On a late Tuesday afternoon last October, the front hallway of the Houston Engineering and Scientific Society Club was packed with people standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder.

Getting to the bar area for a refreshment proved to be a challenge. The area they were standing in used to be occupied by the event’s buffet dinner serving area, but that was removed in favor of a sit-down dinner in order to accommodate more people during the networking part of the program.

But the close quarters could have mattered less to those in attendance who were busy happily chatting with industry colleagues. Welcome to the PVF Roundtable — the place to be four times a year for those in the industrial pipe, valves and fittings sector.

The quarterly gathering, which brings together industrial PVF distributors, manufacturers, product specifiers and users, importers and exporters and marketing groups from around North America for an evening of networking, socialization and presentations from industry thought leaders, continues to skyrocket in popularity.

That October meeting turned out to be the final one at the HESS Club. This year, the meeting moved to the nearby JW Marriott Houston hotel in the Galleria area of the city to better accommodate the burgeoning crowds. The February and May meetings drew record-breaking crowds of more than 450, with the May gathering spiking to an all-time high of 458 attendees. The upcoming August meeting is expected to again establish a new meeting attendance record.

“I can’t believe how large it has become,” PVF Roundtable Treasurer and Secretary Sheryl Michalak (president of Houston-based Welding Outlets Inc.) says. “One gentleman who used to go to the meetings many years ago came to the February meeting and couldn’t believe how much it had grown. He was very impressed.”


Early beginnings

Houston-based Westbrook Manufacturing co-founder Sidney Westbrook started the PVF Roundtable in 1987 as a way to get distributors, manufacturers and end users together to discuss issues affecting the industrial PVF industry.

“The first meeting was attended by 10 or 12 individuals and was nothing more than an informal brainstorming and troubleshooting session,” says PVF Roundtable President Danny Westbrook, Sidney’s son and the senior vice president of Westbrook Manufacturing. “The meeting came from humble beginnings. It was a casual little event that took place in someone’s office once a month and then other people started hearing about it and wanted to get involved. It wasn’t done with the intent of starting some organization. At some point, somebody had the idea this might work and it might be a good idea to form an organization.”

The PVF Roundtable became chartered and received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 1992. Danny Westbrook notes shortly after that the organization began collaborating with other newly formed groups such as CIMIS and PIDEX to address standardization of the industry’s nomenclature and part-numbering systems.

Today, the PVF Roundtable features more than 150 member companies ranging from local Houston distributors to global oil and energy giants such as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell. Approximately 10 new members have been introduced at each of the recent meetings.

And the meetings no longer attract a mainly Houston-based audience. Individuals from across the United States and other parts of North America have become a part of the regular PVF Roundtable crowd.

“We’re starting to see more of a Northeast presence and we’re seeing more people from the West Coast,” Danny Westbrook says. “We saw some people from New Mexico at the May meeting and we’ve never seen anybody from that region before. That has a lot to do with the fact people in those areas have opened facilities in Houston.”


Catching up with friends

The PVF Roundtable meetings have morphed away from their more early technical beginnings. “There was a time period where they tackled some big issues like standardization,” Danny Westbrook says. “That started to taper off. The Roundtable’s mission has changed considerably since the early days. We’re more focused on industry networking rather than things such as amending standards.”

Those packed hallways at the HESS Club and now the back portion of the ballroom at the JW Marriott give attendees the chance to network and socialize with industry colleagues. The networking portion of the meeting begins at 4:15 p.m., and typically runs into dinner some two hours later. During the early portion of dinner, there will still be a considerable amount of people in the networking area.

“This is the one place to come to network,” Michalak says. “It’s the only big networking thing out there that everybody can come to and it doesn’t cost a fortune. Houston is the energy hub of the U.S. Everybody in this industry does business with people in Houston. It’s a very informal setting. Everybody comes and mingles with friends and meets new friends.”

Alan Lipp, COO of Cleveland, Ohio-based Merit Brass, notes the large number of individuals who attend from different industry segments makes the meeting a must-attend.

“It’s the most symbiotic meeting in any industry,” he says. “Everyone with an oil-petro-chemical footprint attends, including manufacturers, wholesalers and end users. You’d be hard-pressed to find another comparable industry meeting. The attraction is the opportunity to meet with key decision makers of companies within our industry.”

