Gerry Mulhern joins me via Zoom from his office in downtown Kitchener looking relaxed and ready to chat. It’s noon on Friday and he plans to go on a family touring trip for the weekend in his campervan – very outdoorsy. For a man circling his sixth decade, Mulhern could pass as ten years younger. He says he’s a keen skier and I don’t doubt it – a challenging, life-risking sport, requiring skill and confidence not to mention an unwavering faith in the equipment. It seems fitting then that Mulhern is President of an organization that goes all-out to ensure the integrity of another type of equipment, namely concrete pipes, the kind that snake around the city’s underground systems, unseen beneath the feet of all that use them; the kind that are simply too important to fail.
“Our mission, or the whole purpose of the CCPPA is to protect and advance our industry. I always drill it down and ask what does that actually mean? It means we are here to help our members sell more concrete pipe and precast. And then we have a lot of other members who supply cement and steel and gaskets and so if our members are selling more concrete pipes, the supplier members are selling more raw materials. We’re a non-profit association but profit isn’t necessarily a dirty word in my book.”
The Canadian Concrete Pipe & Precast Association was established in 2013 to represent the interests of the concrete pipe industry, particularly the manufacturers and suppliers of the sorts of pipes used in major sewage and drainage infrastructures. They also specialize in education, hosting seminars aimed at industry professionals; project managers, engineers, and construction inspectors for example, where participants learn how to properly assess pipe systems from technical, financial, and risk perspectives. The seminars cover both basic and in-depth construction techniques with a heavy emphasis on best practices for specifications, which Mulhern comes back to again and again. I’m wondering why pipe producers would need specialized representation. Surely pipes are pipes and when they’re needed, they’re needed. Can lobbying really increase that need? Mulhern explains that it’s all about those specifications.
“We’re promoting to the people who write the specifications – the government departments, municipalities, and corporations. We’re educating those people and showing them how to write proper specifications which will ensure they get the right infrastructure installed, and also the proper specifications will protect them. We let them know that when you have pipes underneath the ground, and theses pipes collapse, people get injured and there’s a lot of financial burden associated with that as well.” To illustrate the consequences of a poorly written spec, Gerry sends me a link to an article published in the Sudbury Star entitled Broken Sewer Wrecks Library. I see his point.
“We’re promoting to the people who write the specifications – the government departments, municipalities, and corporations.”
Mulhern, a Roscommon native from the midlands in Ireland, explains the finer points in a soft, Irish accent, still intact despite thirty years or more of Canadian influence.
“We write sample specifications that we give to government departments and say, ‘this is what your specification should look like.’ And we educate people, because a lot of engineering students don’t learn about pipe design, pipe installation, or pipe inspection. They don’t learn any of that at university. We go and talk to hundreds of people, and we educate them on the differences between concrete and plastic for example. Our membership fees allow us to hire the best engineers who go out there and do the research work. Our job is to help our members sell more quality concrete pipe precast and the way we do that is by putting proper specifications in place that will help them sell more concrete pipe and precast and also sell it at a decent level of profitability because we have competition from plastic and steel and even cast-in-place concrete. So, everything we do, everything we spend, has to be focused on specifications.”
Do government bodies ever approach you?
“Absolutely. They often ask for advice and recommendations. As an example, I just came back from Ottawa, and we had a training session for Consulting Engineers and City of Ottawa Inspectors. It was hands on, teaching how to inspect the joints, the manholes, the gaskets, and stuff like that. Really, what it all comes down to is that we are about educating users of concrete pipes and builders of infrastructure so they can build proper systems and protect themselves and protect their investments.”
Gerry Mulhern graduated from the National University of Ireland, Galway, in the late 70s with an engineering degree. After 21 months kicking around with local authorities, he began to outgrow his environment and an almost inevitable sense of “boredom” set in. Mulhern felt an itch to “get out of the heartland” and so he headed west to Canada where he found a thriving, cosmopolitan society, light years away from the parochial parishes of the Irish Midlands. Soon, he was hired by a company involved with construction products. “I just liked the whole aspect of working with consulting engineers and municipalities and working on specifications and doing a lot of presentations and seminars and stuff like that.” He settled in Canada, married a girl from Clare and they raised four children together.
Business is good right now but like most of the construction industry in the western hemisphere, Mulhern cites rising inflation costs as a cause for concern. He recently put his association’s name to a letter outlining the fears faced by the industry today and sent it off to Doug Ford, current premier of Ontario. What does he think Ford should do?
“He’s in the middle of an election right now. I think he will get in. He’s pro-business and he will probably consult with a lot of the other associations that signed the letter. Everyone recognizes that there’s inflation. The price of gas has gone way up and that has a real impact as people are working on bids today that may be way off in six months’ time and that includes the cost of freight and custom equipment, everything in fact. There needs to be some sort of correction. But through this letter, we are supporting the other construction associations. This is a concern but wouldn’t be my prime focus. My prime focus is what we do as an association and that’s specifications.”
Strictly speaking, the CCPPA doesn’t need to hustle. They already boast all the major producers of concrete pipe and precast in their area, but they won’t be retiring on their laurels any time soon. They still constantly work with different associations and attend different trade shows just to understand what’s going on within the industry and to uncover new opportunities that may be out there. “And risks of course, we have to stay on top of all that stuff.” Mulhern says with a smile.
I’ve mentioned the R word now. It’s out there. Has Gerry any plans for taking it easy?
“Someday. I’m getting close to retirement and I’m looking forward to traveling, camping and skiing. We like to travel. I think I’ve mentioned about Australia and China and Thailand (yes, you did indeed). And we’re just back from Ecuador. So yeah, we’d like to travel. And ski.”
Sounds like a plan.