AMELIA ISLAND, Fla.—You might say the founding of the Polyurethane Manufacturers Association started with the flying of paper airplanes.
At the first formal meeting of the group in 1971, Harold Walls, the association's first president, stood at the podium and threw a paper airplane over those assembled.
“I won't go into all of why that was the case,” Walls said to those attending the PMA's 2011 annual meeting, its 40th anniversary gathering, at the Amelia Island Plantation. “But I can only tell you that to indicate there was a degree of informality.”
If you know anything about the PMA's history, you might be surprised to learn about the lightheartedness of those early days.
After all, the hallmark of the group really is its long fight with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that began in 1973 when the federal agency decided to place the curative MOCA on a list of chemicals that allegedly could cause cancer.
It was serious business at the time that could have stopped the polyurethane industry in its tracks.
Later the federal Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban MOCA in a fight that lasted until the mid '80s, with the PMA coming out on top in both cases.
The MOCA battles defined the PMA, but the Milwaukee-based association really is about the people who helped shape it over the last four decades and their efforts to make it a success and of value to its members.
Fun but serious
The mix of hard work and light-hearted informality was related by six of the association's past presidents during a panel discussion at the April 10-12 annual meeting. Walt Smith, chairman of ITWC Inc. and Thombert Inc. and PMA president in 1981-82, moderated the event.
“We were not a pretentious bunch of people,” Walls recalled about the PMA's early days. “We were all rather young. We were grabbing hold of something new. We felt there was something we could do with it and there was a lot of camaraderie. There was cooperation, and even though some of us were competitors, it was a very open atmosphere.”
While Walls left the industry in 1973 after his inaugural PMA presidency, he said he sensed the same open, friendly cooperative atmosphere still exists in the association today.
“It is really rewarding to me to come back after 40 years and see that that culture, that group personality, that atmosphere of cooperation still exists.”
Jay Meili, who served as PMA president in 1975-76, could well be called the father of the MOCA fight, although he defers that distinction to Arvid “Bud” Sath-er, the PMA's attorney during the MOCA wars.
Without Sather, the association's success in defeating attempts to ban MOCA wouldn't have happened, Meili recalled.
He brought his talent as a civil rights attorney in the '60s to the MOCA fight, Meili said. “He just took the facts and just totally pounded them with it, and they had no choice at the end to do this.”
Meili said he didn't know why MOCA was included on the carcinogen list.
“We do know that OSHA was being hammered by the labor unions to do something about chemicals,” he said. “This health and safety act, they were just working on safety, they weren't doing anything on chemicals. So they decided to put together this list of carcinogens. Why MOCA got there I don't know. I think they just wanted one more chemical and they justified it because they said there were nowhere close to 100 people using this stuff. So we can put it in there and no one is going to get hurt. Well, obviously they were wrong, and the MOCA standard, or the emergency standard, was proposed.”
Meili said all of the past presidents involved with the MOCA issue “were very supportive of everything we did. I think one of the reasons we were successful is sort of what Hal (Walls) alluded to. We were a tight group and we stood together.”
Another was that OSHA came to the conclusion that based on all the information that Sather had provided, they had to have a zero level for compliance—a zero level in the workplace, Meili said.
But they also said in the standard that it was not the intention to eliminate this material. “Well you can't go to zero and not eliminate the material and they were never able to come up with a number,” Meili said. “That's why they never came up with a standard.”
Chuck Demarest, PMA president in 2001-2002, said he owed his company to the successful defeat of the proposed MOCA standard. If MOCA had not been removed from the carcinogenic list, “I don't know where I would have gone,” he said. “My company was small but once the ruling came down, I turned around and looked at another law. I figured if the feds want to take something from me, maybe there's something they can help you with.”
So, under the displaced business loan act, he borrowed enough money to build a factory and research alternatives to MOCA and other things. “So I became an MDI guy fairly early in the scenario of urethanes and I, of course, then got involved in the PMA.”
Demarest said he has appreciated the technical papers, networking and friendships he derived from the PMA, but is “not sure I've contributed a whole lot” to the group. However, when an issue came up that concerned everyone, “I tried to make whatever technical information I had available to us all.”
An example was the issue of chlorofluorocarbons when it became known that they were potentially harmful to the earth's ozone layer. Demarest used freon 11 as a mold release, but when he realized “this stuff was bad” he came up with a way to spray mold release without using fluorocarbons. He presented a paper on it instead of trying to patent it.
“So I liked to share that technology, and it worked out I think well for some people.”
The MOCA struggles were over by the time Don Culbertson became president of the PMA in 2002. Actually, he quipped, when he joined Omni Technologies Inc. in 1993, MOCA sounded like a component in a mocha shake at Arby's rather than a suspected carcinogenic curing agent used in urethane manufacturing.
Culbertson said there was a lot of debate about whether the association should continue to have two meetings per year, in fall and spring, because of the poor economic climate at the time. The group opted for holding only a spring meeting.
Culbertson recalled another sensitive issue during his tenure as president, involving BDO, a chemical used in manufacturing polyurethane. It also happened to be what became known as a date rape drug.
“Through PMA membership working with our association management we actually had folks who testified with various legislatures in order to get that situation handled,” Culbertson said. “Thank- fully it never blossomed to what we've seen with MOCA,” but it still was something that put the industry at risk.
Reflecting on his years with the organization, Culbertson said he remembers telling everybody there is a responsibility to give more than you take away—and that he feels he hasn't “done anything close in return for what I've received.”
Through the PMA, he said he's met many people who with a phone call, even if they are a competitor, are willing to share information with the intent of helping the organization as a whole.
“I think that's an attribute that this group somewhat uniquely has, and I'm sure it's not present in every other organization, but this is truly a great group and I think the future for it is bright.”
Don Barge, PMA president in 1989-'90, said he couldn't think of a better association to belong to than the PMA.
“People have said it in the past, it's the camaraderie that we have. If we have a problem, we know we can go to someone who can help us out and they are willing to share all this.”
He said he joined the PMA because it offered strength in numbers.
“Together we can get things done,” he said. “Divided we can't attack the government.”
Barge said it's been a constant struggle to try and increase membership in the association. “We seem to reach a certain plateau and cannot break through the barrier.”
But the organization has been making changes, including lowering dues and going to one meeting a year.
In addition, the PMA is trying to contact as many nonmembers to urge them to join the association.
“My thoughts are there is a great need for an organization like us,” Barge said.
“We have been proactive in dealing with the government regulators. We need to get this message out to non members so they will join us in our never-ending dance with the elephant,” he said.