By Carlos David Mogollón
WC&P Executive Editor
Having finished the century celebrating 25 years of the Water Quality Association and the Safe Drinking Water Act, there are a lot of predictions floating about for the point-of-use/point-of-entry (POU/POE) water treatment technology industry in 2000.
Let’s start with the association’s convention in Long Beach, March 21-26.
WQA executive director Peter Censky points to several issues as hot buttons for the convention and the year, stressing that his list is in no particular order of importance:
• Employing different means to increase trade show attendance,
• Initiating an online year-round trade show for convention exhibitors,
• Presenting blockbuster educational programs including speakers such as the Centers for Disease
Control’s Dr. Deborah Levy, renowned University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba and other prominent scientists and government officials on water issues,
• Unveiling of the WQA’s new strategic plan,
• Launching the charter membership phase of the Water Quality Society, and
• Dealing with restrictive issues such as California’s Proposition 65, new plumbing codes and septic system limitations.
“No. 1, we’re really trying to focus our marketing to bring in more people who are last-minute deciders… by marketing to them information on lower cost hotel/motel options in the area,” Censky said. “And we’re also charging on a per event basis so people can more affordably see what they want to see, whether it’s a technical session or the trade show floor.”
This effort is driven by a drop in attendance at the convention last year in Fort Worth, Texas, to a little over 3,500 from 4,062 the previous year when it was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“I really feel good about this show,” said Pat Dalee, incoming association president for 2000-2001 and president of International Water Warehouse (IWW) Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. “WQA has kind of looked at past ways we’ve presented the convention; and we’re opening it up more to people who want to do it a little more reasonably… rather than stay at just the expensive (hotels).”
Dalee also felt the Long Beach area was more convention friendly than other cities the event had been held at in recent years. That’s because it’s a larger metropolitan area that’s easier to drive to for the many WQA members in California and Pacific WQA members, as well as the fact that airfare into Los Angeles—a major airline hub—is cheaper for those who have to fly.
A few prickly issues
Still, not everybody was happy with the choice of Long Beach. A few expressed concerns about the convention center being a “union shop,” meaning booth setup for larger displays would have to be done by union labor. And Saturday breakdown expenses would cost double because of overtime, said one company president. Another, who asked not to be named, said that meant at least a $10,000 expense to his company.
Censky said although Long Beach is a union city, it’s a little more reasonable than others. “If you’re a manager under 45 years of age, you’ve never had to deal with unions,” he added. “But the reality is unions are becoming a little more prominent today, whether you like it or not. And members are going to have to understand that.”
Some manufacturers also were upset about the choice of California because of pressure on the industry over the past few years from class action lawyers using the state’s Proposition 65—a highly restrictive citizen initiative passed in 1986 that puts extreme (many say unrealistic) limits on contaminants in drinking water—to squeeze multiple settlements out of manufacturers and suppliers over the issue of lead-bearing brass faucets.
Censky said an educational session is planned on Prop. 65 and WQA is investigating options, which includes working with other affected industries. To that end, the association has been asked to join the Proposition 65 Fairness Coalition, a Washington, DC, effort to change more extreme aspects of resulting California standards that deviate from federal ones enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“The one thing we’re doing is trying to work with the Congressional Small Business Committee, which has held at least one hearing on the topic,” he added. “The problem you have in California is the legislature cannot change that proposition, which has the force of law. Legislators are afraid to snub voters. Yes, it’s written as a thinly veiled extortion game for lawyers, who can sue on behalf of the state to enforce it; but to override something like that you have to have national action.”
The level at which the association pursues the issue will be dependent on the members affected, industry alliances and the probability of effecting change.
Osmonics CEO Dean Spatz said: “You know, California is some 25 million-plus people now, like a country of its own. I don’t think you can necessarily say I’m not going to do business there because they’ve elected some politicians and passed some laws that make life a little difficult.
“On the other hand, some things they’re doing with respect to water, efficiencies and recycling are pretty good… For water softeners, maybe it makes some of our valves unacceptable; but we’re also in the RO side and, from a business standpoint, that proposition isn’t necessarily bad for us.”
As for millennial predictions, Dalee said the two issues he sees at the focal point of change are deflation and the Internet.
“We’ve been experiencing price erosion in all sorts of components, membranes, storage tanks, faucets, filter housings, filters,” he said. “Pretty much everything across the board is becoming less expensive with standardization and bigger volumes. And what we’ll see in the new millennium is foreign competition. You’ll see that represented in a big way in Long Beach. It’s happened in every other industry and it’ll come to the forefront with us now.”
The Internet, Dalee added, will allow manufacturers to control the price of their products like never before. This will put downward pressure on prices, but could allow smaller manufacturers to be more competitive.
Alamo Water Refiners CEO Sonny Cammack agreed: “The big guys are always going to get their bite, but the little guys are going to earn a good living too.”
Spatz said he felt all the excitement about e-commerce had drawn capital away from traditional businesses and as that enthusiasm dampened in favor of real profits, other businesses would find better access to funding for R&D and expansion.
This year, he expects his company to better mesh different acquisitions such as Seattle’s Zyzatech, New Jersey’s Membrex Inc. and Boston’s Micron Separations Inc. into the larger framework of Osmonics such that “we come fully into the new millennium as one company instead of a group of 10” with faster delivery and higher profits.
Cammack also anticipates business being good in 2000, particularly because he took the reins as general manager once again at Alamo at the end of 1999.
“I know mine will increase, but I think it will for the industry in general,” Cammack said. “USFilter and Culligan, which are now owned by the French as of a year ago, bought a lot of companies. And of those people they employed, a lot of them are no longer with them because of consolidation. They’ll get back into the business working for themselves or in other capacities. Once you’re in the water business, you tend to stay in it. I’m looking forward to seeing them, as well as all our vendors and customers.”