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Barbara C. Higgens joined Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) as the chief executive officer/executive director in April 1998 and set forth to change the association’s 75-year-old image — all from her kitchen table.
Interestingly enough, getting involved in the plumbing industry wasn’t even on her radar. “I think the reaction I had when the headhunter reached out to me was, ‘Ew, plumbing; I’m not interested in that.’”
But that didn’t stop her from going along with the interview process. “It was a challenge,” Higgens recalls. “I was happily working at Raytheon Co. when contacted by a search firm about the job. When I told the recruiter that I wasn’t interested in plumbing, he said ‘That’s good. They’d never hire a woman anyway.’”
Hearing her tell the story leaves me with a jaw-dropping reaction. “Are you serious?” I ask.
“Yes,” she insists.” “And here I am, 19 years later, still in touch with that recruiter who deems mine as his best hire ever!”
At some point during our conversation I ask Higgens if she could tell me her zodiac sign. I’m not sure why I ask, or if it even matters, but there is something so distinct about her personality; I need to know.
“I’m a Pisces,” she says. “Does it fit?”
Pisces’ strengths include being compassionate, artistic, intuitive, gentle, wise and musical. Weaknesses include being fearful, overly trusting and a desire to escape reality. Pisces are friendly, so they often find themselves in a company of very different people. They are selfless, and willing to help others, without hoping to get anything back.
Without putting too much stock into astrology and its meaning, through my conversation with Higgens, and those who have known and worked with her, I find it interesting that the characteristics listed above personify her and her contribution to this industry.
Barb, the CEO
Soon after coming on board, Higgens began by hiring a dedicated in-house staff, securing office space and equipment, developing a strategic plan, restructuring meetings around key industry issues and significantly enhancing the association’s membership, all while enhancing revenues and reserves.
It was a big task for a woman who knew nothing about plumbing. A woman, who up until that point identified as a journalist, writer and communicator.
Prior to joining PMI, Higgens was marketing director for Switchcraft Inc., a division of Raytheon Co. She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, with a minor in marketing/advertising.
“I’m a journalist by training,” Higgens says. “I remember getting caught up in the whole Watergate trial. The summer between my semesters at college, it was on TV just like a soap opera. My mom and I sat there riveted by the coverage, and that just changed my life. I was always a fairly good writer, and I still enjoy writing, but that really honed my attention to journalistic thinking. It was only after I realized the hours that journalists needed to keep, that I switched my attention to marketing.”
She took those key skills — writing and communicating — and used them to excel in her new key responsibilities at PMI, which included overseeing legislative advocacy, legal actions, codes/standards activities of the technical staff, coordinating the annual meetings, and networking with affiliate national and international associations, the board of directors, members, and prospective members.
I’m intrigued by how subtle she is when discussing the work she does, so I ask, “How do you define yourself?”
She responds with, “Passionate. Focused. Loyal. Consensus-builder and collaborative. Problem-solver. Curious. Groupie.”
I recognize those traits in her, even in our brief communication. I’m curious, so I ask if these are traits she’s developed over the years, or more part of her core, and if she’s simply built on them?
She pauses for a second before she says, “I think they’re pretty fundamental. I think that’s how I’m wired.”
Higgens is certainly wired in a way that allows her to identify, assess and deliver a valuable outcome.
She says that she’s often underestimated, and she turns that perception into a strength. She follows that statement with a story:
“My niece, at 6 years old, always heard her parents complain about their bosses, and so she thought a boss is some kind of monster. So, one day I told her, ‘You know, I’m a boss too,’ and her eyes got so big as she thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a boss?’”
Higgens goes on to explain, “The way people carry themselves sometimes times insists upon respect, whereas I am low-key and often self-deprecating. I do think that because I come across that way, or I’m careful to not make a definitive statement, people underestimate me. If there is an argument going on, I tend to couch what I say in the interest of bringing people together. So, I never really dig my feet in to say, ‘I know this to be true.’ Sometimes, I think that subtlety is misunderstood as weakness.”
As the CEO of PMI, her subtlety has served her well. To accomplish the things she set forth to do, it didn’t matter what she thought personally. “In fact,” says Higgens, “one of our members once said, ‘There is a Barb Higgens that we’ll never know!’”
She laughs as if to suggest she knows that to be true.
“People are often surprised to know what I do for a living,” she says. “I’ve never been hung up on the hierarchy. I just kind of do my job and don’t seek accolades. I don’t make a big deal of what I do; I just do it. So, I think my demeanor can be misleading because I want to get to know people and break down walls.”
