Raised in Pittsburgh, Jim Feather, NACE International’s 2015 president, says he grew up “not only with the steel metallurgy industry in my blood but also in my nostrils.”
And while Feather did work directly in the steel industry as a sophomore through a co-op program at Carnegie-Mellon University, even then he could see “the writing on the wall” concerning steel’s long-term future in the United States.
He received his bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and material science, but his career path took an unexpected turn when an Exxon recruiter visited the campus and suggested interviewing for a position in materials research. Feather got the job and just last year retired from ExxonMobil as a research engineer and senior engineering adviser after 36 years with the company.
“I worked in research my entire career,” Feather said at this year’s NACE International Corrosion conference in Dallas. “It was fun to be able to work with such brilliant people.”
As leader of the 35,000-member organization dedicated to protecting people, assets and the environment from corrosion, Feather has no shortage of brilliant people with whom to share ideas, and judging from this interview he has more than few.
The former director of NACE’s Technical and Research Activities Committee discusses the complexity of serving a rapidly growing organization with members in 116 countries that speak various languages, the need to adapt quickly to regulatory changes, the advantages of online training within the industry and the need to tap into new markets.
P&GJ: What are your priorities as president?
Feather: My key priority is implementation of our strategic plan which involves three key areas. One is globalization: We’ve had a lot of growth overseas and we felt we could do better at delivering content to folks locally in languages they could use. We’ve made a lot of progress in that one.
Product and service diversification is the second one. We have a long history with a very successful portfolio of education and standards targeted to a fairly large number of industries. But we think coating is such an important issue that there’s a broader population we could still reach. There are markets underserved or not served well. We have a lot of expertise and can broaden our impact.
The third one is really a key one for me, an enhanced value proposition. This hits on many subjects and is pretty broad-based. Clearly, the more value we can deliver to our members, the better we are doing to accomplish our mission. Key for me is more engagement with our members. We’ve had great membership growth over the last several years. Not long ago, we were at 20,000 members and now we’ve topped 35,000. I’m not convinced the engagement and the number of active members we have in our mission – in our education, in our committee work in various sections – are keeping pace with the membership. We need to find a way to do that.
P&GJ: Do you see any changes in regulations or the industry – either in North America or elsewhere – that will affect the corrosion business in the next few years?
Feather: Yes. Some of the things we do are regulatory driven. We have a very high rate of activity with pipelines. We had a forum with PHMSA about a new regulation coming out this summer. We have to keep an eye on this. Companies are must continue to be committed to maintaining asset integrity. In some respects, it is a partnership with some of these regulatory agencies.
We need to keep track of what the regulations are, and if they evolve, we need to be able to respond. NACE has the opportunity to develop additional guidance, technical reports to help people deal with how to implement regulations. We help regulators understand the science and technology of what’s possible and we have influence that helps develop the regulation.
We are seeing corrosion-oriented language being written into legislation. We’ve had success in getting language in the water bill that calls for the use of certified professionals for coating inspections and applications. That affects how the government is interacting with private industry in a good way.
P&GJ: Does energy-related infrastructure comprise a larger share of NACE’s attention?
Feather: The association was founded on energy-related infrastructure and then grew over many years. It went from pipelines to oil and gas exploration and production, petrochemicals. Even now it continues to expand, so it is growing. We have interests in so many unconventional forms of oil production. We’ve got task groups on oil sands production in particular, and corrosion issues related to that. The pipelines are talking about impact from some of the newly produced assets.
As I noted, we must broaden our portfolio to reach more markets. We’re going to look at growing other areas, probably faster. The segment is vital, important and big to us. Proportionally the growth may not keep pace with other things we’re trying to do. It’s a large part of what our success is built on. That area is so well run and we have a lot of good leaders.
P&GJ: What are the biggest concerns of members, both foreign and domestic? How has that changed in recent years?
Feather: The declining price of oil is on people’s minds. The concern is that companies may cut back on corrosion management and cut corners on maintaining their assets. I hope not, but it’s easy to trim the price of a capital project in tight expense budgets. They could say “We might not put in the optimal material selection, instead put in something a little less costly and we’ll inspect it and maintain it later.” We really should be trying to do these things right, so that’s a concern.
The impact of additional regulation is also a concern. Pipeline incidents that have occurred over the years spawn new scrutiny and regulations so practitioners in the field need to be aware of what is coming. Companies are very sensitive to complying with the regulations and best industry practices.
P&GJ: What effect do you anticipate the drop in oil prices will have on your membership’s decision-making?
Feather: We’ve talked a little about how companies might respond and my message is “Don’t make the wrong decisions.” Any investment they make is for the long term. I understand deferring a project to bring resources online. But for the projects already in place now is not the time to cut corners. We still need to be committed to building things right, operating and maintaining them correctly.
As an association we might not be able to have as many people come to our events. So we need to find new ways to engage our membership in our day-to-day activities. We just put online a fundamental corrosion course so people don’t need to travel or invest that time and money. We’re also looking at virtual committee meetings and conferences for our task groups.
A period of softening in the industry can relieve some of the pressure off projects and actually free people up. Now is the time to engage in educational activities and develop networks since your people aren’t scrambling from one project to the next.
P&GJ: Are operating companies stepping up their own efforts to protect their facilities from corrosion?
Feather: They sure are and pipelines are a great example. No one wants to be the next one to have an incident and they really are committed to operating with integrity. Attendance at our pipeline forum was indicative of that as people have tremendous interest in their assets’ operating integrity.
The public, regulators and shareholders are watching. We don’t need another incident that damages the reputation of any company or any individual. We are talking about releases to the atmosphere and leaks that affect waterbodies. The long-term costs associated with some of those, not just the dollar cost.
P&GJ: How do the primary concerns of your members differ regionally?
Feather: There are similarities. Some governments are involved with industries in different ways, so we need different approaches, but the fundamental issues are the same. Corrosion is a nonpartisan issue, not a cultural issue, so the effects are the same globally.
What differs is how we approach standardization. North American and the U.S. rely on one class of standards, but Europe is heavily invested in standards from the International Standards Organization (ISO). We’re trying to engage and get more of our standards into that system.
With communications today and the international nature of the association we’re mixing well globally. It’s no surprise issues are fairly common worldwide.
P&GJ: What effect is shale having on the potential of pipeline corrosion?
Feather: People are sensitive to it. There has been a lot written, some of it probably not factual, that some of the new streams of hydrocarbons coming online and being transferred to pipelines are more corrosive. Then there are studies claiming they are not. The prudent operator will pay attention.
How pipelines are being used is certainly changing. Gas transmission lines are being converted; liquid hydrocarbon transmission lines clearly have changed the corrosion picture. Reverse flow is very common. That, in combination with changing which fluids are moving, is certainly going to require more scrutiny.
I could see the potential for oil sands, which has particulates in it, changing the corrosion picture. People are sensitive to it and it is being discussed by some of our committees.
P&GJ: There is a growing concern about the next generation of technical professionals. How is NACE addressing this?
Feather: It’s a huge concern and is high on our radar screen. There is increased scrutiny in the industry and more companies need qualified people to deal with the inspection of pipelines, the application of protective coatings, etc.
Many senior folks like me from the refining and corrosion industry are retiring so there is concern. We need to maintain opportunities for information exchange and knowledge transfer. We continue to do more and more education work.
The NACE Foundation is a key piece of what we do. We had a huge event at which they awarded $150,000 in scholarships to students studying corrosion. We’re doing what we can to foster that and provide for college educations at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
We’re teaching corrosion in an association called ASM International [association of metals-centric materials engineers and scientists]. They sponsor teacher camps which the Foundation participates in and provides teaching materials. We give high school teachers simple experiments to demonstrate and explain corrosion in science classes, hopefully getting it on students’ radar screens.
P&GJ: Is NACE looking to implement any new services during the coming year?
Feather: Yes. Online learning is growing and we’re live with our basic corrosion course which is self-paced so you can do it on your own time.
Particularly for the oil and gas industry we are beginning a new certification program in the application of a key material industry selection standard (MRO 175). It involves selecting materials for sour service application. We’ve had the standard for a while which NACE developed and it’s become an ISO [International Organization for Standardization] standard. We’re going to certify industry professionals in the use of that standard. It’s very complex, and a lot of knowledge is required.
We’re also coming out with a new certification in the petroleum refinery corrosion field. I worked on some of the background content in the course when I was on the Refining Industry Committee.
P&GJ: What is the trickiest part of trying to manage such membership growth?
Feather: Six or seven years ago we were just over 20,000, so it’s grown on an almost exponential curve. About 45% of membership is outside North America, so it becomes a much more complicated interface. We’ve established four offices outside of North America: South America, Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia], Shanghai and the Middle East. There is also a training center in Dubai, so we’re trying to get closer to the membership.
It’s hard for folks overseas to travel so our technical committees are setting up vehicles at their home locations on matters of importance to them. These groups are now full-functioning groups in the technical committees. They are not off to the side.
P&GJ: At the end of your term, how will you determine if you were successful?
Feather: The success of the association is not about what I’ve done personally, but as leaders we have an accountability to establish the culture of the organization and focus on a strategic plan. It’s not a one-year road trip; this is a multiyear journey.
If I can see measurable progress toward implementing our strategic plan on schedule, I’ll consider that a success. What’s especially important is member engagement. If I see signs that we’re engaging our members better I’ll be very happy.
I’d also like to make sure the team I’m involved with is all about product service diversification and enhancing the member value proposition. We have some untouched opportunities. I’d like to see us take on some new product lines that touch some new industries and bring them in.
NACE International Earns ISO Certification
NACE International’s headquarters in Houston earned certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for its design and delivery of education, certification, conferences, subscription and technical documents.
“NACE has grown significantly and quickly over the past five years,” said NACE CEO Bob Chalker. “It was time to put our house in order, to take a good look at how we operate and to see where there was room for improvement.”
NACE International’s achievement, called the ISO 9001:2008 certification, applies to a quality management system supporting all areas of the organization including technical activities, course development, education, customer service, membership, conferences, certifications, publications, human resources and purchasing.
With over 35,000 members in 130 countries, a large segment of NACE International operations relate to standards-writing. NACE International has 155 of the most specified corrosion standards worldwide.
“We know how effective standards can be in keeping an industry or a business operating consistently,” said Matt Miller, NACE chief operating officer. “Standards ensure quality, safety and efficiency. Many of our members are ISO certified and recognize not only the effort it takes to get here, but also what it means to the quality of service they can expect from us.”
Established in 1947, ISO is an independent, non-governmental organization developer of standards for most industries.
By Michael Reed, Managing Editor