Retiring CEO Kevin McCray, CAE, set the tone for the National Ground Water Association for 22 years.
By Mike Price
A simple task in a complex, ever-changing world was given to Kevin McCray, CAE, upon returning to the then-National Water Well Association in December 1985.
McCray asked Jay H. Lehr, Ph.D., NWWA executive director, what his job was to be. McCray, who had left to work for industry manufacturer Franklin Electric for two years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, tells this story often.
“Jay said, ‘Whatever you can find to make the association better,’” recalls McCray. “That’s been my purpose at work is whatever I can do to make the association—and by consequence—the industry, better. I really came to work every day with that mindset.”
After 35 years of combined employment by the National Ground Water Association (name changed in 1991) and its subsidiaries, including 22 years as the chief executive officer, McCray is retiring on December 31, 2017. The long and winding career at NGWA will culminate at the 2017 Groundwater Week annual meeting and trade exposition December 5-7 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Calling it an honor to serve the Association’s membership, as well as to the larger global groundwater community, McCray says he will miss most the daily pace and diversity of work along with NGWA staff and the industry.
“It sounds cliché, but there are some really interesting people in our industry,” says McCray, “who are passionately committed to their profession. I respect the hell out of them.”
This same level of commitment was modeled by McCray. To him, NGWA’s mission is about making people better—beginning with staff, so they can better serve its nearly 10,500 members. Members can then better serve their customers.
On the hallway doors of NGWA headquarters in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb north of Columbus, McCray created signs to drive home the point: “Are the groundwater professions better tonight because of what NGWA, its members, and its staff have accomplished today?”
“There is a continuum there about the most minute improvement can be a seed to larger improvement,” he says. “If you’re not about trying to get better every day, then what are you doing?”
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From the CEO vantage point, McCray strived to see where all the pieces fit into the larger picture.
That included the industry itself, as well as the Association and all its programs, products, and information services. The many relationships McCray forged over the years widened his view tremendously.
“What I hoped to do was try to project an image that NGWA is literally larger than we are,” says McCray. “You never know how the most minor encounters can lead to some real opportunities.”
It happened at World Water Day in 2015 in Washington, D.C. A casual conversation with a water policy official from the U.S. State Department eventually led to NGWA conducting three briefings for various federal agencies and Association members briefing the government of Belize on establishing a groundwater monitoring network. While no immediate business opportunities were a result, it planted seeds for the future.
At least four times a year, McCray represented the Association by traveling to Washington, D.C. He lauds Christine Reimer, who served as the Association’s first-ever government affairs director from 1993-2014, for establishing NGWA’s credibility.
“What our members pay for is to be visible in as many and right places as possible,” he says. “We try to cover as much of the field as we can.”
That included expanding the Association’s international reach. He developed and maintained formal relationships with 17 foreign sister associations and 10 domestic sister associations.
In 1985, McCray began leading NGWA foreign mission trips with the first to Australia and New Zealand. He led a total of 15 over the course of his career.
“I had the pleasure of traveling quite a lot with Kevin over the years, including trips to Russia (2011) and China (2008),” says NGWA President Todd Hunter, CWD/PI, “and I got to know him very well. He is just as focused off duty as on and is always trying to be sure that all our ducks get in a row and things go smoothly for all involved. This mindset and uncanny ability carried over, as we all know, to his grasp on operations and the mission at NGWA.”
At the writing of this article, McCray was scheduled to attend a briefing at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in September in Maryland on the use of satellite remote sensing for water quality purposes. He was invited by the National Water Quality Monitoring Council.
“Clearly, there are vast amounts of data gathered by our satellites, but making it available and practical to the groundwater sector may not always be as convenient as perhaps it could be,” says McCray. “While this event will primarily focus on surface water quality, the NASA connections should be helpful to our members.”
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McCray was told by colleagues not to begin any new projects in June that would be hard to finish by year’s end. That advice was received but apparently not understood.
By late June, following his 31st mid-year board of directors meeting, McCray initiated a project to create a database of groundwater classification systems. Though it didn’t get off the ground, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
The day before the project began saw McCray formulate an online conference for state regulatory personnel around water well record databases. On the same day, he participated in a conference call on well grouting standards for the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.
It appears the final projects under McCray will be gaining a volunteer consensus to update the well grouting chapter in NGWA’s Manual of Water Well Construction Practices and publishing the guidance document on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) titled Groundwater and PFAS: State of Knowledge and Practice.
“There is so much more I’d like to do, but I’m just not going to have the time to get it done,” he laments.
At the mid-year meeting, some of the discussion topics centered on the exempt well issue with the input of two legal experts, matters regarding the NGWA Foundation, and membership challenges in the digital world. McCray was also recognized by the board for his service.
“The board shows me it continues to evolve into a strategic thinking board rather than an operational thinking board,” he says. “That’s what you hope for.”
McCray’s sole goal in 2017 was to make it a normal year. He devoted time to ensure the transition for the board of directors and his successor will be a smooth one.
Terry Morse, an association management veteran with a strong background in sales and marketing, has been chosen as McCray’s successor. Morse will join NGWA staff in November and work closely with McCray during the final weeks of 2017.
Since the Association’s founding in 1948, it has had only four full-time chief executives. Lehr served from 1966-1991, David Schmitt from 1991-1995, McCray from 1995-2017, and Morse in 2018.
One of McCray’s closest industry relationships, Stanley L. Graves, along with other NGWA past presidents, plan on attending December’s Groundwater Week annual meeting and trade exposition in Nashville to congratulate McCray. It will be McCray’s 37th meeting.