Higgens has certainly broken walls down. During her tenure at PMI, she’s been named “Business Leader of the Year” by the Rolling Meadows Chamber of Commerce. She received the 2011 Robert P. Atkins Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Vision Storehouse for her charitable efforts on the procurement committee, and in 2013, PMI received the Crystal Vision Award for similar work under her leadership. In 2016, Higgens was named Chair of the Executive Committee for Crystal Vision/World Vision Storehouse. She has also served as Chair of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Council of Manufacturing Associations (CMA) Council Board of Directors. She holds positions on industry committees including the U.S. Department of Commerce ITAC committee (Industry Trade Advisory Committee).
In 2012, she co-founded the U.S.-based Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition (PILC) to bring domestic plumbing groups together. The group held its sixth meeting earlier this year. She is regularly invited to speak at international conferences including the BMA-UK (British Manufacturers Association), CEIR (International Valve Association), ISH Trade Fair, Frankfurt, Germany and the CIPH (Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating).
I ask Higgens to name some of her proudest accomplishments. Without hesitation, she talks about bringing awareness to the “human” side of this industry.
“I think people overlook the health and safety benefits of the plumbing industry. We often say that the plumbing industry has saved more lives than the medical one. I think the industry is often underestimated, or has the ‘ick’ factor. People take plumbing for granted and don’t want to think about it. We need to show how human we are; that we are stewards of water and earth, and that we care about people.”
Under Higgens’ direction, PMI’s efforts in Orme, Tennessee and Flint, Michigan not only garnered amazing press coverage in the U.S., but news also reached international audiences to promote safe plumbing and safe water.
Though she doesn’t seek them, accolades for her work in the industry are very present.
“Barb has left her mark on this industry,” says Pete Jahrling, PMI president. “But particularly for the members, she has always sought common ground amidst a lot going on, and at times, difficult moments. She embodies the spirit of collaboration. She’s been on duty now for 19 years, and we as members, really appreciate the way she’s left our association, and I think many of you will agree, the way she’s left the plumbing industry in general.”
“Barb’s work has left an indelible mark on the plumbing industry,” says Fernando Fernandez, director of Codes and Standards, TOTO USA, Inc., and past PMI board president. “She has been the quintessential spokesperson and representative of PMI while at the helm in her dealings with public officials and industry partners not only in the U.S., but abroad. Thanks to cultivating relationships in Canada, the UK and Europe, Barb has nurtured and grown PMI's visibility. Industry stakeholders recognize PMI as a premiere trade association involved with promoting water efficiency, health and safety, as well as representing member interests.”
Her work and contribution to the industry is recognized by anyone who knows her. “She built a strong association, with an international focus, that fosters collaboration among competitors to address issues that impact the plumbing industry,” adds Matt Sigler, PMI technical director.
“My opinion is that she came into the organization at a perfect time. PMI took a chance on hiring her during a time when it was very owner-driven. She tells the story of sitting at her kitchen table and mapping out the plan, and 19 years later, the organization has never been in a better position. Financially, it’s well off. Member value is very high. Our brand is recognizable and positive. I don’t think it’s ever had as much influence as it has under her direction. PMI is a very effective organization now, and the new CEO coming in has the best foundation ever to do well,” says Ray Fisher, president of Fisher Mfg., and past PMI board member.
Claude Theisen, CEO of T&S Brass, and past PMI board president, puts it best: “She put the industry together to speak with one voice.”
Higgens has done a lot to promote the association and the industry in general. But she’s also done a lot to promote the individuals outside the industry who have asked for her counsel.
Barb, the mentor
“I think when you’re someone’s boss, you can’t take that role lightly,” Higgens says. “I think unwittingly you can hurt their feelings, or you can inspire them.”
I’ve met Higgens twice in person and spoken to her once on the phone for this interview. I can say without a doubt, I feel inspired.
I ask her if she sought to be a mentor, of if she feels the role found her.
She thinks for a moment and answers, “It’s a role that found me. As it relates to the staff, I had someone thank me for the help that I’d given them, and it made me cry. It so caught me off guard. I had no idea. We were just working together, and the fact that this individual learned from me was just pretty wonderful.”
