling’s talk on communication being especially pertinent given the virtual environment so many members find themselves working in now.

“We also had an outstanding session on global supply chain disruption and forecasts from members of the Crowell and Moring law firm that gave a unique look at the political, economic and business impacts of the pandemic,” Smith says. “Every session left the attendees with a lot to think about.

“While the virtual event was great, it also provided a reminder of how much we value our in-person conference events, and how much we are looking forward to next year when PMI will be together in person in San Diego for PMI21,” he adds.

Troy Benavidez, vice president, public affairs, LIXIL Americas, says the virtual event was great and that the PMI team rose to the challenge and delivered a great conference overall.

“The topics were relevant to the time and circumstances,” Benavidez says. “The convenience of PMI20 being virtual enabled individuals who may have been constrained before by the costs of travel or scheduling conflicts to become engaged with PMI. I have attended other [virtual] events, and PMI20 went above and beyond by making sessions interactive and offering a wide range of topics to appeal to a broader audience in the industry.”

Benavidez notes his No. 1 takeaway from the conference was the industry dynamic and the agility to continue to evolve to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

“There should be no doubt of the importance of the plumbing industry in protecting the health of the nation,” he says.