NARI President Addresses Member Concerns in Interview with QR
authors Patrick O'Toole | May 26, 2021
Editor’s Note: Qualified Remodeler is a longtime member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. We are media sponsors of its CotY Awards. Qualified Remodeler also supports the education program by offering ways to earn recertification credits for maintaining education credentials. This interview was conducted on Friday, May 21, 2021, just after the association had rescinded the charter its Washington, D.C. chapter.
Local Chapter Concerns
QR: Fifteen NARI chapters banded together with a list of issues that they would like to have NARI National address. They sent a list of “demands”. They also set up a professionally facilitated town hall meeting with the intention that NARI National would also attend so there could be a group discussion these issues. NARI National chose not to attend, electing instead to set up meetings with local chapters, one-on-one. Can you tell me why that decision was made? How many local chapter meetings has NARI National hosted to date?
Gehman: When we received that letter, it was a punch in the gut, so to speak. So, we did pull together a spur-of-the-moment conference call. We on the national board talked about it and every one of us said, ‘yeah, what they’re asking, these are some valid questions.’ And I think we were ready to answer them but the town hall meeting just felt like it was going to be a public crucifixion.
Then as we talked about it a bit more, we said, you know, what if we talk to each chapter individually. Everybody has a little bit different take on it. Most likely there were a few ringleaders who wrote the letter and they reached out to other people. And then other chapters agreed they’d like to know the answers to those questions as well. Some may have had those very questions themselves. Or maybe they didn’t have those questions before, but they also wanted those answers. It just felt like we would get farther with one-on-one meetings.
We were hoping to do those sooner, talking with chapters one-on-one. It has taken awhile to put those together. I don’t know exactly how many meetings have taken place. I would say, right now, it’s less than a handful. I know a number are scheduled over the next few weeks. I’m going to be on a few. I’ve been on one to date. We’re trying to, when we can, have one officer and two or three additional board members on each call.
QR: There are strands of leadership that subscribes to the theory that you have to take all comers at any time—to be wide open— attend the townhall, face the music, let’s talk about it, let’s put it all on the table. It’s that spirit of ‘hey, let’s try to figure this out.’ A little bit of that was lost by going to one-on-one meetings and the time delay in setting some of those up. Do you agree?
Gehman: I hear what you’re saying. This letter came out the end of January and here we are in the latter half of May. And we’re just, in a sense, now meeting with the chapters. The meetings with the chapters have proved harder to schedule than I think any of us anticipated. We’re all busy but then getting the local chapter to together. Most of them are not doing this as their regular monthly board meeting, they’re trying to convene an extra meeting. In the meeting that I was on, there were five people from the local chapter and there were four of us from national trying to coordinate schedules. We took longer than we should have to initiate those meetings. And then we had a spring conference. We felt that was important. I don’t think we should have let the spring conference go, but we should have jumped on this sooner.
On Communication and Responsiveness
QR: In terms of communication and responsiveness, what duty does the national association leadership have to its local chapters and members? How quickly should locals get questions answered and what obligation do national officers have to build consensus, buy-in to its initiatives and ideas?
Gehman: There’s two ways we are doing this. And this isn’t new. This has been ongoing. But the first Monday of each month, there’s a chapter-executives call that the national president and chairman of the board are on. We are there to give people updates. One of us gives a report on what has changed since last month. And we answer their questions. And then the same thing happens the first Friday of the month. The president of national and the chairman of the board are on with the local chapter presidents and the presidents elect.
The executive directors’ calls have been going on for as long as I’ve been involved on the national level. The meetings with the chapter presidents is something new. Past NARI chairman Robi Kirsic initiated those calls. And Doug King has kept those going. I see value in doing that.
I don’t say what I am about to say to pick on executive directors because we are all human. When any of us hear things at meetings, there’s a whole bunch of things that are discussed and due to our individual personalities, we gravitate toward one or two topics that really clicked with us. And we don’t always remember to share the other three or four or five that were discussed.
We’re realizing that the information isn’t always getting to the chapter leadership let alone out to the members. That’s a big reason why we have the chapter presidents involved now. It’s another set of ears. Predominantly the chapter executives are not remodelers. Whereas most times the local board members are contractors. And so, what they hear as important to them as a contractor could be something totally different than what the executive director believes feels that that is important for the members to know. I’m of the opinion the that the quicker we can get out answers the better.