There have been other experiences since that encounter. Higgens serves on the board of the Northwest Housing Partnership, an organization in Schaumburg, Illinois that flips homes and helps people who could not otherwise afford them, buy them. “There is a woman who works there who approached me to be her mentor,” she recalls. “That completely caught me off guard, too. She’s a young African American woman, and I thought, ‘What does this crazy, old white lady have to teach her?’ Our backgrounds are so very different. And our generation is so very different. But among the things she was curious about was networking. And we’ve just had the best time. She’s become a really close friend today after two years, and we share some common characteristics and themes that supersede cultural or ethnic backgrounds. It’s been really rewarding, and to be able to do more of that is really appealing to me.”
I ask if she has advice for young girls on making decisions for their professional lives.
Higgens is straightforward and says, “Be yourself! If you want to be treated equally, don’t expect special treatment.” She says she’s not a fan of special women-in-business groups at this late stage of our development. “Our goal is to be all the same. I don’t have a problem with social groups being exclusively male or female such as Girls’ Scouts and Boys’ Scouts, but creating exclusive business groups sets up the exact division we’re trying to get rid of.”
I press further with this because I’m curious. I’ve attended quite a few industry events that are geared specifically to women in the industry. “I’ve noticed,” I explain to her, “this is where many women seek mentorships from other women in the industry. Do you think there is value in that?”
Higgens asks to think about this, and says she’ll get back to me. Later she sends me an email explaining, “I support mentoring one-on-one, and perhaps dedicated seminars, too. It's business organizations that exclude gender that I object to. Women reeled against the good ‘ol boys club because important connections and relationships were made there, excluding women. It doesn't seem fair, or right, to turn around and do the same thing by gender, race, etc in a business setting.”
Now she has me rethinking something I thought I knew all about. She does that very cleverly, which is a testament to her ability to mentor.
Barb, the woman
Earlier in the conversation, Higgens defined herself as a groupie. It stayed on my mind, so I ask her to tell me more about it.
“I become a big fan of things,” she says. “Whether it’s restaurants, or style of cooking, or whatever, I really embrace things that I like, and I’m pretty much committed for the long haul.”
I shoot off two words, “favorite food?”
Without missing a beat, she responds, “Pizza!”
Right then I know, we can definitely get along. I want to know more about the part of Barb Higgens that a member once said, “We might not ever know.”
She was born in Minneapolis, and grew up in the Quad cities on the Iowa side. She went to college in Illinois. She’s as Midwestern as they come.
She says her parents have been the biggest influence in her life. “They taught me to only compete with myself,” she says. “They taught me to always ask, ‘Are you doing the best YOU can?’”
She says her father imparted his work ethic and drive, and her mother taught her people sense, empathy and compromise. Both influenced her sense of humor and ability to be herself and to do her best.
Most of you probably already know that about her. But did you know that she’s a fan of bluegrass music, Elvis Presley, Steve Martin, Judge Judy and … pro-wrestling? Yes, I said pro-wrestling!
Her favorite wrestler is Ric Flair.
“My passion for wrestling goes back a generation or two,” she says. “I love the soap opera stories around them. They have such a strong persona and are larger than life, which is the complete opposite of me.” (If you’re paying attention, you’ll recognize this as a Pisces trait — desire to escape reality).
Though she might get caught up in the fantasy world of pro-wrestling, Higgens has her own life that is full and interesting.
“I’m an Anglophile and former tenor drummer in my husband’s bagpipe band,” she says. “I love to entertain — we do a Robert Burns dinner at our house each year, complete with haggis. And, I love networking and connecting people. I hope to continue to do this in my next chapter.”
It takes a lot of dedication to want to do for others, all while keeping your own wants in line. So, I inquire about her motivation, and drive.
“I’m a perfectionist and a people-pleaser,” she says. “I strive to make everyone happy (which has served me well as CEO of a consensus organization comprised of competitors).
I can relate to being a perfectionist, and ask her how she deals with knowing someone might be disappointed.
She takes in a deep breath and exclaims, “It kills me!” “I take it way too seriously, and I tend to focus on the negative. And so, if there are 100 people, and 99 think I’m great, I’ll focus on the one who doesn’t. And that just makes me crazy.” (Another Pisces trait)
For what it's worth, I haven’t spoken to a single person who doesn’t think Barb Higgens is great.
“I consider Barb a friend. She’ll be a friend to me forever!” Fisher says. “She has a very calming personality. She makes the difficult simple. She’s organized. She makes a very complex issue very simple to follow. And I’m always amazed by that.”
