Reflections from the Trenches

Bill Hillman, NUCA board meeting
Bill was a driving force behind NUCA’s recovery following the 2008 recession.
Editor’s Note: In June 2019, NUCA CEO Bill Hillman announced to the membership that, after 28 years of service to the industry, he had retired from his leadership position.

There are several ways to describe Bill Hillman: smart, witty, principled, and a true NUCA believer. Bill took great pride in the organization he served for so many years, treasuring the great respect he fostered for the members and the important work that they do every day for their neighbors.

When Bill Hillman joined NUCA in January 1991 as Legislative Counsel (and shortly thereafter as Director of Government Relations), he was quite a find. He came well-prepared and with all the right credentials: a B.A. in Business and Political Science from Principia College, a J.D. from Hastings College of the Law, and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California.

In addition to the relevant degrees, he brought to the job three-plus years of Capitol Hill experience having worked for the House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology, the Joint Economic Committee, and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Rep. Norman Shumway (R-Calif.). Bill came to NUCA well prepared for the job of representing NUCA in the federal legislature. Bill was so prepared that he ran NUCA’s Government Relations Department for 10 years before he moved into the CEO position, which he subsequently held for more than 18 years.

I sat down with Bill Hillman and talked with him about the nearly three decades he devoted to NUCA, the big accomplishments, the organization’s broadening mission, the challenge of a major reorganization, and how the association managed to keep the doors open when the bottom dropped out of the economy and the industry.

Bill's 2008 testimony before the House T & I Committee.
Bill’s strong passion for public policy always resulted in persuasive testimony – here in 2008 before the House T & I Committee.

QUESTION: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about some of the things you did to make NUCA’s advocacy program more effective.

Right off the bat on Day 1, my supervisor and Government Relations Director Brian Connor let me take as much time as needed to meet with every single new lawmaker on Capitol Hill during the first five months of 1991. That assignment created strong relationships that lasted for years.

Also, during my first year, I initiated a weekly Legislative Update to the membership on Fridays. The entire staff would pitch in to stuff and address envelopes and run them through the postage machine during the lunch hour. Email didn’t exist, fax paper was awful and the service expensive and slow, so mailings fit the bill. The Update was a big hit because members felt in the know.

I also heavily promoted a report we had published through the Clean Water Council coalition (CWC) at the end of 1990 entitled America’s Environmental Infrastructure: A Water and Wastewater Investment Study. In it, we proposed the creation of a trust fund dedicated to water and sewer projects, financed by a nickel per thousand gallons fee on water usage. My first public presentation was to discuss the study at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in D.C. I expected to receive accolades on behalf of NUCA, but instead was lambasted by irate mayors from all over who felt that our proposal would weaken their local rate base. I listened — lesson learned — and formed some good friendships as the mayors appreciated our intent.

Studies aside, our NUCA team determined early on that solid quantitative arguments weren’t enough to move the needle for us in a significant way. So, we got creative. Around that time NUCA Past President Ted Bragger came up with the brilliant idea of using sections and photos of tuberculated water pipes as lobbying props. He had some sliced up and imbedded into clear Lucite blocks, and we took them to hearings before multiple congressional committees. Talk about a picture being worth a thousand words! What had been out-of-sight, out-of-mind, came alive. At a hearing before the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, one committee member saw our enlarged pipe poster at the door and asked me why NASA was testifying – he thought it was a planet!

We engaged in further public relations, too. NUCA, with the financial assistance of a handful of other CWC members, designed clever art and installed big weatherproof posters within the local Metro stations around town, including Capitol Hill, the White House, and EPA headquarters. One of our tag lines was “Tell Congress to Fix the Cruddy Pipes.” The campaign was eye-opening, and I’m convinced it helped us to achieve higher appropriations numbers.

NUCA followed up by asking our chapters to send us deteriorated infrastructure photos, which we sent to every Hill office along with poems and other catchy copy. We nicknamed this campaign “Flow Stoppers,” an obvious play on show stoppers, which is what they were.