There’s also a weekly newsletter, NARI Newswatch. It comes out every Wednesday. It’s got a lot of information. We’re typically not talking about anything different in these calls with the executive directors and chapter presidents than could be read in the NARI Newswatch. People need to take the initiative to do that. So, you know, we’re trying multiple methods of communication to get the message out. And when the questions are asked, I would like to think that the local chapters are letting their members know.
Misdirected Email, Metro DC
QR: Misdirected emails happen all the time in business and in life. People understand how this happens. But there was one misdirected email in particular from a NARI leader that was widely circulated. It seemed to suggest an approach to addressing a local-chapter concerns with a degree of callousness. That’s open to interpretation, of course. Many who read it felt the implication was that if a chapter feels that it must leave NARI National, then so be it. It also seemed to show some personal animus to a chapter executive, which was unwelcome. What message do you have for NARI members who might have seen that misdirected email?
Gehman: I think anybody in any kind of leadership role in conversation with other leaders you talk about all kinds of scenarios. And sometimes conversations in private thing are said in a harsher way than what you would ever want anybody to read. And as you said, it was misdirected and there were some harsh things said there. Obviously, there were some conversations that had happened as a result about that email. It was one person’s behavior. It was his conversation he was initiating that with a couple other people. It was sent to somebody who it wasn’t intended, and unfortunately, that person then sent it out to others.
So I think anybody who has had any interest in its contents by now has had the opportunity to see it. It was the viewpoint of this one individual. And then, Doug King, who wrote the email, he did apologize. It wasn’t the apology that everybody wanted. But, you know, the director who was mentioned in the email was present at the board meeting when Doug apologized to the board. And again, that was just one person’s opinion.
QR: There was a sense from that misdirected email from Doug King that chapters needed to get with the program and that if they ultimately did not, they can respectfully go their own way. This is surprising given that these local associations have been long tenured with really deep relationships. A lot of leadership has come out of these associations. Holding together, being united might seem like a better goal as opposed to what appears to be an easy-come, easy-go mentality. What do you say to those who are left with that impression?
Gehman: We don’t want it to be, ‘my way or the highway’. These discussions and conversations, they’ve been going on for a number of years. So the decision was based on a pattern of escalating behavior that seems to be 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, 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 that hopefully there will still be enough of a core group that we could reform a chapter.
QR: Was there a warning to the chapter letting them know of their violation. ‘You Violated this or that part of the charter with NARI’ I’m envisioning a process stating clearly that Metro DC must comply by a certain date?
Gehman: We talked about it at the national board. That was not a conversation that we had with the Metro DC chapter.
QR: That was the conclusion, as you said, after several years of behavior. How would you characterize that behavior?
Gehman: It was an ongoing behavior of never being satisfied with what national was doing. There were conversations that we had in the past where we thought we came to an agreement and an understanding on something, then next year the same issue gets brought up again. And it takes a lot of time, mental and emotional energy for headquarters staff and for the national board when our time should be spent on new initiatives and adding value to members across the board. Instead of spending so much time focused on one chapter. And in reality, probably the majority of members of the chapter don’t even know what’s going on. It’s the chapter leadership. And I don’t even know if it’s all the leaders.
Alleviating Ongoing Concerns from Chapters
QR: In the case of Eastern Massachusetts, they are no longer part of the organization. They left on their own accord. It appears to me three or four other chapters appear poised to do the same. What efforts are being made to keep those chapters in the fold? What larger vision for NARI would you like to impart that might help those chapters and members better understand the current focus and how that might lead to improved outcomes for members in the organization?
Gehman: So I’d say first off, we’re going to continue to reach out to the chapters to address their specific concerns. We have reached out to these chapters. Many of them have not responded. So it’s hard for us to know: Are they not interested or are they just trying to get a date that works from their board? We just haven’t heard anything. Until we know what the chapter’s individual concerns are, we’re not able to address them appropriately.
We’re working on the budgeting right now. We are focused on finding funding for chapter support programs so that they can do what they do best so that the members find value locally. We feel that there’s a lot of things that a local chapter can’t offer that comes from NARI, from national, from the headquarters. And that’s part of why dues are needed to fund things at national levels.
We’re going to conduct training for each chapter to help them enhance their marketing and recruitment efforts. Planning for that is already underway. We were planning to have chapter executives join us at headquarters starting at the end of July but at this point Illinois [where NARI National is based] still has restrictions. We aren’t able to do that. But we’re going to continue doing that. Once again, we miss out on the face-to-face part of that.
