NARI National Rescinds Charter of DC Metro
authors Patrick O'Toole | May 26, 2021
EVANSTON, Ill. — A months-long dispute between the leadership of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and several of its local-chapter organizations took an unprecedented and potentially ground-shifting turn last week.
At its May 19 meeting, the national board of directors voted to revoke the charter of one of its largest and most active chapters, NARI of Metro DC. The action sidelines the local organization while retaining the connection with its individual member companies, which could then at some point be reconstituted with different leadership.
Within 60 days of the action, the DC organization will be independent, yet its 240-plus member companies will remain members of NARI National, at least through the end of this year.
“These discussions and conversations, they’ve been going on for a number of years,” said Dennis Gehman, a Philadelphia-area remodeler who recently took the helm as president of NARI. “The decision was based on a pattern of escalating behavior that is contrary to the way NARI National was going. And this was happening over several years. There were numerous one-on-one phone conversations where it didn’t feel like we were coming to terms. It’s not a decision we took lightly at all. It’s one less chapter that we have. We don’t want that. Each of those individual member companies in Metro DC continue to be national members. They are at-large members. Their dues are paid, and we’re going to do our best to reach out to them and help them hopefully see value in continuing their membership with NARI. And maybe at some point, there will still be enough of a core group that we could reform a chapter.”
The separation of the DC chapter organization from NARI represents the second time in as many months that a local affiliate has separated from the national organization.
In late April, the organization’s Eastern Massachusetts chapter gave notice it would be leaving the national association. Other chapters in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania are said to have taken steps to follow suit. And in recent days, the former Eastern Massachusetts chapter has changed its brand affiliation to PRO, an acronym for Professional Remodeling Organization, which has been used for the last several years by at least one residential remodeling organization in Ohio.
Caused by Long-Simmering Issues
According to several long-time members of NARI who have served the association on local and national levels, the turmoil has simmered beneath the surface since last August, when NARI National informed its members of a $30 national dues increase designated for national coffers. The increase would mean the national portion of dues paid by a typical remodeler member company would rise from approximately $225 to $255 annually.
These are fees collected by the local chapters on top of local dues that are, in some cases, about twice that amount, or about $900 total, for members of the Long Island, N.Y.-based NARI chapter, said Laurence Carolan, a remodeler who is active on NARI national committees and remains supportive of NARI.
According to Carolan, the leadership of NARI is doing its best to serve the association, but it made a mistake by rolling out a dues increase while many companies and chapters were busy coping with the economic roller coaster caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Raising dues during a pandemic was the wrong thing to do,” said Carolan, who co-owns TimeLine Renovations in New York City with Robi Kirsic, who served as chairman of NARI National until earlier this year.
NARI National eventually changed course on the dues increase. They deferred it to 2021 and lowered it to only $15. It is set to rise by another $15 in 2022 and 5 percent annually thereafter. But by then, several separate ongoing grievances regarding governance of the national organization had resurfaced.
In the weeks and months that followed the dues controversy, conversations between some executive directors and volunteer leaders in several local chapters led to the creation of a letter listing those grievances that was sent to the NARI board of directors Jan. 28, 2021. The letter was signed by 15 local chapters and made several requests and “demands.” Paraphrasing the letter, those were:
- To reduce the level of requirements for attendance at national meetings in order to qualify for service as board members and to run for national officer positions;
- Create a clearer path for individual members and local chapters to seek reform of national bylaws, specifically that the organization’s House of Delegates be solely responsible for selection of members to the board;
- To create new board seats for regional representatives elected by local councils;
- To alleviate a perceived lack of transparency in communication about organizational goals and objectives;
- To stop direct outreach by NARI National to local members, which is said to be in violation of chapter agreements; and
- For NARI National to more “clearly share their long- and short-term strategic plan” with local leaders with the goal of creating greater “cohesion.”
Gehman equated the letter to a “punch in the gut” and said that after an initial meeting, the board resolved to follow up, determined it would respond individually to each chapter rather than as a group. David Pekel, CEO of NARI, told Qualified Remodeler the board felt the strength of the “demands” in the letter to the board were likely not shared equally by all of the leaders and membership of the local chapters who had signed on. They felt many busy members and local leaders might not even be aware of what was being asked in their names.
Kirsic, who was chairman of NARI at the time, responded in late February with letters to the 15 individual chapters asking for more specifics about their requests. The timing of these events is slightly unclear, but later the group of chapters set up a town hall meeting with a facilitator and invited the national officers and board, fully expecting they would attend in order to address the issues expressed in the letter head on. Three board members who spoke to Qualified Remodeler said their considered opinion was the town hall could be counterproductive and even a kind of “crucifixion” of national leadership, Gehman said.
As of today, it is not known how many of the chapters who initially signed on to the January letter remain in opposition to NARI National on these issues. NARI National says it has reached out to each chapter that signed the January letter in order to schedule one-on-one meetings. To date, NARI says it has conducted at least five of these meetings, which include an officer and other board members as well as the leadership of the local chapters. Other meetings are set to occur in the coming weeks. Some chapters have yet to respond to the meeting request.
