Turf Magazine: OPEI’s Bold Direction
Kris Kiser assumes leadership of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) at the most challenging period in its 59-year history.
This self-described “country kid from southern Indiana” admits that, as the recently appointed OPEI president and CEO, he and the association face incredible challenges. Nevertheless, he’s confident (more importantly, so is the OPEI board) that he’s got the skills to guide the OPEI in meeting them head on. He brings unique managerial and political experience to the task.
While memories of his Hoosier childhood and adolescence in Seymour, Ind., remain vivid and warm, most of Kiser’s adult life and career have been spent in the deal-making steam cooker known as Washington, D.C. For more than 20 years he has been engaged, at one time or another, on both sides of the political process there.
Soon after earning his law degree at the University of Louisville and passing the bar, he moved to the nation’s capitol to serve as a staffer for former Congressman Lee. H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). He worked for the Congressman for nine years, first in Hamilton’s district headquarters in Jeffersonville, Ind., then in Washington, D.C. Then he moved to the private sector for a 14-year stint as an influencer and a lobbyist for two major D.C.-based trade associations.
His small-town, midwestern pragmatism combined with his lifelong love for and participation in politics and his strong association management experience suggest that he’s just the person to speak for the OPEI, which is headquartered across the Potomac River from Washington in Alexandria, Va. That said, he’s cognizant of what lies ahead for the OPEI in terms of challenges and what it must do to keep itself “relevant.”
Recently, Kiser took time from his busy pre-GIE+EXPO schedule to speak with Turf magazine about the challenges that the OPEI faces. He also shared what he sees as his role in that 59-year-old association.
Some of the larger challenges that Kiser sees facing the OPEI, its members and the green industry as a whole are painfully obvious.
For example, the U.S. economy, just two years removed from the worst recession since the Great Depression, can charitably be described as shaky. This, of course, has caused all links in the power equipment supply chain to tighten their belts. It’s also negatively affected almost all trade associations and the trade shows they sponsor.
Then, of course, a festering and seemingly ever-growing list of regulatory issues challenge the industry. All, to one degree or another, threaten the size and scope of the green industry. The short list includes emissions, the use and labeling of alternative fuels and (believe it or not) governmental efforts to dictate the size of homeowner lawns.
Yes, the government wants to tell you how much grass you can have in your yards.
Finally, perhaps most troubling of all to Kiser, a lifelong believer in the country’s 200-year-plus political system, is the rancorous partisanship in Washington that’s choking off meaningful dialogue and compromise among our lawmakers.
“What I now see is a dysfunctional Congress, and that’s one of the toughest things for me to understand,” says Kiser. “Back when I worked for a member, I worked for a member who was all about problem solving. Hamilton is a smart man and an academic. He was a politician of course; they all are. But in past years members of opposite parties really did work with one another. The ability to reach across the aisle was sort of a badge of honor.”
Washington’s disconnection from Main Street U.S.A. is manifested in other ways, as well, says Kiser. For example, efforts by the U.S. EPA in its WaterSense program to limit the size of homeowners’ lawns to 40 percent of their properties.
“This is an example of mindless bureaucracy. Suggesting that lawns be no more than 40 percent of our landscapes whether they’re in San Antonio or Portland, Ore., makes no sense. It’s very frustrating,” says Kiser. The intrusion doesn’t stop there. Earlier this year, the Agency, initiating a process leading to national building code standards, sought essentially the same 40 percent turf rule.
Kiser says OPEI does not oppose the environmental goals these or similar regulations attempt to address. It opposes them because they’re misguided and would cause more harm than good.
“The regulation of our underlying asset – our lawns, our yards, our managed landscapes – is a massive challenge for us,” says Kiser. “We as an industry have to work together with our end users, our contractors, our irrigation professionals and continue to practice environmental stewardship. We all have a piece of the environment, and we recognize that it must be managed responsibly.”
