Lea Smith, on standing down as IOPSA President


By Eamonn Ryan

Four years ago, the IOPSA board made a landmark decision to ‘go big or go home’, and from that seminal decision came its subsequent growth and emergence as one of the most influential trade membership bodies in South Africa.

Lea Smith was part of that board and was immediately after appointed President. He has since overseen that era, and in March, stepped down.  Lea Smith was part of that board and was immediately after appointed President. He has since overseen that era, and in March, stepped down.  

In 2016 “IOPSA needed a direction”, says outgoing President Lea Smith. “That required commitment to making a change in the structures of IOPSA.” The key aspect of this was to appoint a strong, full-time executive director to run it. This is because Presidents and board members are voluntary part-time positions, and the knowledge is lost as these people come and go.”

The President is essentially a figurehead, though he/she may choose to go further than that role. He/she has no power other than exercising opinion. Board members are also volunteer positions and may rotate. The executive director now embodies the institutional memory.

The initial working group establishing the 2025 IOPSA Training Strategy.“Having a permanent strong executive director (ED) was one of the prerequisites I requested before accepting the position of IOPSA President. Previously there was no such real position, and the person – with the right skills set – is central to the concept of creating a properly structured organisation. This in turn is a strategy that inevitably has financial requirements to grow the revenue base of the body. 

“It is a chicken-and-egg scenario: we were increasing the costs of the organisation to grow the revenue to do the projects required to ‘go big’. With hindsight, it has proven to be the right move, though it wasn’t easy at the time to persuade the regional structure – for whom it was a step into the unknown.” It could have easily gone awry if the wrong ED had been selected. The position requires both the skills set for plumbing, and a clear understanding of running a membership-based organisation, which is quite different to a plumbing business.

The central requirement is having passion and desire. “We started the process by appointing Gary Macnamara (a member of the Macnamara family which owns IMD, the publisher of this magazine). He already had considerable knowledge of the industry though Plumbing Africa. It proved to be an inspired choice, and thereafter he and I worked closely together.”

With IOPSA’s change in strategy has come a challenge of expectation, says Smith. “Today, members expect ever more from IOPSA, which in turn needs to expand its revenue and range of services without losing focus on its membership – which could occur if ‘other’ sources of revenue were to exceed membership revenue. There’s a vast array of sources of revenue available, given sufficient IOPSA resources. 

“When Gary emigrated from the country, we were fortunate that another opportunity arose with Brendan Reynolds looking for a new career direction. He had both an extensive understanding of the plumbing industry and a membership-based organisations understanding through fund-raising experiences he’d had with various charitable activities at that time,” says Smith.

While the bulk of that growth has come in the last 18 months, Smith says the foundation for that exponential growth was put in place over the past four years, in turn stemming from that original ‘grow or go’ board decision. “The board as a collective gave leadership to the industry, and Gary (Macnamara) laid the foundation for almost everything that is happening today, such as the DSPP and Centres of Specialisation projects. He put in place a lot of the management systems which are not visible to members, but which enable everything to happen. Today, we are seeing the rewards of that work coming through. There is still a lot of work to do – such as the five-year 2025 Training Strategy we are in the process of finalising (see Plumbing Africa March issue).  

“As a result of these initiatives, IOPSA is, in many respects, ahead of its time,” says Smith.

“Blazing our own trail”IOPSA’s future is in its own hands, says Smith, including that of training. IOPSA is working towards positioning itself to cover all aspects of the training environment to assist the plumbing industry. Like IOPSA did four years ago, with not only the ‘going big or going home’ approach, but showing true leadership. IOPSA will be doing the same in the training space.   

“Other professional membership organisations talk about IOPSA today because we decided not to ‘fit in’, but rather to ‘do things right and do it our way’, fit for purpose for the industry. We’re blazing our own trail – and similarly in the training environment, while blazing the trail, we’re aligning it with the national occupationally directed training, but doing it in a way that suits our industry. However, availability – or rather say access to – funding of learners is challenging and fraught with obstacles and challenges, because we do not ‘fit in’. Our focus is on training people who dearly want to be plumbers, whereas the current model pushes people who aren’t interested in plumbing (and only want the stipend) onto an unwilling industry,” says Smith. While funding of learners will pose a challenge, the five-year 2025 Strategy will certainly break these barriers down and create a strategy that works for us as an industry and the plumbers on the ground.” 

Training and compliance are flip sides of the same coin, says Smith. You cannot expect plumbers to be compliant unless they’re trained on the correct standards. “How do you put together a curriculum to teach a learner to install a geyser except by applying a standard? At the moment, because training is so poor in the industry, the standard also falls into abeyance. If you train properly and install a culture of continuous development and training, or let’s rather say continuous professional development (CPD), they learn the correct application of the installation benchmarked against the standard: if you improve one you improve the other. The curriculum clearly defines that you must be teaching the standard.” This underlies why IOPSA wants training to lead them.

“The last two years at IOPSA has shifted focus onto training, because by doing so we are simultaneously focused on compliance.”

Many plumbers dispute the need to comply with standards and the law, says Smith, arguing that it puts them at a disadvantage competitively compared to those who do not abide by the law, and can consequently under-bid them. “Plumbers need to understand that one follows the law precisely because it is the law. The PIRB’s role is to monitor our industry and its professional standards, putting in place a ‘policing structure’ (of audits). And there within lies the challenge that plumbers are facing – competing against an unruly mob of unlicensed or unqualified plumbers who have chosen not to be subjected to the same rule of law and in turn, accountability. While we acknowledge it is a challenge, the answer if you wish to overcome these challenges, is by continuing building strength in enforcing the law and standards as an industry – or just make it a free-for-all in the industry,” says Smith.

The futureThe term of office of an IOPSA President is two years. However, because the conclusion of Smith’s first term came at a critical moment in IOPSA’s evolution with the changeover from Macnamara, he was asked to remain for a further term, as outgoing Presidents can stand for re-election. “But now it is time to bring in fresh blood and fresh ideas to contribute to what is a team effort. The objectives, and where we are heading, is already set, and this will be reinforced when the 2025 Strategic Training Plan comes into force shortly.” Smith will become a ‘Past President’ and will remain on the board to continue working as an important part of the team. This helps to retain the institutional knowledge.  

Smith says he is justifiably proud of his contribution towards the team and ultimately towards to IOPSA’s achievements: “Just look at where we were compared to where we are now. We have a really strong foundation – everybody’s talking about the plumbing industry. This has been achieved by our decision to own our space and to show true leadership.

“The future of IOPSA is bright and strong because a good foundation has been laid. The growth in membership of IOPSA over the past few months has been phenomenal, especially compared to other member organisations. The same applies to PIRB and the professionalism being seen in the industry.”