William J. Saas was born into the finishing industry—he began working during summers in his family's Cleveland, OH, hard chrome plating shop as a teenager. After his father's untimely death, he worked at the business until it was sold, then returned to college, earning degrees in chemical engineering and business. Saas then went on to work in various sales, marketing and technical management positions as both a finisher and a supplier. He was the owner of chemical supplier Taskem Inc. from 1982 until 2007, when he sold the company to Cigal, the holding company for Coventya. He served as a director for the National Association of Surface Finishing and is a past president of the Surface Finishing Industry Council and the Metal Finishing Suppliers' Association (MFSA), two of the forerunners of NASF. Saas also chaired the industry's Government Advisory Committee (GAC). We spoke with him at length, and his comments led us to run this interview in two parts. This is the first installment.
How did you get started in government relations?
W.S.: In 1994, the American Electroplaters and Surface Finishers (AESF), National Association Of Metal Finishers (NAMF) and MFSA agreed to jointly fund an industry government relations program, and they were looking for representatives from the three associations to act as a liaisons to this new GAC. The GAC directed the activities of the advocacy firm that represented the industry in Washington, D.C. I represented the supplier community (the old MFSA) on the GAC from 1994 until about 2004. Part of that time, I served as the chairman. I would say that participating on the GAC was my most satisfying volunteer experience in the finishing industry. Almost without exception when we finished working on a project, we could say, "What we did here was useful for our industry, and if we had not done it, regulations would be much more stringent and the industry would be hurt as a result."
Does any particular interaction stand out for you?
W.S.: Certainly being a part of the Common Sense Initiative (CSI) was a landmark achievement for our industry and resulted in relationships with EPA that still exist today, 15 years later. There were six different industries that made up the CSI. The finishing industry representatives were all business owners and operators; the other five industries involved were made up of very large corporations whose representatives could not make decisions without dealing with a bunch of red tape. The finishing industry representatives, on the other hand, were in a position to make policy decisions, and we more or less became the poster child for CSI because we accomplished so much more than the other five industries.
Another factor that helped our industry develop a mutually beneficial relationship with key EPA policy makers was that Carol Browner remained administrator for 8 full years. Because she stayed, her assistant administrators typically also stayed. This allowed GAC members and The Policy Group representatives to get to know Browner and most of her assistants on a first-name basis. This was especially helpful in the industry's negotiations with the EPA when the agency was proposing the Metal Products and Machinery Guidelines—new, effluent limits that would have been very expensive for the industry. Many experts felt the new limits could have caused as many as half the plating shops in the U.S. to close their doors.
It took $1 million in donations from industry members to have the necessary background consulting services performed to prove our case. Once we had the data, we were able to prove to EPA that the numbers they had used to create the proposed guidelines were based on bad science. Being able to explain this before the proposed rule became law was a tremendous benefit, because once any regulation is in place, it's 10 times harder to change than it is to get it right the first time. To be continued...