May 2020 Vol. 75 No. 5


Busy Agenda, Powerful Speakers Highlight DCA Convention


With winter fading and the successful but rainy fall meeting in New York City in the rear-view mirror, Distribution Contractors Association (DCA) members were looking forward to the famous Florida weather at the 2020 DCA Convention, and they were not disappointed. An hour north of Miami, the grand, Spanish-style Boca Raton Resort and Club hosted this year’s convention February 24–29 with Cuban flair and abundant sunshine on the tropical Atlantic coast.

DCA Honorary Member Ollie Klinger introduced new Honorary Member Chris Brahler of TT Technologies.

Business opened on a Tuesday morning with the meeting of the Membership Committee. Woody Ferrell stood in for Dustin Mykyte of Pe Ben USA, and Scott Cooper of Caterpillar presided. After covering 2019 attendance and auction statistics, the discussion turned to how to get more qualified applicants for DCA scholarship programs. Suggestions included targeting relevant degrees such as engineering and construction management. The committee noted that there were more than 100 first-time attendees at the 2020 convention.

The Business Session followed next, beginning with opening remarks from DCA Executive Vice President Rob Darden and outgoing President Mike Hickey of The Hallen Construction Co. The featured speaker for the morning was writer, businessman and CPA Gene Marks. His presentation focused on what successful businesses who survive long term have in common. The short answer: They are all looking ahead, one, two, three or more years into the future.

He highlighted four important trends that businesses should pay attention to and prepare for in order to thrive down the road:

Participants in the annual DCA Fun Run/Walk, sponsored by Underground Construction magazine, warm up.

• Healthcare – The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is still the law, but changes from the Trump administration include “skinny” plans, association health plans and healthcare reimbursement accounts. However, executive orders can be easily overturned by the next administration. Business owners should maximize pre-tax healthcare plans and benefits, consider level benefit or hybrid plans, offer association plans as an option, and embrace technology such as telemedicine, wearables and rewards programs.

• Employment – Speaking prior to the unforeseen COVID-19 shutdown, Marks noted that three factors were driving up compensation: the tight labor market, increasing state minimum wages and new sick leave laws. Marks advised companies to leverage the SECURE Act, and work opportunity and FMLA credits; get creative with paid time off (a high priority for millennials); and adopt more HR technologies and services to streamline operations.

• Recession – A recession will happen sooner or later, so be prepared. Marks discussed a range of metrics he follows to keep tabs on the state of the economy, ranging from the NAHB Housing Market Index to Alan Greenspan’s men’s underwear index. He recommended following metrics that make sense to you and doing a monthly cash check to see if your business has six months of operating expenses on hand, and noting historical photos to remember it could always be worse.

• Technology – Keep an eye on how artificial intelligence is being used to enhance business capabilities, as well as trends in bots, ransomware and security technology.

Marks kept the audience awake and alert with pop quizzes featuring offbeat questions and unusual trivia. His sage advice could not have been timelier, and it will be interesting to see how he looks back on current events the next time he visits the DCA.

Government relations

Eben Wyman of Wyman Associates began the Government Relations Committee meeting with an update on the Pipeline Safety Reauthorization bill in Congress. Not much is likely to happen soon in the post-impeachment political environment (and the current health crisis), but three major issues the committee had with the bill have been somewhat mitigated so far.

Outgoing DCA President Mike Hickey (left) introduces incoming president Ben Nelson.

Holding up the bill are efforts by Democrats to address environmental issues regarding methane to what was intended as a safety bill, along with ongoing debate about criminal protest provisions and huge increases in civil penalties. The DCA is concerned that utilities will only pass along such fines to contractors, who will have no chance to defend themselves. Contract language may offer some defense, and one audience member who was a former state regulator pointed out that the state can also act as a mediator in such disputes.

At the state government level, professional engineer (PE) requirements for pipeline project sites are currently pending in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has limited options to regulate or improve state enforcement of damage prevention rules, but it is considering adding a two-year review and increased reporting, which operators and contractors actually seem to agree on.

However, they may be leaning toward mandatory reporting, which would put a higher burden on the contractor. Audience members commented that contractors need to get a seat at the table on state boards and organizations to influence legislation.

The Government Relations Committee briefly addressed the growing problem of missed locates. Based on contractor reporting, this is caused more by cost than lack of resources or manpower. Attendees agreed that the committee should proceed with gathering more data to inform future action. The meeting wrapped up with an update on the soon-to-be-released OQIP website and an invitation to join the next D.C. fly-in.

The Safety/Risk Management Committee meeting featured three speakers. The first was Steve Allen, executive director of pipeline safety for ENERGY Worldnet, Inc., speaking on pipeline safety management systems (SMS). He reviewed the DCA Pipeline Construction SMS Template, which was written with contractors in mind rather than operators, and recommended that contractors voluntarily adopt SMS within three years before it becomes mandatory. He also discussed case studies and encouraged contractors to reach out to operators and discuss SMS proactively, familiarize themselves with the DCA template, and perform their own safety culture evaluations.

The next two speakers, Adam Carr and Jake Clark, represented the convention’s “Salute to Service” theme for the week. Carr served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan after 9/11, and talked about the mental toll of coming home from combat. He lost several comrades to suicide.

In 2016, after struggling with suicidal feelings, Carr was contacted by Jake Clark of the Save a Warrior (SAW) foundation. Clark, a member of SEAL Team 6 who was third in the door on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, described the appalling statistics on veteran suicide and his efforts to start SAW out of the trunk of his car in 2012. The organization is currently raising money to open its National Center of Excellence in Ohio, which could increase its treatment capacity from 300 annually to over 700.

By Tuesday evening, it was time for the Touch of Cuba Welcome Reception and Dinner. At the outdoor reception on the west lawn, a Cuban band played amid Caribbean décor, and mint tea awaited guests at tables that surrounded a 1950s vintage Mercury Phaeton. DCA staff passed out proper Cuban fedoras to all the guests, and many dressed up for the occasion. Members mingled around the mojito bar and hand-rolled cigar station amid cocktail tables made from bongo drums, as hostesses invited them to a game of dominoes.

Salute to Service

At Wednesday morning’s breakfast, Rob Darden kicked off the DCA Salute to Service with recognition of veterans in the audience, a military choir singing the national and service anthems, and the pledge of allegiance. Vince King led the morning prayer, followed by the recognition of special guests and a video review of Mike Hickey’s year as “The Most Interesting DCA President of 2019.”

DCA Executive Vice President Rob Darden (left) with keynote speaker former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The keynote speaker was former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who spoke on “How Geopolitical Events Will Affect Your Company’s Future – And What Every Company Must Know.” He recalled the political and economic scene of the late 1970s – malaise, doubt and dwindling influence – and how Ronald Reagan turned things around in the ‘80s. He elaborated on the similarities between the ‘70s and 2008, and compared Reagan’s and Trump’s efforts to spur recovery.

Giuliani also talked about his own work as mayor to put more money in people’s pockets through removing the “mafia tax” and continuing Ed Koch’s capital improvements program. Giuliani explained that he learned a great appreciation for underground infrastructure during the attempt to restore the stock exchange after 9/11, and after answering a variety of political questions from the audience, he finished with a heartwarming story about President Bush’s first visit to Ground Zero.

After breakfast, the Town Hall covered the treasurer’s report and upcoming DCA events before launching a discussion on membership dues, which have not been raised since 2003. The session concluded with the presentation of the annual DCA safety awards.

New Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) Executive Director Missy Henrikson spoke at the Workforce Development Committee meeting on her organization’s work with DCA to increase the visibility of the distribution industry. From there, the meeting turned to the ongoing topic of developing skills competitions to expose students to the industry, along with an appeal for task force volunteers for the fall workforce summit.

After a busy afternoon of tours and activities, members began filling up the convention hall for the buffet and annual auction. Bidders cruised the silent auction tables and mingled at the bar as a live feed of the bidding played on TV screens nearby. Over $60,000 had already been bid on the silent auction before auctioneer Logan Thomas opened the live event.

Honorary member

At the next morning’s group breakfast, Rob Darden announced that the live and silent auctions had raised a combined total of over $1 million. Morning ceremonies began with the induction of Chris Brahler of TT Technologies as a DCA Honorary Member. Fellow Honorary Member Ollie Klinger queued up a photo montage highlighting Brahler’s finer qualities and accomplishments before introducing him.

Next, the DCA-Labor Management Cooperation Trust presented a $50,000 donation to Helmets to Hardhats, an organization dedicated to helping veterans find work in the construction industry. America’s Got Talent finalists, Voices of Service, a singing group of active and former service members, took the stage next and wowed the crowd with their golden voices while telling their personal stories, and even getting the audience to sing along.

Surprise guest Mike Rowe entertained and informed the audience.

DCA members were also treated to a sneak peek of Six Degrees, a new TV series being developed by Mike Rowe. Everyone was greatly surprised when Rowe himself appeared on stage to talk about the show. He described Six Degrees as “a history show for people who hate history.”

