Robert H. Chalker became executive director of NACE International only last August, but in that six-period he has had plenty of opportunities to acquaint himself with one of the pressing issues facing today’s business world and society at large: the continuing deterioration of critical infrastructure and the ongoing efforts to at least control, if not avert, the effects of corrosion.
Particularly in the developed world, a major effort is under way to protect the vast oil and gas pipeline networks that provide life-saving fuel products to literally billions of businesses and residents.
The issue has attracted intense attention in the United States where aging infrastructure – including oil and gas pipelines – is now a leading concern for the public, government officials and business. Though there is no single cure-all to totally prevent corrosion from occurring – nor is there any particular reason to cite age for pipeline problems – combined research can at least help mitigate, if not solve, the problem.
Before joining NACE, Chalker was managing director and CEO of ASQ Global, a wholly owned subsidiary of the American Society for Quality, for the past year and a half. His background in strategic planning and global development was instrumental in his hiring by the NACE board of directors.
In an interview with P&GJ, Chalker discussed his career and plans for NACE, which has seen a tremendous surge in world membership over the past five years.
P&GJ: What led you to take this position with NACE International?
Chalker: NACE has had an excellent reputation in the association world for many years. It is really one of the premiere places for an association professional to work. When the executive director opportunity came up I was very happy to apply and have the opportunity to compete for the position.
P&GJ: What do you see as the role of the association?
Chalker: Our mission is to protect people, assets and the environment from the effects of corrosion. We do this by being the “go to” source for technical information, professional development and the writing of standards.
P&GJ: What special leadership skills are needed to do this job successfully, as you are dealing with an international base of members in a highly technical arena, and what strengths do you feel you offer?
Chalker: Great question. One of the biggest challenges of leading a professional association is the many different objectives or goals we are trying to achieve. In a typical for-profit organization, success is easier to measure – it is based on the financials. In a not-for-profit there are many more and different measures of success. It requires the ability to balance those many objectives and goals. Also, you need to be willing to listen carefully to your members and customers and respond to them. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to listen to the member leaders.
I bring a lot of experience working in both the for-profit and not-for-profit world in several global businesses. I think I can bridge the many interests, challenges and opportunities to focus the organization on future success.
P&GJ: What have been the career steps that led you to this position?
Chalker: Prior to joining NACE I was Managing Director & CEO at ASQ Global; a position I transitioned to after serving as Director, Global Development and Strategic Planning for SAE International, a 115,000-member organization where I was responsible for setting the sales and marketing direction for the organization. From 1981-2003 I worked for Delphi Corp. where I held positions in sales, engineering and manufacturing.
I earned my MBA at Oakland University in Rochester, MI and completed my undergraduate studies with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Cincinnati.
I have to admit that, like most people I did not start out in life saying I want to be a corrosion engineer when I grow up – maybe an astronaut or an engineer. I became aware of the effects of corrosion when I was designing electrical systems for the auto industry. Automobiles spend most of their functional life in extremely unforgiving, corrosive environments: salt, moisture, dirt, abrasives, vibration and extreme temperature changes.
Corrosion was one of the top causes of failure and warranty claims on the wiring and electrical components. So, I have really been involved in fighting corrosion for many, many years.
P&GJ: What advantages do you think association professionals offer as compared to technical experts?
Chalker: At an association it’s not just about the sale of a particular product or service, it’s about bringing people together and bringing information to those people so they can make decisions that move an industry forward and improve the lives of everyone touched by the industry. A technical expert should focus on learning the most about his area of expertise; an association professional must consider the inter-relationships between various industry components and work to bring members of industry together to build knowledge, training, information, networking opportunities, etc.
For an association professional the focus is not just on the specific technical aspects of corrosion, it’s on the whole array of corrosion-related topics and prevention techniques. It is also our role to bring all the interested parties together to one table to facilitate conversation between industry, engineers, educators and students, and government. Technical expertise is an important asset to any association and at NACE we rely heavily on the expertise of many of our members – through participation on technical committees and standards-setting bodies – to work together and with NACE to provide the most comprehensive insight to make the industry operate at its peak.
P&GJ: What are some of the key concerns that members express to you?
Chalker: Our members are concerned about building a qualified workforce to meet the demands of this growing industry, taking steps to raise public awareness about corrosion and prevention, and educating policymakers and corporate decision makers so they do not develop and enforce over-prescriptive regulations which could have a destructive effect on corrosion-prevention efforts.
There is critically aging infrastructure in several countries worldwide and new infrastructure in other countries which is driving the need to increase communication and technology-sharing globally. I wouldn’t call this a concern, but it is definitely something our members are counting on us to stay on top of.
P&GJ: What areas of NACE International do you hope to strengthen during your tenure, and what is your strategy going forward?
Chalker: My primary focus is to make sure we have a thriving and well-served membership. To accomplish this I see four primary elements:
- I want NACE to be a truly global network of engineers, students, technicians, practitioners, educators, business people and companies.
- That NACE is the world’s leader in providing corrosion-related intellectual property, content, networking opportunities, training, certification and technical standards.
