A look back at NAPHCC via 'A Heritage Unique'

May 3, 2000
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Why do contractors need a national association?

Asked how his group had managed a 22% gain in membership, Chris Irving said this: “We help them to make money by educating them and showing them the best way to conduct their business. We have furnished them, free of charge, uniform estimate sheets and a filing system. We have a free printed collection system and uniform contract blanks. We have furnished our members, free of charge, a system for calculating overhead expenses, and insist on the necessity of including overhead on all work. . . .”

Not a bad mission statement. The year was 1914.

“A Heritage Unique” is a new softcover, 164-page book detailing the history of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association.

This book is a walk-through tour of our nation’s history, as well as that of the phc contractors who were instrumental in shaping it.

Hard to believe, but in 1914 it was illegal to join such an association, because of a determination that such associations were in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The National Association of Master Plumbers (NAMP) had their offices raided by the Justice Department in 1913. Records and correspondence were carried off, with 200 subpoenas subsequently issued, and some 35 indictments handed down for restraint of trade. More indictments followed.

Later on in the 1930s, a mushrooming federal bureaucracy was making more and more decisions affecting everyone, including contractors. “Soon the national association would be very busy as their advocate in Washington. It would be not only the voice, but also the eyes and ears of contractors, keeping members informed through the association’s monthly bulletin.”

Industry image

It was a close call, but this association and others like it survived various pitfalls over the years and prospered, in part because of a new mission or goal, echoed in the following:

“We do not sell ourselves, or our products. We fail to impress the public with the fact that we are a necessity for human health and comfort. We are all acting as a group of individuals instead of a well-correlated group. Therefore, the important position of the plumbing-heating-cooling contractor and his organization, needs far-reaching promotion.…Since the contractor is the man the public deals with, we must concentrate our first efforts on an industry basis to ‘dress him up.’”

Improving the image of the contractor was in the mind, as you can see, of Chester Brownell, who said that. This has been the purpose of many an association, stated or unstated, and an important one — not to keep people out of the trades, or to regulate who could join, but to improve the public’s perception of those who were already in it.

Brownell proposed an organization first known as the National Conference of the Plumbing-Heating Cooling Industry, whose aim was image-improvement through better communications. It later became the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (NAPHCC).

This book tells about the threat to contractors from the “big box” merchants that began, not recently, but many years ago, when the idea of selling products that you did not install was revolutionary — and highly distasteful — to some.

It tells about the critical labor shortage the industry faced — in 1921 — and the new apprenticeship program that was launched to deal with it. “A Business Future for American Boys” was the title of an early brochure.

Other interesting tidbits emerge: A heating and cooling division was added to the group’s technical department in 1959. Maybe not by coincidence, the earlier National Association of Plumbing Contractors’ (NAPC) convention — its 75th — was held in a new, air conditioned convention center. Again, this book is as much a history of our industry as it is an association book. It is probably not exaggeration when we read:

“For without the unified thrust of this national association over the years, it is doubtful if the plumbing-heating-cooling contractor would be on the scene today, with his status as an important independent contractor. He might well have lost his identify, as has happened in so many trades that are now employed directly by builders, general contractors and the public.”

For more information, please contact NAPHCC at 800-533-7694; 703-237-7442 (fax); or naphcc@naphcc.org (e-mail).

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