Terry S. Morse, CIC, had big shoes to fill when he took over for Kevin McCray, CAE, who had spent 22 years as the National Ground Water Association’s chief executive. When the board announced the pick, then-incoming President David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, praised Morse as ready for the “ever-changing business climates” the group and its members face. His experience tells that story.

Morse was picked from dozens of applicants because of his strong sales and marketing background. Before joining NGWA, he served as a regional vice president for sales and marketing at RT Specialty LLC. That followed several years with the Ohio Independent Insurance Association, as well as at the National Federation of Independent Business and the Gibson Guitar Corp., where he led the national sales and marketing efforts while creating global brand awareness for Gibson Corp. and fundraising efforts for the Gibson Foundation.

We spoke to Morse leading up to this year’s Groundwater Week event, Dec. 3-6 in Las Vegas. He talked about his first year on the job, how his marketing experience helps the group and what’s in store as NGWA looks forward. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.

Q. How would you describe your role as CEO of the NGWA? What you do? 

A. I have administrative oversight of all the internal and external functions of the association. The board sets goals and the strategic direction, and then it’s up to me to implement those strategic plans to best serve our members.

Q. From an operations standpoint, what kind of changes or improvements have you made in your first year?

A. That’s a good question. In the first year, really the plan was to come in here and learn what the organization does well. Early on, I made a presentation to the board about the need to clean out the garage. If you own a home and you’ve been there a few years, the garage accumulates a lot of items. ... Every now and then, you need to take a look at everything you own and decide, “Do we really need it or is it time to get rid of it?” So I spearheaded that process.

There are a lot of things we’ve done over time. … There might be a program or a process or a procedure that we’ve done, and we just keep doing it because we’ve always done it. But how many times have we gone back and looked at, do we still need to keep doing things the same way? Do we still need this program that was implemented 10 years ago? Is it still viable?

So we did a good housecleaning, looked at all the procedures, processes, and tried to decide what needed to stay and what could go. What can we do better, more efficiently? That was really the first step this year, and that was a long process. We had stats involved, looking at things internally and externally. We did a SWOT analysis: What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats out there? Then, we tried to build around that.

Q. As a person steeped in brand management and how brands present themselves, what strengths do you hope to build on in the NGWA’s brand?

A. We went through this exercise with the managers, the executive team here. We’re the champion of the industry when it comes to developing, educating and helping our members maintain a successful business. What we’ve tried to look at internally here is, what do we do best? We bring information, the practices of our successful members, to the entire industry to try to educate everyone. Here’s what our members do successfully. Here are some thoughts and ideas on how you can implement it in your own business structure.

We have a unique model, because we have four different membership sectors: We have the scientists and engineers, the manufacturers, suppliers and contractors. We have the whole food chain. We try to educate everybody on where they play well together, and how one piece of our membership can help the other sectors.

A big issue right now is emerging contaminants. Our scientists and engineers are knee-deep in research and study, trying to understand the short-term and long-term effects of these contaminants in our drinking supplies. [One of our strengths is bringing] that education down to the contractors, down to the homeowners, making sure that everybody is knowledgeable of the facts — not just things that are published that may not necessarily be accurate, but that scare the homeowner.

Q. Nonprofits face a lot of pressure to be innovative and creative to keep growing. How is the group balancing the innovation needed to grow in new member areas while not alienating the current member base?

A. First, we’re looking at how we can utilize technology to better communicate with and deliver products and services to our members. ... There’s a fine line there between serving the members and trying to reach new prospects at the same time. We’re not like a telecommunications company that has hundreds of millions of customers to go after. We are in a narrower market space that creates a lot of opportunity for outreach, knowledge transfer and thought leadership. It’s not always about growth, about profitability, you know? We need to run the association like a business. But there are times where we need to step back and make sure the programs and benefits we offer are member-centric. We need to identify “member creep” programs that might impede or slow membership growth. [Anything we do,] we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do for the members.

When it comes to technology, we’re just trying to look at different ways to deliver products and services, and to communicate with our members. We have toyed a little bit with our annual convention. It’s the traditional convention associations have been doing for 60 years. It’s in Vegas. It gets the exhibitors coming. It’s the tried and true model, but it still works and is widely attended. So we’ve looked at ways this can be delivered online ... where individuals can attend and we can put on a virtual trade show. That’s something we’ve been exploring. We’re probably going to dip our toes in and see if that’s something our members want. We have a certain membership base that uses technology frequently, and others who use it much less. It's important to our strategic plans to incorporate both.

