Powering Up

Features - Interview

Bill Harley talks about how OPEI is managing through thte economic crisis and the evolution of the green industry.

August 24, 2009
Pat Jones

For someone who “fell into the association business purely by accident,” Bill Harley has done OK.

After nearly a decade as the CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), Harley has built the organization’s influence, expanded its scope, negotiated the merger that led to the GIE+EXPO show and further developed it into a large, sophisticated non-profit business. Now, as the economy has depressed equipment sales, he faces a new challenge: How can OPEI help members survive and thrive?

Harley is a Chicago guy, born and bred on the city’s west side. He graduated from Miami (Ohio) University with a degree in business and “absolutely no clue” what he wanted to do with his life. Post-graduation, he spent a decade in the insurance business before making a surprise jump to the Air Conditioning Contractors Association in 1972. He moved to D.C. a year later and was “captured by the beltway.” In 1981, he became the CEO of the National Utility Contractors Association and stayed there for 18 years before taking the OPEI job.

OPEI consists of 80 companies that make the stuff you use every day. Mowers, blowers, chain saws, snow throwers, aerators … if you can modify a landscape with it, OPEI is interested. You probably know it best as the host of the GIE+EXPO conference and show, but the association does a bunch of stuff every day you don’t think about. And, like most associations, it’s constantly reinventing itself to deal with the latest incarnation of the industry it serves.

Now, Harley and his board face a unique challenge: How does a manufacturing association help its members survive during one of the worst economic downturns in American history? Here’s what he has to say.

What’s a typical day like for you?
Every person has their areas of expertise, but to be a good association executive you have to be a generalist. On any given day, I might deal with legal issues, government relations, trade show marketing, membership, personnel management, board relations, committees or just plain-old group dynamics. It’s a smorgasbord that requires you to be a jack of all trades and master of none. The key skill is people management and fostering good relationships.
Tell us something most people don’t know about OPEI and its services?
Most people don’t know that an association is a business. People look at words like “non-profit” and “tax exempt” and they tend to disregard the business side of things. There are 7,000-plus national trade associations in the U.S. As a business, we may be tax-exempt – we have no stockholders or dividends – but we reinvest everything for the benefit of our members.

We essentially have five core businesses. First, government and public policy, which is representing the interests of our members in the legislative and regulatory arenas. Then there’s the trade show – that’s a major part of our business because the support of exhibitors funds a lot of what we do. We’re also a recognized standards developer for ANSI (the American National Standards Institute) for ground support and hand-held products. We provide market statistics like shipment reports on a monthly basis for participating members. That’s a key indicator that companies use to forecast and explain the market. Finally, there’s communications and PR. We talk to the media a lot and try to create opportunities to promote the industry.

Everybody seems to talk about the PR stuff but nothing ever seems to get done. What is OPEI doing?
There’s a lot of misinformation about lawns and landscapes being “ornamental” or purely aesthetic in value. Activists beat us up over pollution, noise, etc. But, look at the forestry industry. They’ve done a good job of educating people about the value of trees.

We need to follow their lead and promote the benefits of turf. Studies show that grass will sequester four to seven times more carbon that a modern (mowing) machine puts out. Turf also mitigates heat, absorbs rainwater and recharges groundwater and provides a great cooling effect in the atmosphere. It’s amazing what a little bit of green grass can do.

We’ll have an announcement soon about a major partnership with a youth-oriented group that’s developing a curriculum to teach kids about photosynthesis and other benefits of lawns and turf. We’ll be piloting the program in D.C. and Sacramento. We wanted to develop something to educate people about the benefits of lawns, but this will be fantastic because it focuses on school kids in the fourth and fifth grades. Teachers are crying for innovative and interesting ways to teach science and math, so we believe (the program) will be very well received. Hopefully, it will begin to level the playing field.

What does the public not understand about us?
Most people don’t understand that this industry is highly regulated. They think we just sell smelly, noisy machinery and let the chips fall where they may. We’ve been dealing with serious emissions standards since 1997 and, now, EPA III is coming online soon in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. It’s not fun and it’s probably not fair, since we already have equipment that’s 95 percent cleaner than the pre-regulation era, but we will comply or exceed.

What’s the biggest issue on your plate right now?
We always have plenty, but the top of the list is dealing with the economic conditions. The jury’s still out on how the industry is faring. Everyone’s being cautious. It’s obviously not just manufacturers, but dealers, contractors, operators – down the line. Then there’s weather. You know what they say in real estate … its location, location, location. For us, it’s weather, weather, weather.

Do you see the green industry economy recovering in Q4?

We do hear that. The general feeling is that going into the start of 2010 you’ll see a modest rebound. What percentage will we gain? Who knows. I know that contractors and others who’ve been holding onto their old equipment are going to have to start replacing things. At some point, people will start buying again.

What’s happening with GIE+EXPO exhibitor participation thus far?
We’re certainly feeling the pinch … every show is. Sales and marketing is the last place you want to slash and burn your budget, but unfortunately it’s the first thing a lot of companies do.

But, if the season turns out better, we’ll see good participation. All the majors (big equipment companies) are in, but a lot of folks are waiting and seeing. Fortunately, we can still manage some expenses back because we have some lead time to prepare since we’re now an October show.

Is the Louisville site a drawback?
No. It’s really an asset. We’re the 22nd-largest show by space in North America, so I’d say we’re doing pretty good. It would be a roll of the dice to move it. Our contract with Louisville runs through 2012 and the board will obviously consider other locations, but it’s hard to beat the site because of the relatively low cost and outdoor exhibit area. The Kentucky Exposition Center is a first-class facility. It’s the sixth largest exposition facility in the country.

How do you get more end-users involved in the regulatory fights we face?
If I had the answer, I’d go out and sell it to those 7,000 other associations and make a pile of money.

Look, I’ve worked for two contractor organizations previously and faced the same problem. In our case, OPEI is only 80 member companies so, in terms of grassroots lobbying, we’re not set up for that. We have to partner with the professional groups that have the numbers to make a difference inside the beltway.

The fact is that when you get outside the beltway, the vast majority of people don’t know how this process works … and they don’t care. It’s easy for the average contractor to get sick of the bickering and the partisan stuff. But, the best we can all do is try to explain, in the most understandable terms, some really complex issues. Every contractor has to ask one question: What’s the bottom line for my company?

That seems a little cynical.
All we can do is to continue to encourage them to get involved before it becomes a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, you never worry about the fire extinguisher until the house is on fire.

The bottom line in terms of lobbying is that a member of Congress hearing directly from a constituent – particularly one who employs people and pays taxes – will get a response. You may not like the response, but you’ll get one.

Our industry is becoming very complex and you have to look at the issues that are coming – alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emissions, cap and trade, carbon and climate change in general – and the biggie, which is healthcare reform. This is all major stuff. We’re right in the middle of it. It’s our job to find a seat at the table as an association to represent the industry and try to work both sides of the aisle.

What’s next for you and OPEI?
I’m here for the duration. To paraphrase what the people at the White House say, I serve at the pleasure of the board. My philosophy is to run the business like I own it, but not ever forget that I don’t. 

The author is a contributing editor to Lawn & Landscape.