QR: NARI National is trying to keep them in the fold. NARI is making every effort to do that, correct?
QR: You mentioned that they’re not getting back to you, has it been a matter of days or weeks or months?
Gehman: I would say weeks at this point.
National Board Membership, Selection of Officers
QR: One of the issues is that the, you know, the board is composed of the same faces year after year. Is the process as open as it should be? And can you explain the process and how individuals can get involved with the committee work and also then eventually leadership.
Gehman: We want to continually have, new people in involved with the national level. I think there’s a fine balance between always having new people, but I don’t think you ever want to have a totally new board. Having history, some longevity, I think there’s value in that. There’s also value in new people, new faces, new ideas. It was only, two years ago that the path to be able to serve as a board member and as an officer and ultimately was made easier.
At this point we have 11 standing committees. The chair of each committee has a seat on the national board. We want everyone who is interested to sign up for committees. As they get involved, we invite them to be a vice chair and then when an opening arises to move into a chair position, they move up. Those vice chairs and chairs, once they’ve served one year, they are eligible to put their name in the running I guess you would say to become an officer.
The officers are an elected position. There are sometimes when there’s only one person puts their name in. This year. And the elections are always with the house of delegates meeting in the spring. So, it was the beginning of April this year and there were two individuals who put their name in. And I think that is good. And it’s healthy to have multiple people. Here, again, part of the challenge is when we aren’t meeting face-to-face, how are people, able to know who these individuals are, and what do they base their vote on.
We do have minimum number of committee members that we need. And there’s also a maximum. We talked earlier when, you know, the committees were just full. In most cases, we are having a hard time getting the maximum number of committee members that our policy currently allows. And part of the challenge is we need to have a quorum in order to vote and to conduct official business. If you get too many people a committee and they don’t show up.
In April, a new board was ratified. And there is a voting process. All of the house of delegates get to a vote and affirm these committee chairs who are then board members. They vote separately for the officers and their positions. There was communication in the form of an email. And then as well in the NARI Newswatch, a weekly newsletter, went out with the names of all the new officers and board members and along with that was an invitation for people to get involved on committees.
CEO Selection Process
QR: Another area of concern expressed by some members is the process of picking a CEO. Some people have alleged that process was perhaps truncated. Is there any validity at all to those assertions?
Gehman: I don’t feel like there is any validity to this. David Pekel, soon after he became president in April of 2018, when the previous CEO departed in June, David, as president, stepped up as a volunteer to be interim CEO for seven months until we got things in order. The board immediately upon the departure of the previous CEO (Fred Ulrich) reviewed, the job description, you know and talked about the experience of the ideal candidate.
We worked with a recruiting agency and asked them to help us out. And there was a vetting process, finding names and they knew our criteria. They would do the initial round of interviews before they’d recommend a candidate to us. And we were a several weeks into that when David Pekel decided to submit his application to the recruiting agency. His went through the same process. As a board, we talked about the optics of it. We didn’t want it to come across as if we were showing favoritism to David. I would say, if anything, he got scrutinized harder than others did.
The officers make up the personnel committee. That that’s how the policy manual is written. There were several candidacies in addition to David’s. We conducted interviews with all of them. and we felt like David was the best candidate. We recommended him to the board, the board had all kinds of questions. And, you know, it’s been a long time since I was on a job interview, but I never had it where there was 15 people, the whole board. We wanted the right person for the association. And we ultimately took a vote it was a strong consensus for David. And I feel like what he’s accomplished has spoken for itself.
Plans for Attracting and Retaining New Members
QR: The remodeling industry is booming and yet what’s happening, not just with NARI, but with other associations is that membership is flat or down, particularly with younger professionals. What is NARI’s plan-of-attack or strategy, in broad strokes, on the best ways that it is trying to increase engagement and ultimately membership?
Gehman: You hit it on the button. It seems like we’re not attracting younger folks. Part of what we’ve been working at is to evolve our message to hopefully appeal to younger people. Thankfully, there are still are some younger folks who are entering the trades. That’s a different discussion. Part of our work plan for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, was to hire a social-media manager. That person is on staff with NARI now along with a new marketing director. Social media seems to be where the younger folks hang out. We just finished up a campaign asking members to submit videos called ‘My Career in Remodeling’ and we got better than 50 videos. We just launched a new platform that we’re calling the NARI Network. That is available to all of our members. And so, we’re working at getting the message out about that communication tool. It is a place where people can hang out, that is kind of a social media platform that is hosted by on our server. It is a place for people to ask questions, share best practices and you know, and so that is brand new and just happened at the beginning of this week.
