January 2022 Vol. 77 No. 1


DCA Returns to Convention Form in Recovery Year

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor

In years past, the Distribution Contractors Association’s (DCA) annual conventions have been predictably grand events, with large crowds and noteworthy speakers in destination resorts. 

The upcoming 61st Annual DCA Convention will be equally grand, says DCA Executive Vice President Rob Darden, while acknowledging that attendance is harder to predict in a rebuilding year. 

“We have a great convention planned this year,” Darden said. “Three great keynotes, wonderful social events and exciting off-site excursions. Your typical DCA convention! 

“So far, registration has been coming in strong. We hope to have close to 500 in attendance, but who knows? Some companies are back to pre-pandemic activities and others are remaining cautious,” he said, adding, “We respect everyone’s personal decision, but hope to see everyone back in person at our first winter convention since Boca Raton in February 2020.” 

New expectations 

Keeping with its tradition of destination events, the 2022 convention will be held Feb. 17–22 at the Arizona Biltmore – the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired resort that reopened in April after an $85 million renovation. 

There are few specific objectives for the DCA’s first winter convention since Boca Raton in February 2020 – “to have great attendance and, hopefully, to do well at the auction,” Darden said. The approach makes sense, given that last year’s 60th Annual Convention was a hybrid of winter and summer events and was held during the COVID lull of July. 

“I think the association, the membership and the country in general were at peak in February of 2020 (at Boca Raton). And then the bottom fell out,” Darden said. “It will take several years to fully recover. It won’t happen overnight. So, DCA is planning accordingly.” 

All of DCA’s events for 2022 are scheduled as in-person gatherings, so expectations of attendance are tempered. Realistically, Darden said, “it may be 2023 or 2024 before we see the same level of activity we saw in 2019.” 

A target of 500 attendees is still a respectable showing by historical average. Attendance records were being regularly broken in recent years. But it’s understandable if the DCA is concerned about attendance in relation to its important auction. A decade ago, it raised about $300,000 from its membership, but that grew to more than $1 million in recent years. 

“Hopefully, 2022 will allow us to continue the recovery, but we aren’t expecting the same rush we had leading up to the 2020 Convention,” Darden said. 

Convention highlights 

Based on its location and the DCA’s planned programs and activities, the association’s 61st convention will be as impressive as any that came before it. 

The Arizona Biltmore has been a Phoenix icon since 1929. The historic resort has 39 acres of gardens, iconic architecture and championship golf, including a links course with rolling fairways, desert ravines and five lakes. 

Featured convention speakers include: 

  • Robert Ballard – Among the world’s most accomplished and recognized deep-sea explorers, Dr. Ballard is best known for his historic discoveries of hydrothermal vents, the R.M.S. Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck and numerous other shipwrecks around the world. Thanks to the declassification of Cold War-era documents, he can also now discuss what he was really looking for when the Titanic was discovered.
  • Peter Zeihan – a veteran of the U.S. State Department, D.C. think tanks and private intelligence companies and founder of Zeihan on Geopolitics. He combines an expert understanding of demography, economics, energy, politics, technology and security to help clients prepare for an uncertain future.
  • David Horsager, an author, entrepreneur and professor who researches and speaks on the impact of trust as a fundamental, bottom-line issue in life. He will share how trust can improve retention of good employees and bring greater innovation, higher morale and better business results.

The convention schedule begins with a day full of meetings on Thursday, Feb. 17, through the morning of Friday the 18th, followed by an afternoon registration party and a welcome reception and dinner on the resort grounds. 

The pre-auction buffet and silent auction will be held on Saturday evening, with meetings and activities run through Monday, culminating in the popular President’s Reception & Dinner on the evening of Monday, Feb. 21. Playfully recognizing the 1929 opening of the Arizona Biltmore, the party will carry a Roaring 1920’s theme with live jazz entertainment and vintage cocktails.” A farewell breakfast closes the event on Tuesday, Feb. 22. 

Registration and housing 

Registration Information – Register and arrange housing on the DCA website at: www.dcaweb.org 

Registration Fee – $2,500 (single or couple) After Jan. 25, 2022: $2,900 Arizona 

Biltmore Princess Resort Accommodation Rates – Single/Double: $399 (Suites are available. Please phone the hotel directly for availability and rates.) 

Hotel Booking – https://book.passkey.com/go/DCAAnnualConvention2022 or phone (800) 950-0086 to speak to a reservation agent and reference group code DCA22.


After Two Years at Helm, DCA President Sees Progress Through Pandemic 

After a rare, two-year term as president of the Distribution Contractors Association, Ben Nelson has a unique perspective on the progress made and challenges overcome through the worst of the pandemic. 

Most of the challenges are already well-documented. The opportunities, he says, will begin with the DCA’s long-awaited return to a traditional meeting schedule at February’s DCA Convention – the first since 2020. 

“In aggregate, we’ve had more or less a regular year’s worth of events spread out over two years,” said Michels, who serves as president of Michels Pacific Energy. 

“When you come into the presidency, you already understand how a typical year works, and after seeing what others have done while leading the organization, you’re looking forward to certain things you want to do,” Nelson said. “For the most part, I believe I was able to.” 

That’s not to say there aren’t a few disappointments that come with assuming the presidency at the start of a global shutdown. But Nelson modestly suggests he was able to work with DCA members to accomplish at least a year’s worth of goals during the unpredictable past two years. Emerging from that period, he said, makes the upcoming annual convention a special one. 

“I think it’s going to be along the lines of our regular conventions in the past,” he said, “which means it will be great.” 