I relished getting the members fired up for NUCA’s Washington Summit. We had more than 40 chapters back then and would get upwards of 150 grassroots lobbyists into D.C. On many occasions, we bought full-page ads in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call the day of the Summit so our members could see our name in print on the bus to the Hill and in Congressional offices during their visits. One year, I hired the Mt. Vernon Fife and Drum Corps to march through our host hotel and kick the deal off playing Yankee Doodle. Several other times, we hired a baritone from the Washington Opera to raise the roof with God Bless America. We held a few NUCA/PAC “Impact” events as well for targeted candidates, raising $10,000 to $50,000 per event.

QUESTION: You mentioned the Clean Water Council poster campaign. How did the CWC get off the ground?

The CWC was actually started months before my arrival by my predecessor Government Relations Director Brian Connor, Executive VP Bill Harley, and our Clean Water Funding Task Force. Federal investment in clean water infrastructure had its heyday in 1970s, and had dwindled significantly in the 1980s, especially with the phase-out of the old direct grants program and the creation of the new Clean Water SRF Program in 1987, which was stuck in first gear. Naturally, municipalities still wanted free money, not loans!

So NUCA spearheaded the CWC as a legislative coalition of more than 40 national associations dedicated to securing funding for the new clean water program. Later in 1996, the CWC lobbied for the new Drinking Water SRF as well. Often, NUCA and the CWC were the only organizations present on the Hill fighting successfully for hard-earned annual appropriations.

QUESTION: The first few years, your primary focus at NUCA was securing and boosting funding for water and wastewater infrastructure. But as the Congressional and regulatory agendas shifted,NUCA was forced to build up and not just play offense on obtaining funding, but also to run a strong defense, fighting regulations and costly legislative proposals too. Why?

With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, along with Democratic control of Congress through 1994, the pace of new regulations coming out of EPA, DOL, including OSHA, and others went from a steady jog to a sprint. Topics covered a range of issues — endangered species rules, wetlands, nationwide permits and other water quality issues, air quality, union rules, salting, comp time, FMLA, federal project labor agreements, blacklisting regs, minimum wage increases, and a slew of other laws and regulations.
One day in the office, we stacked several months of the daily printed Federal Register and snapped a picture with Associate Director of Government Relations Pam Wagner standing next to the towering pile. We upped our regulatory game, which continues to this day. Of course, regulatory proposals have diminished significantly during the Trump Administration, but they’ll be back and NUCA will be ready.

QUESTION: What legislative victories are you most proud of and why?

From Fiscal Year 1991 through Fiscal Year 2019, NUCA successfully fought for more than $75 billion in EPA water infrastructure appropriations directed to the Clean Water and Drinking Water Revolving Funds, the WIFIA program beginning in 2017, and special projects, formerly known as earmarks. We successfully fought for a ton more for USDA Rural Utility Service loans and grants for rural wastewater treatment, drinking water and telecommunications, now broadband. Funding success is a badge of honor because every industry in town craves federal resources, and the battle to protect and increase utility infrastructure funding will continue now and forever. NUCA must remain diligent.

Also, following a 1998 gas explosion in Edison, New Jersey, NUCA helped to stop a move on Capitol Hill to create a national one-call system — seriously. We actually stopped the introduction of two House bills cold. Instead, we helped the former Office of Pipeline Safety to produce a collaborative study of damage prevention practices – later named the Common Ground Study Report, which was enacted as part of the 1998 highway bill, TEA-21.

We also achieved several important regulatory victories in the safety arena thanks in large measure to the efforts of our Safety VP George Kennedy, a man highly respected at OSHA. For example, George once stopped in a day or two a crazy proposal to ban hand-digging around utilities. We also helped write Subpart P covering excavation safety.

Another mostly forgotten regulatory victory in the 1990s involved an effort by the EPA to ban the use of acrylamide grout, which is used to prevent water infiltration. Following months of back and forth, a delegation of attorneys and industry representation from NUCA and NASSCO, including yours truly, made an impressive presentation to Clinton White House officials in the Old Executive Office Building, and the matter went away. Man, that felt good!

QUESTION: I’d like to follow up on the Common Ground Study you mentioned. During your tenure, NUCA played an important role in helping improve damage prevention laws and practices for excavators. How so?