Barb, in retrospect and the future
Higgens recalls some of her fondest memories at PMI. She says each of the 20 presidents that she’s worked for came along at exactly the right time and helped her grow into her role.
She recalls some fun memories as well.
“I can’t forget shaking hands with Fernando Fernandez at KBIS 1998 on my first day of the job after he pulled his hand out of a toilet he was rinsing,” she says. Interestingly enough, Fernandez recalls the same experience as his fondest memory.
He says, “I've known Barb since she first started with PMI and met her at the first trade show she attended just after she was hired. The show was in Chicago (her backyard), and the event was called the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS for short). While I was working the TOTO booth and flushing toilets with testing media showcasing our products' performance attributes, I see this woman at a distance walking my way. You know how when you watch those movies with jet fighters chasing each other, and the one in front gets locked in by the one behind it (the one who’s about to shoot the front jet down)? Well, I had this feeling I was locked in on and unsure of what this woman walking toward me wanted; she had so much determination and focus. Upon arriving at my station seconds later, Barb introduced herself and immediately stretched out her arm for a classic handshake, all the while my hand (shaking hand) was forearm deep in the toilet bowl along with blue dye and media. ‘Hi, I'm Barb Higgens with PMI,’ I heard. ‘You must be Fernando Fernandez.’”
He continues: “Without a second guess, I quickly let go of squished, wetted sponges and just pulled my right arm from the bowl and flailed it around vigorously to air dry it, ending of course with a once swipe across the suit coat for good measure. I then shook her hand and simply said it was a pleasure to meet her. I still recall a slight look of shock — maybe from the clamminess of my hand, which had been in test mode for several hours. We talked shop for a few minutes and both went about our ways. TOTO, years later, joined PMI.”
Her other fond memories include holding miso paste during a tour of TOTO and walking into a urinal-lined conference room on a visit to Sloan, thinking she had mistakenly entered the men’s room. We laugh about the miso paste experience. I explain that after learning what it’s used for in the industry, I can never look at it the same again. She agrees.
I ask her what she’ll miss the most.
“I like being busy and being needed. I like connecting people and making a difference. So, I will work to find ways to do that in the next chapter. I won’t miss my industry friends, she says, “because I know that I’ll take them with me as I move on. I have a knack for hanging on to friends long-term.”
Looking at all her success in the industry, I am curious if she had any failures that she wanted to address.
“I can’t think of any failures,” she says. “Just goals yet to be accomplished. PMI has a great future ahead. Unlimited potential. More partnerships and collaboration to supplement the efforts of the small, but mighty staff.”
Higgens says after the announcement of her retirement, she has really worked hard on who she’s going to be outside of PMI. “What I found is that the next chapter is an opportunity for me to focus on me for a change.”
She tells me she has a mentor of her own who is going to be 96 this year. “Daphne Starr has helped me understand that there is more dimension to me than what I thought there was.”
I ask her how she measures the success of the goals she set forth when she started at PMI.
“Success is measured by PMI’s great staff and consultants painstakingly assembled over the years, our increased visibility, stable financial status, industry respect, and stature here and globally. I’ve taken PMI as far as I can, and I am pleased. It’s now time to pass the baton to see where PMI can go next.”
I ask if she has any advice for her successor.
“Kerry Stackpole is wonderful,” she says. “His skillset is so completely different than mine that he’s really going to take PMI in a direction that I couldn’t have. So, it’s really exciting times for the staff and membership. I’m happy to advise him as he requests, but I don’t want to be the ghost of Christmas past.”
As far as specific advice, she says, “Listen. People tell you exactly what they want and need from the industry association, and I think that ability to hear them is the most important thing. Whether or not you agree, people want to be listened to.”
I ask her if she would do anything different if she had it to do all over again.
“I wouldn’t change anything about the job, but if pressed, I’d say that I would seek a better work/life balance with more focus on me. I gave my all to PMI and was singularly focused on it 24/7. There have been only 2 days off out of 19 years where I was unable to check in: once in Alaska, and once in Nova Scotia. I’ve never taken a sick day (ever, in any job). I even took a conference call from my dad’s memorial service.”
Higgens says the next chapter is her turn to take care of herself physically, spiritually and mentally. “Now my personal life will be the priority. Watch out family … Here I come!”
On behalf of Plumbing Engineer, PHC News, and The Wholesaler magazines, TMB Publishing wishes Barbara C. Higgens success in this next part of her journey!