[Editor’s Note: We introduce a new feature this week called NEWSmakers Q&A. This is where we will bring readers interviews of influential individuals in the HVAC industry.]

First up is Danfoss vice president of public affairs Robert Wilkins, who is retiring Sept. 29. Wilkins first entered the industry in 1972 with Copeland Corp. He began working with Danfoss in 1992, where he’s held numerous positions including president. Wilkins was Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) chairman in 2007. Despite coming from humble beginnings and not having air conditioning as a kid, Wilkins became one of the most respected voices in the HVAC industry.

Recently, he talked with The NEWS’ editor-in-chief, Kyle Gargaro, to discuss where the HVAC industry has been and where it is going.

KG: Is it becoming real for you now?

RW: I had a friend retire about a year ago, and he was telling me how difficult the last year had been. I am having some of the same feelings. I’m trying to get a lot of things finished and get the ball over the goal line on key projects, but I can’t take on anything new. But that is the nature of moving on.

KG: Was there always an interest in public affairs and government?

RW: In some ways. I got actively involved in AHRI with my first company. When I came to Danfoss, it was natural to get re-engaged with AHRI. I had various roles and became chairman in 2007. I have a lot of fond memories of that time. It opened my eyes to a lot of what was going on in the public arena in Washington and the regulations that affect our industry. When I finished my chairmanship, I asked Steve Yurek [AHRI president] if I could get a seat on the government affairs committee. He said sure, and the next day, he called me back and asked me to be the chairman of the committee. I laughed because I had never done anything like that before. I was joining the committee to learn and they wanted me to be the chairman. I served for three years, and I learned a lot.

KG: What were your expectations when you were getting into the HVAC industry?

RW: It was 1972 and I just saw it as another job and a step up. I had no idea that I would spend virtually the rest of my career in air conditioning and refrigeration. It was nowhere in my mind or plan. But, I discovered that HVAC is a close-knit industry. You get to know people, and you stay in touch all through their careers, even though we are not in the same places we started. I find that very rewarding.

KG: What is the biggest change in the industry since you started?

RW: One is globalization. The world has shrunk. What goes on in one part of the world affects the others. All the major manufacturers, including Danfoss, are global companies. We are in different countries around the world, and that brings a lot of sharing of ideas. When I sit around the table with industry peers, we have firms from all around the world working together to solve issues and find solutions. It’s bringing a need for standardization, because products that are made here in the U.S. are shipped all over the world, and we need to understand the standards and requirements in other regions. This is a good thing; it increases competition and technology development.

The other thing that has changed is regulation. We have far more regulation today than in 1972 including efficiency and emission standards. It is a different world today. I am not bashing regulation. There is certainly a place for it. But, sometimes regulators get overzealous, and that creates some issues, and our industry is dealing with those issues right now.

For me, this raises the importance of people taking public affairs roles in companies to work with government regulators to find solutions. I find if people are working together, it builds understanding and trust. Then, practical solutions can be found. Twenty years ago, any proposal for regulation came with an immediate opposition. Industry attitudes are different now. We need a seat at the table to work with government to find solutions that meet the needs of government and the practical needs of industry. I think we are doing a better job now then we were a few years ago.

KG: Why has regulation grown so much?

RW: The intent is valid public needs. There is only a finite amount of fossil fuel in the ground, and there are limits to how much we can pump into the atmosphere. … I remember in the late 1970s, people began to talk about holes in the earth’s ozone layer, increases in UV radiation, and the rise of skin cancer. There was a lot of denial and disbelief and I was one of them. But, in a few years, the science became clear, and the world came together in the form of the Montreal Protocol. Today, that ozone hole is shrinking. It’s a tremendous success story and a lot like where we are today with climate change and refrigerants that have global warming potential. There is denial and disbelief, but the science is pretty clear. This is a real issue, and the world is moving toward finding solutions. It will mean change for our industry and regulation. But, if we work together and can shape that regulation, we can find some workable solutions.

KG: What is the most satisfying moment of your career?

RW: The greatest honor was being elected chairman of AHRI in 2007. It was a lot of work, but it enabled me to get to know a lot of people and help reinforce the growth of the industry. That was the best moment for me.

KG: How about the toughest moment?

RW: The economic downturns that we go through from time to time are the toughest things. Tackling some of these macro issues like ozone depletion and refrigerant change and trying to find workable solutions were probably the toughest times. As we found solutions, it became rewarding.

KG: What is the future of the industry?

RW: I think this is a fantastic industry. We have come a long way. I can’t help but look back at the progress the industry has made and the contribution HVACR has made to people’s lives in terms of comfort, health, safety, and productivity. But the world has changed during my lifetime. I remember living in the hot and humid South without air conditioning. If you look at the changes since the 1950s, and project that forward another 50 years, you can just imagine the changes that will occur. With the role that our industry plays to make modern life possible and comfortable, I think we have a great future. It is impossible to know what that will look like, though.

KG: What are your plans for retirement?

RW: I don’t plan to stop working. I want to stay engaged in the industry and industry organizations, but not on a full-time basis. I want to find some middle ground. I will be looking for opportunities to do some things like that. And mark me down, I want to keep my subscription to the ACHR NEWS.

Publication date: 9/22/2014

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