One of the most contentious issues that Kiser and the OPEI have taken on in recent years involves efforts by the government and alternative fuels proponents to raise the amount of ethanol in gasoline at our millions of fuel pumps from 10 percent to 15 percent. While many newer cars and trucks are engineered to operate on the higher ethanol-blended gasoline, hundreds of millions of “legacy” gasoline-fueled machines are not. These, of course, include mowers and other equipment commonly used in the green industry. Poor efficiency, engine damage and product warranties result when legacy equipment is operated on these fuels.
“It’s very important that we stay engaged and manage this issue because it’s going to radically change the fuel-dispensing paradigm that we’ve been using for more than 50 years,” says Kiser. “You’ve always been able to use the same gasoline that goes in your car in your mower, your chain saw, your bass boat, and people don’t know that’s about to change.”
Kiser says the OPEI is making every effort to stay ahead of the issue in terms of fuel availability, storage and labeling.
“From the association’s perspective, we’re making progress on the issue. In just the four years that we’ve worked on it, we’ve seen a turnaround in the Congress in terms of understanding ethanol and its place in the market. We’ve earned a seat at the table,” he says.
Looking at his new job from a broader perspective, Kiser says he wants to ensure that the OPEI becomes ever-more “relevant” to its members and to the green industry as a whole.
“We must remain relevant, stay involved and be part of the solutions,” he says. That’s what he’s going to work to accomplish in spite of the relatively small size of the OPEI in terms of its 80-plus members. That, of course, doesn’t reflect its importance.
The OPEI and its landscape, lawn and garden, forestry and utility equipment manufacturing members represent an industry that generates $15 billion annually. In that regard, it’s critical for the survival and health of the managed green spaces that provide the environmental benefits and the life-enhancing pleasure so vital to our modern lifestyles.
In the end, that’s the biggest challenge Kiser and the OPEI, partnering with other green industry organizations, have assumed.
Kiser’s Career at a Glance
- Seymour, Ind. (pop. approximately 20,000), also hometown of Katie Stam, Miss America 2009.
Earliest Political Experiences:
- 18 years old worked as a deputy voter registrar. During his undergraduate days he served as assistant to the mayor of Bloomington, Ind., and later within the Indiana State House, including taking active roles in several political campaigns
- Undergraduate (B.A.) degree at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.; Juris Doctor from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville
- 1982-1989 Special Assistant to former Congressman Lee. H. Hamilton (D.-Ind.); 1989-1991 Chief Administrative Staffer Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress
Association Management Experience:
- 14 years senior management at two major Washington, D.C., trade associations, serving as Vice President, Government Affairs for the American Forest & Paper Association (1991-1999), Vice President, State and International Affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Vice President (1999-2005)
- Ran but was defeated for a seat representing central Indiana in the U.S. Congress
- Joins OPEI in 2007 as VP Public Affairs; promoted to Executive Vice president in 2008 and COO; Aug. 2011 appointed OPEI president and CEO, succeeding retiring and longtime President and CEO Bill Harley
1952 Eleven mower manufacturers charter a national nonprofit trade association called The Lawn Mower Institute.
1953 The organization creates a monthly statistical reporting program for members, which continues to this day.
1956 Engine manufacturers were invited to participate in the organization.
1960 The trade association’s name was changed to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute.
1960 The American Standards Association publishes the first safety standard for power lawn mowers.
1961 OPEI creates the first safety seal and makes it available to members.
1962 OPEI becomes an associate member of the American Standards Institute.
1969 OPEI approves the independent 3rd party voluntary testing for mowers.
1984 OPEI launches the industry’s first U.S. trade show, the International Lawn, Garden and Power Equipment Exposition.
1993 Membership expands to include manufacturers of portable power equipment.
2001 OPEI absorbs the membership of the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association (PPEMA).
2007 The PLANET Green Industry Expo (GIE) merges with the International Lawn, Garden and Power Equipment Exposition, creating the first Green Industry and Equipment Expo.
2010 Hardscape North America (HNA) co-locates its trade show to coincide with the GIE+EXPO in the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville.
Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine.