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20 Years After

200902BHBy Bruce Hughes

To celebrate the 20th annual convention of the National Plasterers Council, Bruce Hughes – the organization’s founding chairman and former president of one of the industry’s largest plastering firms – looks back on NPC’s first years and the difficult process by which a feuding group of strong-willed contractors came together to form an association that has become a force for research, standards and industry progress.

 

I remember it well:  The National Plasterers Council’s first conference was a compact, one-day event in Los Angeles staged by an association that had only been around for about two years and had to that point been not much more than an ad-hoc regional phenomenon.  

Rolling into its conference in Reno 20 years later, NPC has grown beyond both its regional orientation and its focus on the issues of plaster mottling to become a nationwide organization dedicated to advancement of the pool-plastering profession, establishment of workmanship standards, exploration of the effects of water chemistry on pool and spa finishes and development of an understanding of materials and application techniques used by plasterers.  

Today, NPC has more than 1,000 member companies, produces sophisticated technical publications and operates a ground-breaking research center on the campus of California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo.  To put it mildly, the organization has come a long way since that first conference – and an even greater distance from its difficult formation in the period leading up to that gathering.  

I had the privilege of serving as NPC’s founding chairman, and I’d like to use the opportunity of this anniversary to look back on those early days, tell the story of how NPC started and offer some thoughts on what I think the future could hold.

COMMON CAUSE

The emergence of the National Plasterers Council involved a number of fascinating twists and turns, starting with one of the nastiest problems ever to hit the pool/spa industry and followed by months of political maneuverings on seas of controversy.

It all began in the late 1980s, when the pool industry in southern California was hit by an epidemic of unusual (and previously unseen) plaster-surface issues in the form of severe, dark-gray mottling.  Hundreds (if not thousands) of freshly plastered pools and spas rapidly exhibited terrible discolorations, and both pool builders and homeowners angrily demanded that these pools be replastered at no charge.  Things were so bad that numerous companies were driven to the brink of failure and a few were even run completely out of the business.  

The curious fact was that some plasterers’ projects were totally unaffected, while others had almost every one of their pools turn gray.

All of the affected companies were basically left to struggle with the problem by themselves.  As events continued to unfold, I received a call from a local plasterer named Morrie Howard, a good friend of mine who had already attended several meetings in which the fiercely competitive plasterers of the San Fernando Valley area gathered to discuss the problem and try to come up with solutions.  He invited me to the next meeting, and my initial reaction was a visceral one:  If I showed up, should I put a locking gas cap on my car?  Should I bring bodyguards?

In those days, you might remember, the pool-plastering business was about as rough-edged as it gets.  These were hard-boiled professionals who were all considered to be both Lone Rangers and the rock bottom of the industry food chain.  Nobody in the pool industry hung out with pool plasterers, and we were accustomed to being blamed for everything that went wrong in a pool.  And to make things worse, I was president of DeMar Baron Pool Plastering, which, along with Kerber Brothers, was one of the dominant companies in the region.

Both DeMar Baron Pool Plastering and Kerber Brothers had been founded by men who are rightfully considered plaster-industry pioneers.  In our case, Baron had followed the expansion of the pool industry, linking up with Anthony Pools and California Pools as they spread around the country.  By the time I joined the firm, Baron had 17 branches from coast to coast, including seven in California.  He was, in short, a master of his craft, knew the business top to bottom and had become a truly dominating force.

Those two firms were the industry’s Goliaths in southern California, and the competition was fierce between us and with the smaller, independent firms, many of which had split off from the two giants.  When Howard called, I actually did express my concerns about the wisdom of having everyone in the same room.  He assured me that the people he was bringing together were so concerned about the problem we were all facing that all had agreed to set aside past animosities.  Out of this common cause, a fledgling group formed.  

Howard let me know that if I went to the meeting, he wanted to put my name forward as the committee’s chairman, based largely on my corporate background and familiarity with coordinating large groups.  I agreed, but only on the condition that the as-yet-unnamed group would formally organize and establish an agenda that included not only research into mottling but also formulation and publication of uniform standards for plaster application.  Everyone consented, and I was elected to head up what was soon to be known as the Plaster Mottling Committee.

ON THE RECORD

We began holding regular meetings in the Los Angeles area and desperately tried to figure out what was causing our mottling problems.  

