An Interview With Michael Johnson

By Mark S. Kuhar

The New President And CEO Of The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association Takes The Reins And Weighs In On The Aggregates Industry.

Congratulations on being named president and CEO of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background?
Thank you, I am excited about the opportunity to serve the members of NSSGA as president and CEO. I am a proud Kentucky native and began my career in Washington with former U.S. Senator Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), the second highest-ranking member of the Senate leadership at the time. I then moved on to run ballot initiative and referendum campaigns across the country for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), where I first became familiar with the construction industry. Over time I also began to lobby Congress for NAHB. That was followed by six years as vice president of government affairs with the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) and, most recently, seven years as executive vice president and chief advocacy officer with the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA).

What important insights and tools do you bring with you from your experience working for different associations?
I believe that advocacy is job one for trade associations and I bring more than 20 years of experience as an advocacy professional – much of that time at three trade associations commonly recognized as political and government affairs powerhouses in Washington. That experience includes a proven record of developing membership-focused strategic advocacy agendas, strengthening membership programs and achieving high-priority public-policy objectives.

A good president is made even better by surrounding himself with talented people. Who are some of the key players helping you to drive the success of the association?
First and foremost, it is the great group of volunteer leaders who have provided me with tremendous guidance and support in my new role. They really embody what Teddy Roosevelt was talking about when he said, “Every man owes a part of his time and money to the business or industry in which he is engaged. No man has a moral right to withhold his support from an organization that is striving to improve conditions within his sphere.” NSSGA’s greatest strength is the commitment of its membership to advancing this vital American industry.

I am also very grateful for the committed and highly professional staff here at headquarters, whose broad talents advancing our members’ public policy priorities and promote the many contributions of the aggregates industry.

I want to especially express my sincere gratitude to Gus Edwards, NSSGA’s president and CEO emeritus. Gus has been an invaluable source of advice and assistance – during what could have been a very challenging time – in facilitating a smooth and seamless transition. This association and this industry are better for the service of Gus Edwards and I wish him all the best as he embarks on new adventures.

What is job number-one for you as you get up to speed in the aggregates industry?
The first thing I want to understand is what the members of NSSGA want from their trade association and how well the organization is performing in meeting those needs and desires. What are the highest priority objectives and how effective have we been at achieving against them.

To that end one of the first things we did was to get into the field with a benchmark survey of the membership. The response rate was great and the data was both reaffirming and directive. The membership sees NSSGA as having great value for their business and is generally pleased with the effectiveness of the association. Not surprisingly, getting Congress to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill, the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, the accurate definition of minerals and federal regulation in the areas of the environment, safety and health were clearly identified as the highest priority issues.
The membership survey was the first step in the development of a new three-year strategic plan for NSSGA that will chart our course for the future. The data we gleaned will guide our strategic planning task force in developing a plan that is laser focused on those high priority issues, better allocate our resources and help us to work more effectively in effort to maximize the return on the members’ investment in NSSGA. To put it simply, the process will help NSSGA better plan our work and work our plan.

What are some of the additional priorities for you as you move into the first year on the job?
As I said, in my opinion advocacy is the most important function of a trade association and what is immediately critical to our industry is the passage of a surface transportation reauthorization bill before the expiration of the current law on Sept. 30, 2014. Additionally, without congressional action, the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent in 2015. Congress must act to put the HTF on a sustainable path by ensuring a short-term funding source to sustain the surface transportation infrastructure network while transitioning to a new long-term funding mechanism.

On the regulatory front, the proposed rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which would reduce the crystalline silica exposure limit dramatically is not based on sound science and cannot be measured accurately, but has the very real potential to adversely affect our members’ businesses.

NSSGA has worked very hard to be a visible presence on Capitol Hill and to lobby for infrastructure spending. Why do so many of our legislators not see this as a critical national priority?
For several years now Congress has been lurching from man-made crisis to man-made crisis – sequestration, the “fiscal cliff,” a shutdown and near default – which has served to suck the air from the room and virtually eliminated substantive discussion of anything else. It has been the worst, most divisive, ideologically paralyzed environment I have seen in more than 20 years of working with Congress.

Nevertheless, there has been a steady drumbeat of conversation about the importance of the nation’s surface transportation network and the need to address the funding issue.

We hope that the overwhelmingly bipartisan passage of the Water Resources Development Act and swift completion of a conference to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills will serve as a model when debate turns to reauthorization of the highway bill next year.

The conversation needs to go to a deeper level and focus on solutions, not just defining the problem. NSSGA will work with others to identify a “coalition of the willing” who recognize the importance of investing in the nation’s surface transportation system and ensuring the future solvency of the Highway Trust Fund.

The best way to change the way members of Congress see an issue is to make sure that they are hearing concern about it from their constituents. We will step up our work with our grassroots to educate local business owners, community organizations, PTAs, and other interests, about the importance of an efficient and robust surface transportation system. Let’s face it – everything we eat, the clothes we wear and every package delivered to our homes and businesses at some time travels on the nation’s roads and highways. This is a problem that affects everyone.

America’s transportation system was once the envy of the world. Now, according to the World Economic Forum, it ranks 23rd. You cannot have the number-one economy in the world, or for that matter sustain a real economic recovery, with the 23rd rated infrastructure and NSSGA is committed to working with its coalition partners to get America back to investing in infrastructure again.

Much has been made of NSSGA’s partnership with MSHA to work harder toward zero injuries and fatalities. Do you plan to continue that effort in the coming years?
Yes, we always stand ready to work with the agency to develop education and training that can reduce injuries and fatalities. Our alliance Safety Alerts, based on aggregates injury data from 2012, does a good job of instructing on best practices for avoiding injuries in critical areas like materials handling and slips and falls. Similarly, we work hard to stage the Noise & Dust workshops so important to instructing on how to monitor for over-exposure to workplace health hazards.