- NACE is acknowledged as a valued contributor by members and customers in all industries we serve.
- NACE is fiscally sound and able to deliver the products and services required by our members and customers.
And this all begins with having an organization that is member- and customer-focused.
P&GJ: How has NACE grown in recent years and has it been a challenge the staff to keep up with this growth?
Chalker: NACE recently passed a milestone of serving more than 25,000 members worldwide and we’ve increased our educational offerings, overseas activities and our staff. Rapid growth for any organization can be a challenge, mainly in getting new staff onboard and ready to hit the ground running, but I find that good people hire good people. NACE is fortunate to have several long-term employees who have been with the organization for 10, 20, 30 plus years; they’re assets and are keeping things running smoothly.
No other area of engineering is growing like corrosion engineering. The public is gaining more appreciation for the vital and immediate need for corrosion control and that increases the need for qualified individuals to enter this specialized workforce served by NACE.
We see more maritime corrosion prevention on the horizon. With recent proposed legislation in the U.S., it’s possible that the pipeline testing and monitoring workforce will increase significantly and other countries could follow suit. I also see that the changing workforce, as the baby boomers retire and new employees come into the industry, will drive the need for more education and training.
P&GJ: Do you think the organization is doing enough to make the public and lawmakers aware of corrosion problems, especially in a time of tight budgets, or can it do more?
Chalker: NACE is doing everything it can to bring our members’ message, that corrosion is a central problem facing America’s infrastructure, to lawmakers and the public. In many of America’s infrastructure problems, corrosion is the common denominator. Corrosion control is fundamental to preserving America’s infrastructure assets.
Further, lawmakers need to understand that our nation’s most critical infrastructure includes publicly owned infrastructure, such as bridges and roads; but we are equally dependent on privately owned infrastructure, such as oil and gas pipelines, harbors, and inland waterways. Both publicly and privately owned infrastructure are critical to the smooth operation of the economy and corrosion eats away at these assets regardless of who owns them.
NACE is planning to do more public outreach and we are on Capitol Hill regularly informing lawmakers of corrosion problems and solutions. One of the most compelling pieces of information we share is the Federal Highways Administration’s cost of corrosion study which found the global cost of corrosion to be $1.8 trillion annually. That comes to over $276 billion in the U.S., or 3.1% of the GDP, approximately $1,000 for every single U.S. resident. The toughest challenge in this time of tight budgets is convincing lawmakers to invest in corrosion prevention today in order to save billions later. America cannot afford to rebuild the nation’s entire infrastructure. Instead, lawmakers must institute policies that make the preservation and extension of our nation’s infrastructure assets a priority.
P&GJ: What is NACE doing to encourage young people to work in this industry?
Chalker: The NACE Foundation is dedicated to preparing the next generation of corrosion engineers through scholarships, education and awareness programs, and by connecting them with contacts and resources for career opportunities. We have developed a corrosion education package called C-Kit that provides a teacher with everything they need to teach their students about corrosion. We provide these kits at no cost to the teacher or the school. They are funded by companies and individuals in the industry. It really is a fantastic program.
At our annual convention, CORROSION 2011, we host several events and provide opportunities to bring students and professionals together for educational and networking purposes.
Also, many of our local sections sponsor scholarships and awards focused on supporting the education of young people. This is really a key focus area for us. There is a real need and the corrosion industry offers tremendous employment opportunities and a great career.
P&GJ: From a public affairs perspective, how you do feel NACE is perceived by state and federal officials?
Chalker: Both federal and state lawmakers and regulators see NACE as an honest broker of information pertaining to how corrosion damages our nation’s public and private infrastructure and the best solutions to combat corrosion. Numerous administrative agencies rely on the cumulative knowledge of NACE’s engineering experts to write industry standards that are then incorporated into regulatory codes.
Almost every day lawmakers see reports about the deteriorating condition of America’s infrastructure. NACE sees these same reports. In the faces of these reports, NACE distinguishes itself. NACE differs from other associations through its message: 1) corrosion is the primary reason the nation’s infrastructure is collapsing; 2) cost-effective technologies exist to control – or halt – corrosion; and 3) the nation does not need to engage in a prohibitively expensive infrastructure rebuilding campaign. When they hear NACE’s message, lawmakers embrace it.
P&GJ: What have you learned since joining NACE?
Chalker: The corrosion industry is large, vibrant and dynamic with many highly dedicated professionals working within it. The problems are not that simple to solve and that we need to bring the best minds from around the world together to focus on eliminating and/or controlling the effects of corrosion.
P&GJ: At the end of your tenure, what will help you determine whether you were successful?
Chalker: I want NACE International to be recognized by our members as the very best professional association in the world. Not just the best in the corrosion field, but the best professional society, period. That is a bold statement, but I like big challenges.
P&GJ: What were some of your interests when you were younger and what are some of your interests today?
Chalker: I have always enjoyed math and science. I also like solving difficult challenges and find myself volunteering in a variety of roles especially with the church. For fun, I have spent a big part of my life near or on the water. I was a competitive swimmer, lifeguard, scuba diving instructor, and really enjoy boating and being at the beach.