Gyl Grinberg, of Stone Mountain, Ga.-based master distributor Val-Fit, says plenty can be accomplished in short order at a Roundtable meeting.

“By far the best part is the social hour prior to dinner,” he says. “This is a great time to meet with many peers from the industry. In an hour, you easily can visit with many different people, including friends, competitors and new prospective customers and/or suppliers. As more people join, it becomes a great avenue to see dozens of people you know in the industry. Coupled with the modest annual dues ($650 a year per organization), it becomes a very convenient and affordable place to network.”

Beyond the networking attraction, numerous industry executives point to a correlation between the industrial PVF industry’s recent prosperity and the increased popularity in the PVF Roundtable.

“The market is very busy,” Wolseley Industrial Group General Manager Joe Dugan says. “It’s specifically driven by shale and unconventional drilling. The resulting competitiveness of natural gas and the abundance of ethane have led to a huge boost in chemical processing projects in the U.S. This all means it is busy in the PVF business right now and has resulted in a lot of new faces being brought into the business throughout the PVF supply chain. As busy as things are, having the ability to discover new contacts, products and services in one evening is very valuable.”


Beyond the networking

After the popular networking session and dinner, Roundtable attendees are treated to a program that includes Supply House Times columnist and ASA industry analyst Morris Beschloss delivering his quarterly industry forecasts. The evening’s keynote speaker follows Beschloss and in recent times has included the likes of former Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister and Dr. Don McNeeley, CEO of Chicago Tube & Iron. McNeeley’s blend of informative facts and well-timed humor were extremely popular at the February 2013 meeting — the first back at the JW Marriott (the meeting was held there several times in its early days). Danny Westbrook notes another popular speaker has been geo-political analyst and University of Houston professor Dr. Michael Economides.

“The guest speakers impart valuable market intelligence and perspective around such topics as pricing trends, new technologies and supply and demand data,” Dugan says. “It allows you to have your finger on the pulse of the market.”

Neway Valve’s Kelly Kelsheimer adds: “People have seen the quality of guest speakers we’ve been having and have really liked what the speakers have been bringing to the table in terms of what’s happening around the industry and with the economy. It keeps them informed.”

Kelsheimer, a PVF Roundtable board member, also spearheads another critically important aspect of the PVF Roundtable organization — the annual Don Caffee Memorial Golf Tournament, which takes place each May in Houston. The tournament, named after the late Caffee, a longtime industry executive and Roundtable volunteer, was established five years ago and helps fund scholarships for the industrial distribution programs at Texas A&M University and the University of Houston. Last year’s tournament drew 51 teams (204 players), while this year’s exploded to a maximum 72 teams (288 players).

“This organization has a group of members committed to donate their money to help with these scholarships,” he says. “The scholarships are critical. We have to bring in new young men and women into this industry.”

Dennis Fikes, president of Houston-based master distributor Energy Metals, sees the Roundtable meetings as a win-win situation for attendees.

“When you break down the cost of visiting with these people scattered from all over the country, this is the most cost-efficient way to get this done,” he says. “While you are doing this, you are contributing to help our young men and women coming up through college majoring in industrial distribution. At some point, many of our members will benefit by hiring these students when they graduate and enter the workforce.”

Ron Stevens, national sales manager of master distributor Industrial Valco, has noticed an uptick in newer industry individuals attending Roundtable meetings. “It’s refreshing to see these young people mingle with the seasoned veterans of our industry,” he says. “We have a lot to learn from each other. It’s nice to know our industry is in good hands for the future.”

Beschloss, who notes two-thirds of the organization’s membership now resides outside the energy industry hotbed of Houston, is struck by the organization’s army of volunteers. None of the 17 board members receives a salary.

“We have a very active board that enjoys what it’s doing,” says Beschloss, a board member emeritus who has been heavily involved with the organization dating back to its nascent days. “It’s very unique. These are volunteers. Nobody has political clout or is getting paid to do the job. They come together for the will to fill a void that existed. This group has given a great meaning to the industrial sector of our industry.”

 Beschloss sees the quarterly get-togethers continuing to expand. “They will get bigger,” he says. “This is the event to be at. You get to see company CEOs, distributors and guys from places like Exxon — all the people you’d love to do business with if you’re not already doing business with them. You’ll meet people under one roof you won’t be able to meet anyplace else. Houston is the place to be on the third Tuesday of February, May, August and October.”