Another way is featuring members’ stories. We want to emphasize diversity with that as well. And we’re going to start with these videos, that were put out on social media and we’ve had good engagement. We need to be talking to these younger folks. Us Baby Boomers aren’t going to be around forever. And hopefully we have some life left in us yet. We always need new people and hopefully some younger people to catch the vision for NARI.
QR: Where will people latch onto NARI first?
Gehman: For the people that are in an area of the country where we have a chapter it’s going to be through the chapter. They have the face-to-face networking that everyone wants. We have definitely seen growth in new members in parts of the country where we don’t have a chapter. So, the main way is through the local chapters. As we see areas of the country with a number of members without a chapter, then from headquarters, we’re going to work to establish a chapter if there’s interest. It takes people being interested and willing to put in the time to get a local chapter started. So hopefully we’re going to find people that, that will pick up that baton and run with it.
QR: What is the need for a young remodeler or any remodeler who joins an association? What is it that you deliver for them that you think will be the first thing that they’re going to need and use?
Gehman: I think most of us get into the remodeling business because we’re a tradesman and we decide that we have an entrepreneurial itch and scratch it and start our own business. And we don’t realize what we don’t know as far as the business side of things—the hiring, the, selling, the marketing human resources, those kinds of things. Most of us have learned on the job as far as the trades. But business owners don’t teach this side of things to their employees. So many of us didn’t know that. And, you know, I am very grateful for NARI when we started our business in 1990. Two years later I learned that there was a NARI chapter starting. I was quick to jump in because I, by that time, I had 17 years of trade experience and two years of fumbling around my business. And so I give a lot of credit to NARI for my success, for our success in our business. Soon after the chapter started, which is the Bucks-Mont chapter. They offered a CR study group for certified remodeler. And a big part of that is business. It’s partly on the trades, but there’s a good focus on marketing, on how to read a balance sheet and on how to read a profit-loss-statement, on why job costing is important. So that education is really a big thing that NARI has to offer remodelers of all ages.
The NARI Federation
QR: NARI is a federation of local chapters as well as a national organization. Do you see any change to the current composition of NARI as a federation?
No. We’ve, this is something we talk about annually the national leadership level. Is, what we’re doing the best for our members? And so we’ve looked at what other associations do different kind of business models, so to speak. And having local chapters is really the way we can best serve our members. It’s the way that members get engaged. And part of engagement but they attend events. They are interested in the continuing education courses and becoming certified. Eventually we see them getting involved on committees at the national level and maybe even the board leadership beyond that. Predominantly those kinds of things are happening with members who are in chapters. Once in a while we see some other members who aren’t nearby a chapter and, you know, we see leadership potential in them.
QR: As far as the structure of the organization goes, there’s no change being contemplated?
QR: Local chapters have to recruit and grow or that’s it, they don’t exist anymore. Anytime there’s an increase in dues designated for NARI National there’s a lot of local scrutiny about the return on investment from higher dues. That’s been true for decades. What can local chapters expect from NARI National as a result of the most recent dues increase.
Gehman: Part of each year we go through a budgeting process. We’re in the middle of that right now. We do that to set the work plan, which is really our strategic vision for the next fiscal year. Each year, when we are looking at it, the number one thing that we ask when we’re putting that budget together is ‘what value is there for our members’? ‘Are there additional things that we can do?’
Part of the plan this past year was bringing on another person for member services. And that is his sole job. Anthony Lopez is doing a terrific job. He’s of the younger generation. He is in there and every day is talking with members and with chapter leaders. Unfortunately, cost increases happen all the time. They’re going crazy right now with the materials.
And to a certain extent, it’s like the two by four that I paid $3.50 for at the beginning of the year that I’m now paying $9 for. What more value am I getting? Well, it’s the same stuff that holds up the wall. With the dues, members are pushing us hard on this and rightly so.
