Plenty of food for thought never found its way into print.

The annual ASA Convention and biennial ISH North America exposition always get rave reviews from me. That's because for a trade journalist, there is virtually no down side to a national convention and trade show. They provide a unique opportunity to network and pick up great gobs of knowledge, industry skinny, and more copy than we can find room to use.

Speaking of which, I was rummaging through my notebook the other day and came across some scribblings from last October's ASA/ISH-NA events in Boston that until now never made their way into print. Nothing earth-shaking here, which is why I never bothered reporting any of it before. Yet, these were insights that came across as significant to me at the time, so I'll share them with you.

Modular products

A New Product Pavilion at ISH NA had scores of new items on display. Many of them were not original products per se, but modular assemblies of existing devices. Items that plumbers used to put together in the field now are being pre-installed at the factory.

This makes sense from a labor-saving standpoint, of course. But it also seems to me a response to the shortage of skilled labor that has bedeviled PHC contractors for more than a decade, and shows no sign of improving. It counts as progress, I guess, but it's also more evidence of devaluation of the pipe trades.

Homes for our troops

I got a chance to meet John Gonsalves, a builder from the Boston area who founded a charity to build and renovate homes for wounded veterans who require barrier-free features. This charity relies on donations of materials, land and services.

This is a cause everyone affiliated with the construction industry ought to get behind. Pay a visit to, and see what you can do to help.

Loyalty shmoyalty

Consultant and Texas A & M Professor Michael Workman, in talking about “Wholesale Distribution Under the Microscope,” listed “loyalty” in a category of “20th century clichés that are still with us.”

“Want loyalty? Buy a dog,” he quipped.

Point well taken. Loyalty should come into play between suppliers and reliable customers at the individual level. Customers who consistently pay their bills on time and are easy to do business with ought to get more consideration than deadbeats and troublemakers. However, I agree with Workman's scorn for loyalty as invoked for certain classes of people across the board. For instance, it's never made sense that a contractor who buys one water heater a year from a given supply house should get the same price as those who buy dozens, but that's the way trade discounting goes with some supply houses. Distributors can be just as guilty of demanding special favors simply because they are distributors.

Loyalty yes, groupthink no.

Costly mistakes

NIBCO's President and CEO Rex Martin was one of the panelists in a program titled, “The Future of Manufacturing in America?”, which I moderated, on the final day of ISH NA. In his presentation, he discussed his company's “Perfect Order” program aimed at eliminating costly mistakes.

Martin revealed that when NIBCO embarked on this program, they discovered it took an average of seven phone calls to straighten out each order error. Seven!

That's a startling number! Think about how much time it takes to complete each phone call, and you can see that mistakes are indeed costly. Eliminating them thus becomes one of the best ways to reduce costs while at the same time enhancing customer satisfaction.

Count your blessings

David Kohler spoke at a special luncheon during ISH NA. His presentation touched upon the economic outlook for the industry in 2005 (generally okay) and long term (filled with challenges).

What I found most engaging about his speech was something he said at the very beginning. “Many companies around the world would give their eye teeth to be situated in this industry,” he stated.

This is a point of view often overlooked amid all the anguish about industry problems and challenges. Fact of the matter is that plumbing and HVAC are essential building systems. Need for these systems will never disappear, and when they break, it's often an emergency.

Uncertainty surrounds the question of who will be the main providers of PHC products and services into the future, but there is absolutely no doubt that someone will need to do so. That's more than many other industries can claim. So let's count our blessings.