The 2022 convention will be held February at the famed Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, which reopened in April after an $85 million renovation. In anticipation of that event and the completion of his term as DCA president, Nelson spoke with Underground Construction about some of the organization’s key accomplishments during his term and shared his perspective on some of the important issues facing distribution contractors now and in the coming years. 

UC: Availability of qualified workforce was a big issue for DCA members long before the pandemic. As the economy strengthens and demand for natural gas increases, have unions been working with the DCA to address potential challenges? 

Nelson: Yes, workforce will continue to be of great importance for the DCA, and our union partners are an important part of contractor relationships with their with workforces. Obviously, a lot of our members are union contractors and pay into funds for each of the unions that we work with. And the unions have, over the years, built impressive regional training centers. They do a lot of recruitment and training, and it’s important because that’s where a lot of the workforce development is being done. There haven’t been a lot of new programs over the last couple of years, but that’s just an essential, ongoing effort. 

UC: Are there programs that DCA has developed outside of specific union efforts? 

Nelson: Definitely. For instance, DCA is supporting the development of a video series by our members to promote the different jobs available in our industry. People who are considering our field or are interested in learning for whatever reason will have a much better understanding about what we do. 

I think our industry does not do enough marketing or promoting of itself, and it’s kind of a mystery to the general public because a lot of them don’t interact directly with our companies like they would with a lot of retail and service businesses. Some of the videos are already available on our website, and we’re pretty proud of what we’ve already got and what we’re going to add to it. I think that’s a nice development for us. 

We’re also involved with an association called the Center for Workforce Development, which historically helped recruit and promote only for the utility industry. Over the last several years, the DCA staff and our members have worked with them to add more material related to contractors. That expansion to the contractor market allows us to be involved and get help with some of our issues, as well. 

UC: How are political and environmental forces affecting contractor operations, and what is DCA doing to help? 

Nelson: We work very closely with our lobbyists in Washington and other associations to try to stay on top of these issues. And while there are some national issues that impact us, there are also a lot of issues at the state and local level, and we’re working very closely to monitor and make our members aware of them. 

For example, there are a lot of places that are restricting the ability to add natural gas in new construction, so when homes get built, they will only have electric water heaters, stoves and home heating. There are already some cities and counties in California that do not allow gas construction now, and there have been some efforts to make it a statewide issue. 

On the other hand, some states have passed legislation to prevent those restrictions on natural gas installations, and, of course, we’re very much in favor of that. So, a lot of effort is being put into those initiatives. 

UC: Is there any pressure being added to job execution from those or other issues, such as negative media coverage? 

Nelson: There can be, particularly around some of the larger pipelines that will attract protesters. It’s not all that common, but it something that our members face from time to time, and that will lead to some pressures around project execution. But I would say that the bigger issue in this area is really around the legislative efforts that are taking place and how we can collaborate with other associations and industry groups to get our messages out there. 

UC: Supply chain problems have been another area of concern, with parts and supply distribution issues negatively impacting many American industries. What about distribution construction? 

Nelson: Yes, there are some serious cost pressures on our work. Whether it’s the fuel or materials we buy or the wages we pay, the costs are going up for just about everything distribution contractors do. We really have to do what we can to manage costs, be smart about how we buy and work with our clients to get relief where appropriate. 

Equipment availability is a very real issue. A lot of times we just can’t get what we want if we need things quickly. We have to work with the people we buy or rent equipment from to give them as much notice as we can and plan our business the best we can. 

One helpful thing that DCA does in this regard is to conduct an equipment purchasing survey. We ask our members to anonymously provide their company’s plans for purchasing or renting different categories of equipment. That helps our associate members, who, as you know, include equipment suppliers and manufacturers and rental companies. By providing them with details of what our needs and plans are, they can then provide that to their management teams to see what they can do to meet our industry’s needs. 

That’s something that the DCA has been doing for a long time. It’s a nice benefit for our associate members and for  
our contractor members that this information gets pulled together and shared. 

UC: You mentioned how important it is for contractors to manage costs. Has DCA been able to help in this regard? 

Nelson: There is an interesting project we’ve been working on the last couple of years, where we decided to fund a study to analyze the underground utility locating industry and the claims that result from that industry, along with the related processes in each of the 50 states. It looked at best practices and how the insurance industry and local laws all fit in with  
the One Call centers. 

It’s an area of great opportunity for improvement, because the way it’s handled in some states is different and better than the way it’s handled in others. And it’s definitely a cost issue. All of our members have been impacted by underground locating and the delays that can put on our work, along with the claims that can come up and the damage and safety issues that may present for our workforce and the public we’re working around. 

The study started a couple of years ago, and it was just finished within the last month or so. And now it’s time to get those materials and promote the results. I’m pretty excited about it, because I think it has the potential to make a real, tangible difference for everyone in our industry, whether its contractors or our customers, as well as the public we’re working around. 

UC: In closing, are there any accomplishments during your term as DCA president that you’re especially proud of? 

Nelson: There is one area that has been a personal concern of mine is to encourage the involvement of some of the younger employees and management folks from our member companies, because it’s important to make sure we have a good infusion of new perspectives with new blood always coming in and participating in our meetings. 

Now, the DCA has established a new Strategic Vision Committee, which has a cross-section of members – contractor and associate members, big and small members, union and nonunion, newer and older. It’s a small group, but I think we did a pretty good job of getting a diverse mix to really look at things from all perspectives. And one of the things they will be looking at is how the DCA can encourage member involvement and get more involvement from that next generation. 

That’s something, as I was taking my turn as president, I wanted to make sure that we were doing our best to address. That’s a direct result of my bringing it up and asking the DCA to consider it, and I was happy to find that other members also felt that’s an important goal we should work toward. • 

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