So we are working at getting that message out more clearly. One of our challenges is how do we make sure that all of our members know about everything that NARI National has to offer the local chapters. For a long time, we assumed that chapter leadership would work at disseminating that information to their members. And they do some, but even on the local level not everyone gets involved and is coming to meetings. And so, they’re missing out on things. We, we can send out emails, but every one of us get far more emails than we have time to read. We were doing some snail mail. We’re talking about the NARI Network, which will enable people to learn more fully everything that is available. So, we were realizing that we need to work at that harder from the national level to how we communicate with people, and everybody does it different. So, we have to ask the question. It’s just like us as remodelers when we’re working with a homeowner, we come out and ask the best way to communicate with them. What do you prefer? Some people prefer face-to-face. For other people, it’s the telephone or email or text. We do our best to accommodate so that a project runs smoothly. And as far as NARI and our membership, it’s really so that people feel valued as a member and feel like they’re getting a return on their investment. We hear the ROI conversation on a pretty frequent basis.
House of Delegates, Governance
QR: For many years NARI had a different governance structure that included a larger house of delegates and a more deliberative decision-making process. That was changed to help the organization make decisions more quickly. Now there are complaints about opaqueness, fewer places for members to meaningfully contribute to the process. In your opinion, Dennis, did the pendulum swing too far? Does the process for strategy and decision-making need to be opened up a little bit to be more inclusive of a bigger group of members? That’s certainly something that I’ve been hearing.
Gehman: Again, this is one of those things, it’s part of the business model. We continually look at that and asking the very questions that you’re asking. We hear from people that they want to be more involved and yet there are times when, even with the smaller house of delegates, that we come mighty close to not having a quorum. And so, the idea of adding more people into that, we can’t see how that would work. We want people to be able to be a part of the process.
When David Pekel became CEO, he started these listening sessions, which he did in the first quarter of 2019, and then 2020. This year we didn’t do it the first quarter because of some of the turmoil that’s going on. It didn’t seem to make sense, but we are reaching out to chapters to talk with them. Two or three or four board members from national are talking with the local board and their executive director—hearing their concerns answering their questions as best as we can. If we don’t have an answer, we promise to them that we will talk about it and get back to them. We want to hear what what’s going on.
The whole idea of transparency is one I think is not just NARI, everybody wants to know more about how decisions are made, where money is being spent. And to me it’s good and bad. I understand where they’re coming from, but yet, you know, it’s kind of too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot, you know?
And so it’s fine line to know what it is. The ideal would be that the delegates from each chapter have conversations with their chapter members about issues. In turn they bring those up to the national level and communicate it that way. That’s something that we need to work at getting that set up. It just hasn’t happened that way. A lot of times most chapter members aren’t even aware of who the delegates are. Very few people come to the national spring and fall conferences. We’d love to see that change and have people involved. But part of that is with, we need to continue to try to do better in offering more value. If we can make it so that the people who attend are just blown away by the quality of their experience at those meetings, that they’re going to go back and talk about it. And then that’s going to make other people want to come.
QR: I recall those days when there was a lot more committee work being done, and I want to drill into this governance structure a little bit and the reform of it as perhaps a root of why the meetings aren’t so well attended. Before there were expectations that people would attend the meetings if they’re on a committee. And it was the work of the association that was done collaboratively, in person meeting twice or three times a year, whatever it was, was the energy for the associates. That’s my observation. The smaller you make committees there’s less energy. I would love for you to respond to that. Has that ever been looked at as part of a pendulum swinging too far towards a streamlined governance of NARI?
Gehman: We have talked about it. Attendance numbers at these national meetings changed very little from when we had the committees what they were. Over the last two years it took a turn for the worse. And that’s part of why we started asking. That the other thing is when we’re inviting people to get involved in, to be on committees, the typical answer is ‘I’m too busy.’ I don’t have time. And it’s a little easier now because we can explain that responsibilities are one conference call, one hour per month and maybe some work in between. We were having a hard time on some committees, not all of them, but some of the committees getting enough of a quorum to do business. I am firm believer in the power of face-to-face meetings. You get so much more accomplished. But you got to have people who are willing to do that.
When we went away from having the committee meetings at the conferences, I agree about the energy. And there was some additional energy when we launched the workforce development committee. We had a room at that first workforce development committee meeting that was overflowing. People couldn’t hardly get in and, and there was lots of energy. And then over the next few months, as the conference calls continued for that committee we wanted to keep it going. But there were fewer and fewer people continued it. Our challenge is, how do we continue that momentum?
I think the whole thing of us not having been able to meet in person this past year has not helped the situation that we find ourselves in now. I think some face-to-face conversations along the way would have nipped some of these chapter concerns in the bud. We would have heard things sooner and hopefully responded on a national level. Nipping in the bud just means we have a conversation and hear each other out and understand each other. It doesn’t always mean something will change. QR