Graves, who served as NGWA president in 1998, remembers McCray’s steady demeanor helping to navigate the Association through trying financial times in the mid-1990s. McCray, with the help of Paul Humes, CPA, NGWA chief financial officer, created an organized and structured business.
“Kevin is a consensus builder,” says Graves, “but he does it with authority. I think that’s important. Anybody can be a consensus builder if they go along with everything. Kevin has that ability to inject rationality into a program when you have competing interests. I think that’s a real strength.
“Besides that, he is a nice guy. I might go weeks and weeks without talking to him, and I pick up the phone and it’s like talking to my best friend. If I have a thought or an idea that might be beneficial to NGWA, I share it with him. Conversely, if I need a contact or some information, he is always Johnny on the spot.”
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McCray gained a better appreciation for the industry while working for water systems manufacturer Franklin Electric for two years. He soaked in the company’s history while riding to work every day with Bill Kehoe, the son of one of the company’s original co-founders.
Armed with more industry knowledge, McCray took over management of the Association’s National Ground Water Information Center, which received some support from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants until 1991. McCray’s team wrote and indexed abstracts of groundwater literature for Ground Water Online, a bibliographic database.
In the early 1980s during the Internet’s infancy, NGWA was approached by CompuServe, the first online service provider in the United States, to develop a website to house its database. While the technology wasn’t aesthetically pleasing—a black screen with green letters and no graphics—NGWA had an online presence, possibly the first association to do so, McCray says.
Today, the information center at NGWA headquarters holds 45,000 books and magazines on groundwater.
“I use the books almost every week in one form or another,” he says.
In his first stint with NGWA from 1979-1983, McCray points to the nearly 10 correspondence courses the Association offered at the time as most beneficial to learning the trade side of the industry. Course subjects on drilling and pumps gave him a solid foundation to build upon.
Like any business, the Association tried many things for its members; some were successful, some weren’t. McCray was exposed to much of it and threw himself into a bit of everything—creating newsletters for different membership sections, compiling workshop programs for the annual meeting and trade exposition, writing for Water Well Journal, and conducting book reviews for NGWA’s scientific journal, Groundwater.
One of the more successful projects McCray remembers was accessing U.S. Census Bureau data to determine the number of households served by private water wells down to the five-digit zip code. Groundwater consultants found this useful as it showed where to focus their cleanup efforts with clients.
“If you didn’t have three or four projects going, you weren’t working very hard,” McCray says. “I was doing stuff that I wasn’t required to do, but I was doing them on my own—like keeping track of market data and trying to find more and turn that into something useful for people.”
McCray began using trend analysis in the 1990s to help explain the state of the industry to NGWA staff. Ric Mazon was on staff from 1990-1994 and remembers McCray never sitting on his laurels.
“He was always trying to think of new ways to do things,” says Mazon. “He may have drove people nuts at NGWA, I’m not sure, but it was great because it meant he was committed and not always accepting the status quo.”
At the same time, Mazon says McCray was a realist who understood “we could only do so much, but just because we didn’t have all the resources didn’t stop him from trying to better the organization, himself, or other people.”
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In a lifelong pursuit of learning, McCray immersed himself in state society service.
He served with Mazon on multiple terms of the Ohio Society of Association Executives Board of Directors from 2010-2015. The strategic thinking and long-view planning fit in McCray’s wheelhouse.
A handful of years ago McCray, desiring to give back to OSAE, started a library for certified association executives (CAEs). He himself became a CAE in 1989 from the American Society of Association Executives. He bought books and donated them to the library. He also was an exam study group instructor.
“Part of what Kevin has always done is put his money where his mouth is,” says Mazon. “I consider him one of my best friends, partly because he’s always there for you. That’s the way he treated people.”
McCray traces back to his newspaper managing editor days at Bowling Green State University in the mid-1970s in better understanding other’s perspectives. It led him to sit on their side of the table to get their point of view. This paved the way in working with diverse personality types as CEO.
“That’s something I really tried to pride myself on,” he says. “Sometimes people say, ‘Hey, you’re a little wishy-washy.’ Well, that’s because you’re trying to be objective and be appreciative of the other person’s perspective. That’s one of the real values that came out of the diversity of what I was doing and the diverse composition of the Association itself.”
And growing up in the 1960s in Columbus, Ohio, McCray learned the importance of critical thinking. His father, Patrick, a self-made, voracious reader who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps., challenged McCray to think beyond the obvious and peel away the layers. McCray has passed this on to his two children, Kyle and Amanda.
McCray, who will turn 63 in January, sees himself becoming a consultant for associations. With the permission of the NGWA Board of Directors, he has already begun offering his expertise and sees value in sharing perspectives, finds it satisfying, and hopes to do more of it. How much he isn’t sure yet.
“After all of these years, I hope he just has some fun,” Mazon says, “and I’m hoping I’m one of those who can come and have fun with him.”
For most of McCray’s career he and his family have lived in Westerville, minutes from NGWA headquarters. In 2014, he and his wife, Gayle, a retired middle school teacher, moved to Morrow County, 45 miles north of Columbus. Their house sits on the shore of a lake.
“Our pontoon has only a 9.9 horse power motor,” says McCray, “so it forces us to slow down and take in the beauty and pace of nature. We enjoy nature, but we aren’t far from the faster pace of urban life, either.”
For 22 years McCray pushed the pace as CEO of NGWA. During a staff event, he had everyone reach into the air, then reach another half inch. The lesson being “we judge ourselves less of what we’re capable of doing.”
“I’m guilty of not doing as much as I’d like,” he says, “but at the end of the day, if you think you put in a strong effort and people appreciate it, then take that to the bank.”