Damage prevention policies impact every NUCA contractor and many associates, so the topic is critical. At a kick-off town hall style meeting at the Office of Pipeline Safety to discuss the Common Ground Study process, NUCA member Jim Barron spoke on behalf of the excavation community and made a memorable impression with all the stakeholders. Of course, Jim was later selected as the Common Ground Alliance’s first Chairman, a role he held for many years, and which was also a feather in NUCA’s cap.

During the study process, NUCA was represented by 14 individuals, all wearing matching NUCA shirts by the way. A good number of the 14 went on to co-chair many of the study task forces and, later, CGA committees. It was a fired-up group of NUCA leaders for sure. Steve Theis, Jim Barron, Larry Fortin, Greg Strudwick and Jim Stutler went on to earn the coveted Ditchdigger of the Year Award. Walter Gainer and Jim became NUCA Presidents. George Trujillo became Trenchless Committee Chairman. George Kennedy was honored by the National Safety Council, and our General Counsel Amy Griffith (now Denicore), went on to serve as Counsel for the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee. Also, we picked up a key staff member, Eben Wyman, during the process, who had worked on the report for OPS. The whole affair was a huge win.

Other damage prevention victories had included a successful friend-of-the court brief in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court on behalf of a NUCA member fighting overcharges from MCI, and a later class action lawsuit against AT&T that improved damages policies and returned about $13 million to excavator pockets. Last but not least, a wonderful damage prevention benefit for the membership has been our Damage Prevention and Claims Avoidance Program honchoed by Ron Peterson for more nearly 15 years.

QUESTION: Members consistently express their dismay at the disfunction in Washington and the focus on bringing each other down rather than serving their constituents. Nothing gets done. Aside from the obvious discourse between President Trump and, well, just about everyone, what else has changed and do you have any hope that things will ever get better?

As NUCA’s Past Presidents and Chairs Walter Gainer, Mark Accetturo, Ryan Schmitt, Bruce Wendorf, Ron Nunes, and Jeff Rumer have all stated, politics is not a spectator sport. It never has been. The atmosphere in D.C. has always been rather dysfunctional and messy, though perhaps more so now. You just have to be relentless, and patient. I always think that things will get better.

An important skill to employ when things get tough or go haywire, which is almost always, is to remain calm and reasonable. During my first year at NUCA, I filed an air-tight Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the EPA Office of Water demanding their latest infrastructure needs assessment, which was late. A gentleman called me and explained that there were two ways we could do this. I could demand the required legal response, which he would do his utmost to delay, or I could back down, and he would back door me the first copy of the data once available. Talk about attracting more flies with honey than vinegar. I backed down, received the data before anyone else, and made an agency friend for the remainder of his career. He always attended our Congressional events and looked for ways to help us when he didn’t have to.

QUESTION: You must have had the chance to meet with some household names over the years.

Heck, yeah–too many to recall. Thanks to working for NUCA, I was able to meet with Presidents Gerald Ford in retirement and also President George W. Bush as well as Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Al Gore. I seemed have a particular knack for rubbing elbows with unsuccessful White House contenders including John McCain, Howard Baker, Tim Kaine, Mitt Romney, Jack Kemp, Al Gore, and Barry Goldwater. I met Boris Yeltsin walking through the U.S. House’s Rayburn office building, Ted Turner in a Dirksen Building stairway, and Colin Powell at an ARTBA event. Old Senate bulls Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy. Speakers Gingrich, Foley, Hastert, Pelosi. Cabinet Secretaries Mineta, Martin, Bennett, Carson. The best meeting ever was with unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Oliver North, who knew all our positions in precise detail from SRFs to Subpart P. It blew me away that he knew our arguments better than we did.

QUESTION: In 2000 you were promoted to replace NUCA’s then-CEO Bill Harley. What were your immediate priorities when you moved into the corner office?