The incidences were so widespread that we quickly came to believe they had to have something to do with the materials we were using.  In comparing notes, the common denominator we found was that the affected pools had all been plastered using material from Riverside Cement, a local supplier of white and gray cement products.  Plasterers who had not been using Riverside had not experienced any of the same problems.

We contacted the company and asked for their input.  Various representatives told us that this was the first they were hearing of the problem and that they were certain it had nothing to do with their product.  It was a frustrating time:  We had some general ideas about what might be going on, but all of our evidence was circumstantial, so there was little we could do other than complain.

Riverside even suggested that perhaps the problem was that every affected plasterer had suddenly started troweling their pools differently and that we had caused the problem ourselves.  With support like that, it was small wonder that tempers were occasionally short.

In response, we had little choice but to dig in and investigate what was happening ourselves.  As we started examining failed jobs, we soon discovered that the gray coloration could be “removed” by applying heat.  This led us to believe that the mottling was being caused by moisture somehow trapped in the plaster matrix – a suspicion later confirmed by laboratory analysis.  

Our earliest solution, however, was simple, pragmatic and direct:  We all started using materials from other suppliers.

Early on, the committee also took steps on the organizational front.  We contacted Lyn Paymer, who was executive director of the Southern California Chapter of what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute.  She agreed to work with us and suggested that we establish ourselves under the umbrella of the chapter.  That made sense at the time, but our relationship with NSPI wouldn’t last long.

As we became organized and started getting some recognition in the national trade press, we began hearing from plasterers in other parts of the country and learned that the problems we were experiencing in California were also occurring in Arizona – and with material from the same supplier.

Within months after our formation, we contacted several companies in the Phoenix area and proposed a meeting – and once again I had the opportunity to fear for my physical safety.  Indeed, that first meeting was one of the roughest I’ve ever attended:  Tempers were universally short, resentments among various plastering companies were palpable and there was a great deal of yelling and lots of storming out of the room.  I left wondering if we would ever work together, but before long we gathered again with a focus on solving the problems we shared.

(Some of NPC’s future leaders emerged from the Arizona market in the course of these meetings, including Greg Garrett, Jay Eaton and many others who have played key roles since then in the organization’s growth and success.)  

REACHING OUT

On an entirely different front, we began to reach out to the Independent Pool & Spa Service Association and the service community.  

We saw this as essential, because in the course of addressing the mottling problem we recognized an inherent conflict between service technicians and plasterers:  The cause of the problem was unknown, so the natural tendency of plaster companies was to blame mottling as well as many other plaster problems on bad water chemistry (and, by extension, service technicians) as a means of absolving themselves of liability; for their parts, service technicians were quick to return the favor and point a finger at bad plaster or plastering technique.

Interestingly, the rest of the pool industry was content to let the plasterers and pool technicians fight between themselves to decide who was to blame for all pool problems so long as builders or material suppliers did not have to get involved.

More than 20 years later, the same conflict still largely exists between plasterers and the service community (see the sidebar below) – but it’s important to note that we managed to establish an extremely productive relationship with IPSSA just the same.  I give a great deal of credit to IPSSA’s Stan Zielinsky and, later, Randy Beard, both of whom served as liaisons between the two organizations.

Seeking Balance

In rolling through my memories of events from more than 20 years ago, I’m saddened to recall the animosities that existed then between plasterers and service technicians – and sadder still that they largely continue to this day.  I’ve long felt that we fight many common battles and often face them alone without much help from the rest of the industry.

As I see it, this lingering conflict has had the unfortunate effect of coloring the National Plasterers Council’s ongoing research programs, leading to pursuit of studies that strongly support the conclusion that a vast majority of plaster problems – staining, etching, nodules and more – are attributable solely to water chemistry and hence are properly the concern of service technicians rather than plasterers or other industry participants.  

I have always believed that water chemistry is a valid part of the story, but I also believe that the plaster matrix – including workmanship, materials and the pool environment – is complex and has yet to be fully addressed or absolved as a factor.  Indeed, I have inspected several pools recently in Utah where workmanship that would never have been tolerated in California, Arizona or any other major pool market was 100 percent responsible for plaster failures.

The research at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is being conducted on pools that are properly plastered by the best applicators in the business using only the highest-quality materials – and by design the studies to date have mostly involved variables related to water chemistry.  Soon, I hope NPC will broaden its approach and add non-chemistry variables such as improper workmanship and faulty or improperly mixed materials to their growing list of studies.

