WASHINGTON — Many lobbyists wait until they start their careers to meet the political elite. Not so for the new head of the Vinyl Institute, Tim Burns.
Burns was playing basketball outside a Buffalo, N.Y., hotel as a kid, when his father pulled him inside to introduce him to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Burns' dad was treasurer of New York City's fire department and was in a meeting with the governor.
Burns said he remembers being more interested in getting back to the hoops. After all, his uncle was majority leader of the New York City Council. Seeing political figures at family gatherings talking politics was pretty routine stuff.
Since then, Burns has remained steeped in politics, a background VI will tap as it deals with intensifying public-policy threats. Burns worked for much of the last two decades as a lobbyist for the Chemical Manufacturers Association and for the last two years for the Healthcare Leadership Council, a free-market oriented group in Washington.
He is stepping into a hot spot. PVC is facing increasing threats in toy and medical markets, and VI itself is preparing to enlarge the staff and considering ways to be more proactive.
That could include expanding the industry's roughly $1 million benefits message campaign, which has thus far focused on the medical market. The campaign started late last year, and officials involved with VI say the expensive effort could be expanded to other markets if it works.
``Everything is under consideration,'' Burns said. ``We will be evaluating it and expanding it as necessary into other areas.''
VI needs to ``make sure the effort is well balanced on how proactive we are in terms of just spending a lot of time on defense,'' said Fred Krause, a senior advisor to VI and the Chlorine Chemistry Council. ``You don't win wars on defense.''
Erv Schroeder, vice president of Shintech Inc. and chairman of VI, said he sees more threats from regulators than from the public rejecting vinyl products.
``I think the main thing is we have to get our message out to the public,'' Schroeder said. ``I don't see the public rejecting our product. I think if we run into difficulty, it'll be through government regulation.''
But the financial pressure that worldwide economic problems are putting on commodities like PVC could make it tough to significantly expand VI's budget, he said.
PVC production has grown 6 percent a year for the past decade. But despite the steady growth, questions about the safety of phthalates used as softeners has caused some toy manufacturers to drop PVC. In recent months some medical manufacturers have stepped up efforts to find alternatives to PVC.
VI moved from New Jersey to Washington in late January, and is in the process of looking at how it might take more responsibility for some projects that currently are joint efforts with the Chlorine Chemistry Council. Officials declined to provide details.
VI also is evaluating whether it should remain with its parent, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
``As we get into Washington, we'll re-evaluate ... where we can be most effective and most cost-effective,'' Schroeder said. ``I'm not hearing a clamoring that we should or shouldn't be with the SPI at this stage.''
Burns replaces the retiring Robert Burnett, who had a long background in the chemical industry. In contrast, Burns cut his teeth in the D.C. association world, primarily at CMA, where he rose to be vice president of federal government affairs.
While there, he helped develop CMA's Responsible Care public outreach campaign, worked initially as front-line lobbyist on environmental issues, and later built coalitions with other industries on Superfund and electric utility deregulation.
``He was the quintessential federal legislation advocate,'' said Charlie Van Vlack, executive vice president of Arlington, Va.-based CMA. ``He developed very strong relationships in the industry and tremendous networks on the Hill.''
In a sense, forming those networks started early for Burns, as he listened to his father and uncle talk politics and entertain the likes of New York City Mayor John Lindsay and another New York Governor, Hugh Carey, at his uncle's house.
``I didn't realize it was bubbling up in me,'' he said. ``I grew up in a household where it was all pretty normal and natural.''