At its May 19th meeting NARI National approved a resolution affirming its commitment to local chapters generally.
The boldness of the move by NARI National took some by surprise. It comes at a time when associations of all types, not just those serving residential construction, are dealing with retention issues. Company membership in the organization is down to approximately 5,000. For that reason, the move seems counterintuitive.
In a video message to Metro DC members, local president Michael Sauri, owner of TriVistaUSA Design + Build in Arlington, Virginia, said their actions and behaviors were being mischaracterized by NARI National leadership. “They will tell you that ‘they could not maintain a positive and productive working relationship with our chapter leadership,’” Sauri said in the video. “The simple truth is that they have rebuffed and refused multiple asks to meet, to discuss, to come together.”
Misdirected Emails and Next Steps
Any hope for cooler heads to prevail in this dispute between NARI leadership and several of its local leaders were effectively dashed when, during the call for a townhall meeting, a misdirected email from then-NARI president, Doug King, a remodeler in St. Petersburg, Florida, was received not by David Pekel, NARI’s CEO, but by David Merrick, a Maryland remodeler who is an active member of NARI of Metro DC and in 2016 served as a committee chair at NARI National. The email, which Qualified Remodeler has determined not to publish for privacy reasons, indicated top leadership of the national organization already seemed resigned to the idea of letting chapter organizations separate if they chose to do so.
The email also displayed some personal animus toward the executive director of NARI of Metro DC, Angela Hubbard. Merrick, who had been trying to help broker a deal between NARI National and the local chapters, was dismayed by the contents of the email and shared it with his local board. Doug King quickly apologized to the NARI National board of directors, which included Hubbard, but the damage was done.
National board member Judy Transue, who heads NARI’s ethics and bylaws committee, expressed regret for King’s email and said the opinions expressed were King’s only. Kris Toth, a contractor from Cleveland who is a board member also said the email did not represent the board’s views.
The email is “the elephant in the room,” Toth said. “It needs to be addressed. I think is very important for everyone to know. This was a communication between only one person. It was from Doug. It wasn’t representative of the board, and it was not addressed to the board, and it was not a back-and-forth. It was one email. Additionally, it was just one chapter being discussed. I’ve heard people say that this is proof that the board wants to get rid of chapters, and that cannot be further from the truth.”
When asked about current and future initiatives, all the NARI National leaders who were interviewed for this article pointed to a string of recent rollouts. Ten days ago, the organization opened the doors to its NARI Network, a slick online portal that looks and feels like a social media site where members can post to groups, national leaders and to each other one-on-one.
As part of its current working plan, Gehman referenced three new hires: Rob King, who is director of marketing; Anthony Lopez, who coordinates member services; and a full-time, on-staff manager of social media. The recent social media efforts include a recent series of member profiles on Instagram as well as a program where members were asked to send in videos about their careers in remodeling, an initiative that netted more than 50 stories they say begins to push out the kind of return on investment that remodelers can expect from NARI National.
In a tour of NARI National’s new headquarters building in Wheeling, Illinois, this past winter, CEO Pekel emphasized the importance of the new space as a facility that could accommodate the organization’s in-person meetings after years of occupying a cramped, outdated building that the association purchased in the mid-1990s. The cost savings of not renting hotel ballrooms for ongoing meetings with chapter executives, education programs and other ongoing initiatives would be impactful on the bottom line well into the future, he said.
The pandemic hit just as NARI was opening the new facility, a single-story commercial space that had been upfitted to the exact needs of the organization. The new space is, in many ways, the capstone of years of effort put forth by many national boards over the past decade, and it is seen by the current board as a new base from which to grow.
For Pekel and others, not being able to immediately use the space as intended was a tough delay. Key initiatives for the group are to expand its membership by focusing heavily on its well-respected educational programs that yield certifications, such as Certified Remodeler (CR), Certified Lead Carpenter (CLC) and Certified Kitchen & Bath Remodeler (CKBR), among others. There is a conventional wisdom among remodelers that the organization’s long-held study-group approach of these education programs is an industry benchmark for quality. (Full disclosure, Qualified Remodeler has been an education partner with NARI for several decades.)
Other programs like the Contractor of the Year Awards (CotYs) are popular with the association’s membership, netting hundreds of paid design entries annually.
The association’s financial condition is, by all reports, very strong. The association’s bylaws necessitate a two-year buffer of funds to meet all operating expenses. Those funds are in place, and the awareness of this cushion explains, in part, why so many balked at the $30 dues increase.
David Merrick, who is now a spokesperson for the Metro DC chapter, said the DC group’s board met May 24 to move forward as an independent group, laying the groundwork for maintaining its stream of local networking events in 2021, but also developing plans to offer education via a number of possible outside sources.
“This story is going to be unfolding for a while,” Merrick said. QR