Rowe wants to make a persuasive case for how Hollywood and the energy industry can do a better job of helping each other, noting that “we resent that which we come to rely upon” to explain Hollywood’s hostility toward the energy industry. He also hinted that his hit show Dirty Jobs might be making a comeback soon.

The HDD Committee meeting began with recognition of the DCA panelists who presented at the January 2020 Underground Construction Technology (UCT) Conference in Fort Worth. The panelists presented on industry regulations and new mud machines being developed, and a discussion and interaction with fiber and other professionals at the conference.

Cory Lee of Vermeer MV Solutions then took the podium to talk about XR2 hydro-trenching technology. As demand for “soft” excavation rises, Vermeer MV Solutions saw that existing large truck vacuum excavators were often too heavy to be road legal, and there were fewer available disposal sites. Therefore, Vermeer developed XR2 to be more compact and enable on-site disposal by separating solids from liquids. The company expects to launch XR2 commercially in early 2020.

Next, Blaine Easter of Ditch Witch and Randy Rupp of Subsite/Hammerhead presented an update on the state of the HDD industry. They noted that market share by category remained good, but growth has been relatively flat over the last four years. After reviewing difficult industry points and customer needs, they offered guidance on labor force issues, training and productivity, utility strikes and cross bores, inadvertent returns and data management.

Finally, Dave Wisniewski of Vermeer Corp. requested volunteers to serve on upcoming panels who have a good collaborative relationship with utilities for risk management.
The rest of the day was reserved for the DCA Golf Tournament and activities ranging from museum tours to kayaking.


On Friday morning, the golf tournament winners were announced, followed by the winners of 2020–21 DCA-Dale R. Michels and Curtis H. Allen Scholarships.

Featured speaker for the day was Fox News contributor Chris Stirewalt, who sought to add some historical perspective to American politics. He pointed out that most millennials, who were born after 1980, have bad memories of American history during their lifetimes – political division, culture wars, recession, terrorism and disaster.

In the 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville saw something special in American culture that allowed our revolution to succeed where the French Revolution failed, but today Stirewalt says we suffer from “cultural Type 2 diabetes” – we’ve grown rich and lazy and failed to take care of our unique legacy.

Referencing C.S. Lewis, he pointed out how Russia and China have order but no freedom, while Somalia has freedom but no order. The United States is the safest, best place to live in history, but he believes our politicians do not say so because their only purpose is to keep us angry and afraid and make us take a side. Stirewalt described 2016 as the “Flight 93 election” because both sides acted as if it were better to crash than to let the other side win.

He observed that Tocqueville believed Americans were free because we were fundamentally good – we take care of each other. Stirewalt urged the audience to demand more civics and history education, to “give young people the manual on how this country should work.” After answering some thoughtful and pointed questions from the audience, Stirewalt left them with his final and most important takeaway: “We are not enemies.”

The final evening of the convention featured the President’s Reception and Dinner. This year’s theme was “USO Through the Decades,” and patriotism was on tap. Red, white, and blue décor accompanied a ‘40s-style big band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” while guests congregated at the army canteen bar or took pictures in front of the World War II airfield backdrop featuring a giant B-17 Flying Fortress.

Guests came dressed in military garb, both vintage and modern, from every branch, including Mike Hickey’s mother
as a World War II air raid warden.

But the real fun was “celebrity” spotting among the costumed crowd: Willie Nelson, Kid Rock, John Wayne, Phyllis Diller, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Johnny Bench, Captain America, Miss America, Rosie the Riveter, Uncle Sam, Rick Springfield and “Jessie’s Girl,” and, of course, Marilyn Monroe. “Bob Hope” took the stage to tell a few jokes and introduce Mike Hickey, who thanked everyone for his time as DCA President and offered a lesson from his parents: “Whatever you do, be happy.”

Incoming president and self-proclaimed “Jungle Cruise Boat Captain” for 2020, Ben Nelson of Michels Pacific Energy, was up next to introduce his theme for the next year: “Who do you want to represent your company here in 20 years?” After a performance by the talented Swing Sisters, “Marilyn Monroe” sang a special happy birthday serenade to “Mr. President” Ben Nelson and actual birthday boy “Mikey” Hickey.

Dave Wisniewski then reflected on the impact of powerful words and the sacrifice of our service members as he read the Preamble to the Constitution.

DCA is scheduled to hold its Mid-Year Meeting in Ashville, N.C., July 15–18. The next annual convention is slated for Feb. 15–20, 2021, in Waimea, Hawaii. •


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