I had the big advantage of starting with a talented and committed volunteer leadership and staff team – especially in advocacy, safety, communications, and meeting planning. So, we just kept running hard in these areas. I wanted to get serious about education and training, so I hired NUCA’s former Associate Director of Government Relations Pam Wagner as our first Director of Education and Director of the NUCA Foundation, and that took off. When I applied for the Executive VP, now CEO, position, I submitted a detailed strategic plan to the search committee. For years afterwards, a few members of the committee would say, “Man, if we did half of this stuff in your plan, it would be a miracle.” We did implement much of it over 19 years. It just took a whole lot longer than I ever imagined.

QUESTION: I remember someone telling me that a member’s son finished college and came to work for him and shortly after starting, the son said, “Hey Dad, tell me how bonding works.” Thus, the NUCA Institute for Leadership Development was “born.” Tell me about the Institute, the Foundation, and the successes?

It was Bill Harley’s brainchild in 1998, and the member was Fletch Creamer from New Jersey, a double-smart contractor who also served as a NUCA Regional VP and on our 2002 Bylaws Task Force. The Institute was the inaugural program sponsored by the fledgling NUCA Foundation for Education and Research. The very first Institute class included a number of future NUCA leaders and was held on the campus of Georgetown University. I was privileged to teach the first government relations class to these rising managers. For many years, the Institute class was offered annually, and we even taught a custom class for a single company. Eventually, we saturated the market of potential students and offered the course only when demand required it. Also, we added a graduate Institute, which featured in-depth media training and other topics, as part of the convention program.

It was during this pre-Great Recession era of the early- to mid-2000s when the Foundation offered a successful chapter grants program to get locally inspired safety and educational projects off the ground. We also developed the Essential Skills for Crew Leaders training program that exists today. Past Ditchdigger winner Greg Strudwick played an instrumental role in putting the course together with George Kennedy and Past President Terry Dillon, and still does a terrific job teaching it today. Not to be forgotten is the Pipe Installation Training Series produced by our Education Committee, led by Glenn Ely, Foundation Director Bill Plenge, Foundation Chairman Alan Gravel and many others, in partnership with our friends at VISTA Training.
I am excited by the new mission of the Foundation to create a scholarship program for vocational training.

QUESTION: In the 28 years you were with NUCA you attended 28 NUCA Conventions, 18 of them as CEO. Tell me about a few that stand out in your mind?

I remember them all. My first NUCA convention stood out as I had to leave my newborn daughter to travel to Phoenix in 1991. I was totally impressed. It was a Big Show, including the heavy equipment exhibit, and featured amazing keynoters Barry Goldwater, author Alex Haley, and coach Lou Holtz, plus a foot-stomping private concert by Roy Clark. We put up a photo display of all the NUCA family members that had just shipped off to the first Gulf War. Two other Phoenix Big Shows also stand out – the 2000 Convention, my first as CEO, which attracted a record crowd exceeding 2,000 attendees, and the 2009 Show notable for the record number of no-shows when the economy went south.

The two Hawaii conventions held in Maui and Kauai respectively are memorable due to spectacular locations. Another over-the-top NUCA convention was in 1998 at Disney World, where the PAC Auction raised more than $190,000. Other memories that spring to mind in no particular order include Reno in 1994, where one of my jobs was to make sure Terry Bradshaw got back to the airport on time, which happened. San Antonio in 2003 right after the start of the second Gulf War. I had breakfast with Cal Ripkin Jr. and lunch with “Catch Me if You Can” protagonist Frank Abagnale. I served as the meeting planner in 2012 in Ft. Worth, which featured Laura Bush and Richard Piccioto of 9/11 fame. The 2014 convention in Las Vegas of course featured Navy Seal Rob O’Neil and the outrageous team-building scavenger hunt on the Strip. Frankly, our Las Vegas events always included the most successful Golf Tournaments organized by contractor Dave Rice. Finally, who can forget the dozens of educational presenters over the decades such as Charles Ver der Kooi, George Hedley, and associate member Reince Prebus, who later served as President Trump’s first White House Chief of Staff? There are so many memories — the Flintstones Cars teambuilding event (NUCA 500) in 2008, San Diego frisbee dogs in 2006, two NUCA rodeos. It’s endless, really.

Bill and Abby Hillman at rodeo
Bill was never one to shy away from NUCA fun, here holding on with his wife Abby.