I fully understand why NPC has focused on water chemistry to date, if only as a means of addressing its membership’s concerns about problems for which they are truly not at fault.  While the protocols for these ongoing research projects are impeccable and well-founded, however, in my view the results of these studies will always be controversial until the full spectrum of variables has been openly addressed.  

I offer this thought in the belief that future studies will indeed broaden in scope and that what will emerge is a consensus that once and for all will allow us to set aside controversy and focus on the work of providing consumers with great pool finishes.

B.H.

Symbolic of the progress we’ve made, NPC and its representatives have become fixtures on the educational programs offered at the Western Pool & Spa Show, an IPSSA-sponsored event.  In addition, through the years IPSSA has been instrumental in working with NPC to disseminate technical information and cooperate on various research projects.

Perhaps most noteworthy in this outreach work, we eventually managed to bring Riverside Cement into the fold and enlist their aid in getting to the bottom of the problem we both faced.  Early on, it took a lot of nerve on the part of company representatives just to show up at our meetings and deal with people who blamed them for much of what was happening.  

We were not always courteous hosts:  The tension was so high during one of our early meetings that a fist fight broke out in the parking lot afterwards between a plasterer who was on the verge of going out of business and one of Riverside Cement’s representatives.  I’m not proud of that, but it was tangible evidence of just how seriously these issues were taken.

Through it all, however, we managed to conduct a number of formal and informal studies, develop the first edition of the council’s Technical Manual and establish ties to individuals, companies and associations beyond our own group.  Just as significant, we managed to take a diverse, disparate mass of professionals and develop a real sense of camaraderie within the pool-plastering industry.

GOING NATIONAL

Our next big step came in 1989, when we were ready to publish our manual and discovered that we needed about $10,000 to get it done.  Working through its Southern California Chapter, we sought support from NSPI’s national organization, which had just formed a Builder’s Council.  NSPI didn’t have any subcontractor councils, so after the Builder’s Council decided they didn’t want us, we became an “ad-hoc subcommittee-at-large.”

To our advantage, this involvement led us to work with a number of persuasive industry leaders – several hailing from the northeast – and gave us a national platform.  But the process of finalizing the information in our Technical Manual ran into roadblock after roadblock and meeting after meeting marked by controversy and no small level of backroom arm-twisting.  

Fortunately, a few people came to our aid.  I particularly recall and value the support of Connecticut builder Al Rizzo, who proved instrumental in trying to keep everything on track throughout the negotiating process.

But it wasn’t meant to be:  Ultimately, we reached an impasse with NSPI’s national staff and, before long, we decided that it was in our best interest to sever our ties with NSPI and look elsewhere for support.  This is when the National Plasterers Council was formed as an independent, free-standing organization.

As mentioned above, NPC is now a nationwide entity and continues to press forward with research projects and publications aimed at developing uniform standards for plaster application and information that will help all of us understand and resolve pool problems.  Having fled to the mountains of southern Utah, I’m no longer part of the industry, but I’ve remained an active observer of the organization and do all I can to keep current with its ongoing research.

I applaud all those who have worked so long and hard at advancing NPC’s goals and could go on for many more pages chronicling the organization’s development and listing dozens of people – many of whom have been there from the beginning – who deserve shares of credit for the group’s success.  But let me leave off here by congratulating NPC on the occasion of its 20th annual conference and offering everyone involved with it my best wishes for future success.

 

Bruce Hughes spent 17 years in the pool industry as president and partner for DeMar Baron Pool Plastering (San Bernardino, Calif.), during which time the company plastered or remodeled more than 165,000 swimming pools.  He also served as the founding chairman of the National Plasterers Council and, for four years, helped mold what he describes as the “rowdiest subtrade” in the industry into a dynamic trade group with industry-wide influence.  Hughes earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in taxation from the University of Southern California and now works as a Certified Public Accountant.  He lives in the mountains of southern Utah and does what he can to keep a toe in the water.

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  • Guest - Robin Call

    Hi.. I just wanted to thank you, and tell you that I found your story very interesting. My dad is E. H.. Call, and I grew up the industry.. My dad came to California with Demar, the 50's, They grew together in rigby idaho. I was right in the middle of that mottling nightmare that you talk about. I worked for my dad, and a few plaster outfits.