Q. What are some of the current regulatory issues now on the NGWA’s radar that the group would hope to have input on?

A. It depends whether you’re talking at the state level or the federal level. At the state level, it could be all over the map. It could be homeowner water rights across the country. That's a big thing. From state to state, we plan to increase our engagement on protections for a property owner's right to drill a well. 

Nationally, we’re looking at two [issues] specifically that we’re trying to create public awareness on. There’s the emerging contaminants, the PFAS. We were one of the first organizations to develop a comprehensive resource on the topic. We had 32 volunteers that spent over 1,100 hours putting together a research document on emerging contaminants. The EPA had a meeting back in May called the PFAS National Leadership Summit. They invited all 50 governors to Washington, D.C., to get an understanding of what each state is doing. We sent a request and we had two seats at the table [to discuss our research]. So, we’re actively involved with the EPA on trying to help educate at the federal level what we know about these emerging contaminants. We also regularly engage with members of Congress on the topic.

Then another topic is groundwater recharge, replenishing the aquifers here in the country. Just recently, the administration and President Trump signed into law the water infrastructure legislation. I believe it’s called AWIA (America’s Water Infrastructure Act), and there were a number of provisions in there to help aquifers and the groundwater industry as a whole — things that we’ve been fighting for for a long time. One of those is drinking water infrastructure — the reauthorization of increased funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. Then there’s a reauthorization of the WIFA (Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program, which finances large projects like aquifer recharge. 

On the PFAS side, what was in [the AWIA] is that it required water systems serving over 3,300 people to monitor unregulated contaminants.

Q. I’m based in southeast Michigan, and there are a couple of areas in my state that are of high concern for PFAS, and there’s been a lot of discussion about those areas. Are you seeing the same thing in Ohio (where NGWA is based)? Is PFAS more of a Midwestern thing, where there’s a lot of older infrastructure, or are you seeing this across the country?

A. We’ve seen it all across the country, but there might be areas that may be a little bit hotter than others. Michigan is doing such a great job of being proactive around PFAS, which is one of the reasons we're seeing so many contamination sites and thoughtful discussions in the state. And states like Minnesota with 3M, and New Jersey and New Hampshire that have set maximum contaminant limits are also expanding the conversation. As states continue ramping up efforts around PFAS, there's a good chance we could see many instances like those in Michigan throughout the country. In Dayton, Ohio, we have Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Like many bases,  they tested fire extinguishers — you know, the old-fashioned kind with the Aqueous Film Forming Foam. Well, that stickiness from 25 years ago when they were testing it bled down into the ground. Because it’s so thick, it just took a long time for that to work its way down into the water. Two drinking water wells were shut down for nearly a year on the base while the water was treated, then deemed safe to drink again under the EPA's advised 70 parts per trillion PFAS exposure limit.

As the association dedicated to advancing groundwater knowledge, there's a real opportunity for members in each of our sectors to educate the public and partner with local, state and federal officials to continue the discussion around these emerging compounds.

Q. Economic challenges continue to weigh on industry groups like the NGWA. One of the major revenue streams for the group is dues. For readers who aren’t members yet, why should they pay to join?

A. You asked the question earlier, what was one of those things I want to come in and do? Part of that was, we did the house cleaning. But then we looked at, why is someone a member? What’s the value? Some people are members because it’s just what you do. You support your association. I think nowadays business owners are a little bit savvier. They’re looking more for a return on their investment. They want to support the association, but associations compete with the Googles of the world. Yahoo. You’re looking to the association for information, and sometimes you can find that online. What we want to do is to be able to bring products and services that our members can’t get elsewhere, and tools they can use to run a more efficient business and help to market their business.

Q. Another major source of revenue is events like Groundwater Week. From your perspective, what’s the business case for attending, exhibiting or sponsoring an event like that?

A. A number of things. It’s connected with everyone in the industry. It’s a great place for those involved in this industry to network and form lasting personal relationships. It allows exhibitors to highlight new products and while allowing attendees to interact with the best products and services available to the groundwater industry.