QUESTION: There are bound to be difficult, controversial issues in any association positioning itself to grow and best serve its members. In 2005, NUCA the Board of Directors approved a bylaw change to restructure the organization requiring all members of NUCA-affiliated chapters to also be NUCA members. Why was this decision made and do you still believe it was the right thing to do for NUCA?

A debate concerning chapter membership requirements had festered for 30 years, which cost the association dearly in terms of a poisoned culture of constant bickering, especially when dues adjustments were considered, and also the highly unproductive expenditure of staff and volunteer time. The decision to require reciprocal membership was inevitable–in my opinion–but required steely board leadership. In particular, several NUCA Presidents need to be recognized for profiles in courage during this era, including James King, Cheryl Yoder, and Jim Stutler. Also, former COO Linda Wyman. We went to hell and back. The chapters and leaders that stayed on worked very hard to retain chapters. We were very surprised that more didn’t stay and make a go of it with our “dues phase-in option.” On the other hand, we were equally surprised a year later when we finished the year with more member companies and 21 fewer chapters! Three courageous chapters stepped up to the new standard – Washington, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Just think what could have been accomplished if everyone had stayed on board. We’re still hopeful.

QUESTION: In 2012, when other sectors of the construction industry were beginning a slow recovery, the utility construction industry was not seeing much growth. Working with then-Chairman Ryan Schmitt, the Board of Directors, and senior staff, NUCA produced a three-year strategic plan—a working document for setting priorities to best serve the membership. How do you think it helped NUCA’s slow but certain recovery?

The construction depression years beginning in 2008 were extraordinarily challenging, although I knew in my heart that eventual recovery and growth were certain. Our staff size had been reduced from 17 down to six. And we had the audacity to maintain services and benefits to minimize membership losses. We also took a hit when three important chapters resigned their charters over a new associate membership requirement.

The new strategic plan kept our efforts focused on four key objectives and, most importantly, kept our minds on a positive track during troubled waters. The objectives were still quite challenging in scope. Over the previous decades, NUCA’s leadership had produced many strategic plans. The thing that was different this time around was that the Board and staff worked hard to live up to it through review, making adjustments, and consistent accountability. A few years ago, we moved to annual strategic plan review, which has produced a practical, living game plan.

QUESTION: How would you describe the people and culture of NUCA?

The people and culture of NUCA are the lifeblood of the organization. The best thing about NUCA is the people, as stated in my resignation letter. I felt that every NUCA member was worthy of my time, and I hope that mindset came across, even if I held a different point of view on some issues. People in this industry are generous with their support, and they rarely pull punches.
I met and interacted with thousands of folks over the years, working closely with hundreds. These friends and colleagues provided a critical sounding board, helped me to weather the many ups and downs of the position, and helpfully pushed me out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion.

Bill and NUCA 2015 Chairman Jeff Rumer (r)
Bill’s NUCA friends and colleagues were a crucial sounding board, he said. NUCA 2015 Chairman Jeff Rumer (r) was one of the many members who helped him weather the ups and downs and push him out of his comfort zone.

QUESTION: Tell me more about what you are doing now. You and your wife Abby have embarked on a new venture of sorts. Can you tell us more about that?

Right away, we fast-tracked a small property management business that we had planned to launch a few years from now. Thanks to Abby’s preliminary work on this project, we’re hitting our targets and having a great time getting things done together. My typical work day is completely different, and I enjoy using new and old skills in the field, so to speak. It’s fun and fulfilling. Also, being in full control of our schedule has improved our work/life balance. We are extraordinarily fortunate, and I’m am very grateful and appreciative for our many blessings!

QUESTION: When I talked to members in preparation for this interview, there was a consistent theme in their answers. Bill Hillman is a NUCA man. He cares about the industry. He cares about the members. He was a NUCA Champion. In closing, is there anything you want NUCA members to know?

I appreciate those compliments. Years ago, after my Dad gave me a third copy of Henry Drummond’s Christian classic, The Greatest Thing in the World, one of his favorite addresses, I wisely decided to keep a copy on my desk as a go-to resource. Career success and success in life are truly dependent on love.

By Anne Luzier, NUCA Staff

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