Also, we will use our relationship to educate MSHA on the realities confronting operators to ensure appropriate regulation and enforcement. Remember, it’s the operator on whom the Mine Act places primary responsibility for workplace safety. So, we all have a vested interest in the operator’s ability to produce stone, sand and gravel successfully in the safest, healthiest and most compliant manner possible. We will continue to work with MSHA both on behalf of safety and compliance, as well as to encourage balanced regulation and enforcement.

Aggregates producers have a vested interest in integrating into the community. It is no longer enough to just be a local employer. How can producers do a better job being viewed as good stewards of the environment and community?
Well, aggregates producers are vested and invested in the communities in which they operate. The live there, work there, worship there, go to school there and are in every way integrated into the fabric of those communities.

Interestingly, we just completed our 2013 safety, environmental and community relations awards application process. The number of applications increased by 48 percent compared to 2012. This is an absolute testament to the pride our producer members – small, medium and large – display in showcasing their best practices in each of these areas.

NSSGA firmly believes that an active environmental and community relations program is the best way for an aggregates producer to demonstrate clearly that an operation can be and, indeed is, an asset in any community; and that the individuals who manage and work at aggregates operations are both good neighbors and responsible corporate citizens.

The ultimate goal of our environmental and community relations programs is improvement of the public’s perception of local crushed stone, sand and gravel operations and the aggregates industry nationally. NSSGA recognizes that environmental stewardship is necessary to preserve the quality of life for future generations and its members are encouraged to meet all established environmental regulatory requirements and, where possible, to do better than the law requires.

During the Mining Life Cycle of an aggregates operation, our members are encouraged to develop a site-specific plan for post-mining land use and/or reclamation that engages stakeholders in planning for future needs and interests. Our members have and continue to produce two resources: first is aggregates and second is attractive, productive and valuable land in the form of parks, housing, wetlands, resorts, wildlife habitats – and my favorite – golf courses.

NSSGA’s Young Leaders group is rightly banking on the camaraderie and vision of the industry’s younger demographic to set the tone for the industry’s future. How do you see them driving the future success of the aggregates industry?
The Young Leaders group is vital to our organization as they will be leaders of the aggregates industry in the future. The Young Leaders group is woven throughout everything we do here at NSSGA and I only see that participation expanding. From representation on NSSGA’s Board of Directors, a Young Leaders liaison on the Membership Committee and, most recently, inclusion on the Strategic Planning Task Force we value their commitment to and participation with NSSGA. I will look to them to share the value of NSSGA and their experiences with their peers as we work to grow and expand our membership.

How do you envision AGG1 growing and developing in the future for maximum success?
In our member survey, AGG1 was one of the highest rated items by our Producer and M&S members alike. This is evidenced by the growing attendance and the continued expansion of the show floor every year since its inception. The 2013 AGG1 Expo sold out three months prior to the event and was 13 percent larger than the year prior. As we plan future shows and select new sites, we will continue to plan for additional growth not only in floor space and attendance, but also in our educational offerings. In an effort to build upon the AGG1 brand and to expand our educational offerings outside of the AGG1 Expo, NSSGA recently launched a new webinar series – AGG1 Online.

AGG1 Online brings our most popular sessions held at the AGG1 Academy & Expo into a virtual environment, in addition to providing new learning opportunities and building on the 101 level sessions offered onsite with more advanced 201 and 301 courses. These webinars do not replace our AGG1 seminars, but we recognize an educational need for those companies who cannot send multiple staff to an onsite AGG1 Academy & Expo. AGG1 Online will focus exclusively on the aggregates industry as its leading education resource.

There are aggregates producers who still have not taken advantage of association membership. What would you say to them to encourage them to join as members?
Honestly, I think we need to do a better job of telling our story – the importance of the aggregates industry related to building the infrastructure of this country and how valuable NSSGA is to the long-term success of the industry. I’ve referenced this a few times already, but in our recent survey, members overwhelmingly identified NSSGA as the most important trade association to their business.

NSSGA is the only national association focused solely on the aggregates industry. As we build a long-term strategic plan, we are listening to our members and will create a strategy that is focused on what matters most to the success of their business and our industry.

Over the next few months, we will begin to roll out new initiatives that will create new energy and excitement around and a new value proposition for the organization. At our board of directors meeting in October, we showcased a new logo, which is the first of many steps we will be taking as we rebrand the new NSSGA. Our redesigned and more user-friendly website will be a great tool for us to push out our messages and to engage new members from around the country.

We will continue to work closely with the state aggregate organizations to stress the importance of belonging not only to the state association, but also participating at the national level.

Bottom line, here really is strength in numbers and we will need all the might we can muster for the crucial legislative and regulatory battles ahead.

Where would you like to see the industry in five years? What is your vision of the future?
While I do not have a crystal ball, I hope for the following:

■ That we have sustained a real economic recovery in America that sees NSSGA’s members return to sales volumes that look more like 2006 or 2007 again.
■ That we have a long-term, wellfunded surface transportation bill in place, and that our political leaders recognize and commit to the importance of continually investing in infrastructure as a means of growing our economy, competing more effectively on a world stage and providing a better quality of life for future generations.
■ That our members are recognized for being environmentally responsible, committed to workplace safety, and that we are experiencing historically low rates of injury incidence and fatalities.
■ That a larger, stronger and more effective NSSGA has capitalized on its 2014-2016 strategic plan, is achieving against the goals and objectives of its 2017-2019 strategic plan and that we are laying the groundwork for a new plan that will chart our course into 2020 and beyond. 

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