There are also numerous educational opportunities, from certification processes to topics on how to run your business more successfully. We have topics on risk management. We have some things that maybe are not really related to the water well industry, but are related to running your business. What risks do you have that you’re exposed to running a business, from labor laws to product liability, general liability to workers comp? We’re trying to create an atmosphere where you can attend the show, and you’ll be able to pick and choose what topics you feel you need to be updated on. Maybe it’s to learn something new that you can apply to your business. Like I said, it’s a return on your investment. You will see it firsthand.

Q. Your latest annual report talks about how NGWA exists to advance groundwater knowledge. Can you share some of the planned 2019 initiatives toward that goal?

A. The association, in conjunction with our board, identified four key topics to focus on in 2019 and beyond, two of which are PFAS and aquifer recharge.Around PFAS, trying to educate our contractors and everybody in the industry as to what [the issue] is, but also what the potential long-term and short-term effects are. For the contractor, we’re going to be doing a PFAS certification program so they could be knowledgeable, and they can take that knowledge and information to their communities, their homeowners, and educate them. We also plan to continually review and update information we distribute on PFAS, including our comprehensive guidance document Groundwater and PFAS: State of Knowledge and Practice, which will be re-released with more current science and knowledge in 2019. 

And then another issue is recharge. There are areas of this country that are water-stressed, like the Southwest. We’re trying to educate communities on proper water management. Our goal is to try to educate the states through a number of channels, including grassroots awareness. Where’s the best place to put these tax dollars to recharge the aquifers in water-stressed communities. That’s our area of focus for next year.

Q. Looking beyond your members, what is NGWA’s message for the broader public?

A. For the broader public, we’re going to try to push [our message] through our foundation. You’re probably aware that our foundations merged with the Groundwater Foundation this year. They have two programs that we are going to try to expand nationally. One is called the Groundwater Guardian, which is for communities that practice proper groundwater management.

But then there’s another program that we’re going to be rolling out and actively promoting. It’s called the Foundation’s Groundwater Guardian Green Sites. It encourages managers of green spaces like parks and golf courses to implement groundwater-friendly practices related to the use of chemicals, water use and overall environmental stewardship. So, we’re trying to create buzz with local businesses leaders by naming them a Green Site, then helping them promote the distinction.

I think through that awareness we’re going to build up a network of groundwater champions at the grassroots level. I think a lot of the public has that perception that they just go into a kitchen or bathroom, turn on the faucet, and water comes out. They don't really think about it unless it stops flowing. That opens up a real opportunity to educate the general public about groundwater and the critical need to properly manage it.

Q. Finding talent to replace existing water well drillers once they retire is a well-known challenge for the industry. How are groups like NGWA helping to address this problem?

A. That’s a great question. The reality is there are more jobs for contractors, scientists and engineers than there are candidates. So, part of our goal is beginning the education process early. We have a K through 12 education program through the Groundwater Foundation that we’re going to try to push out to the schools to raise awareness of the career opportunities available in STEM fields.

As far as with contractors, we’re going to help them promote a way to recruit folks right out of high school. Young people know about going to college. They know about construction, welding. But here’s another option: drilling. It’s a great job for those who want to work and make great money. It’s just, we need to create more awareness so the younger individuals out there know that there are career opportunities in this field. 

Q. We all know that industry associations exist to serve the members of their respective industries, but what do groups like the NGWA need from their members?

A. Two things. We need an open line of communication. They need to let us know what needs they have. Don’t sit quiet. There are different types of members: those who just like to donate the money, which is great because we can put those resources where needed, but then there are the members who would like to donate their time, which we need as well. Being an active volunteer, it’s a big help to the association. We have a number of different committees from governmental affairs to our education committee, membership committee, working with our different membership sectors — the contractor, scientist/engineer, suppliers and manufacturers each have their own boards. Then, from those sectional boards, we promote candidates up to our national board. So, any type of volunteer work, whether it’s at a grassroots level or even here and the national level.

You asked earlier about the advantages to coming out to Groundwater Week. One of the big reasons is the delegate meeting. They have a voice. Come attend a delegate meeting, where you can vote on issues and better understand what’s going on with the association. That’s one of the big reasons to come to Groundwater Week. If you’re a member, then be a delegate and come and vote on issues that are put forth from the board.