Ken Gardner spent almost a decade as Master Plumbers CEO. Alison Dean speaks to him about the evolution of the trade and the stagnation of the attitude.

Taking quality plumbing to the world was not a mission Ken Gardner had in mind when he graduated from Law at Melbourne University in 1978.

“I never predicted it,” he confirmed to API when he stepped down from the position at Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia in late March.

There were early signs. Ken had taken a shine to IR as a speciality at university before he started work at the Australian Mines and Metals Association and then the Metal Trades industry, both employer associations.

In 1997, Ken was given the task of heading up a new regulator, the Office of Gas Safety. From this time he was introduced to plumbing as a profession, as an area requiring regulation and as one of the interested parties he would work with that had public safety in their hands. Later Ken moved to the Office of the Chief Electrical Inspector and in 2004, he combined the two to become Energy Safe Victoria.

“I became very familiar with plumbers and plumbing during this time,” Gardner said. He also became familiar with Master Plumbers.

“Master Plumbers came up with the Green Plumbing Initiative and the Office of Gas Safety helped sponsor that. I was very impressed with Master Plumbers as a forward-thinking organisation.”

Ken admits he had become an accidental advocate for plumbing, so when the role of CEO at Master Plumbers came up in 2009, he put his hand up.

Since then, the sustained issues during his tenure at Master Plumbers have included defending the trade and the training that underpins the trade.

“It is important for the government and the regulators to see plumbing as separate from building. It is just as important to acknowledge the growing scope and breadth of plumbing, and the qualifications required to ensure quality is maintained,” Ken said.

While Ken recognises the shortage of some plumbing skills in Victoria, he said deregulating the industry was not the answer.

“The government talk about it quite often; deregulate and let anyone who has a tiny skillset do the work. They just don’t understand the implications.”

While he admits plumbing-related tragedies hit the media infrequently - carbon monoxide poisoning, legionella outbreaks and asbestos are among those he named. It is only through regulating the industry, that governments can assure that people are safe from more public health issues into the future.

With good regulations comes the need for quality training and Ken realised early on the need for direct action. He and his Board at Master Plumbers, sold some properties in Melbourne’s CBD, moved their HQ to Brunswick, and together with their Industry Partners – mainly the Plumbing Union - opened their first specialist facility as a registered training organisation (RTO).

“It’s like poker,” he said. “We sold everything and threw it in the middle to invest in training rather than sit on property and live off the profits.”

“We made the decision for our members; to give our members a better outcome. But we also did it to set a standard for the rest of the training world because we want to lift them up as well. We got a lot of respect for it because we put our money in.”

Master Plumbers, as one of the innovators behind the Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre (PICAC) group, has been involved in building training facilities in Brunswick and Geelong in Victoria and Beenleigh in Queensland. Narre Warren in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs is also under construction.

These Plumbing Industry Climate Action centres will continue to meet the innovation of the industry but Master Plumbers has to be alert. The challenge, he said, is to be ready as there is always a new product, service and trend coming over the hill.

“At the moment there is the review of plumbing regulations, which sunset later this year so they have to be replaced. There are gaps we have identified in how we see the industry being regulated particularly in the large and complex buildings. Ten years ago the number of 20-something storey buildings being built was very small. Now it’s never ending and the skills and regulations you need to control that is very different to a domestic house, which is what the regulations were designed for. The government simply cannot roll over the legislation.”

And as a member organisation, what is the value of Master Plumbers Membership today? “People have a limited perception,” Ken explained, “but for me the value is ensuring that you as a plumber have a regulated trade. You want a government to say that only plumbers with these qualifications can do this work and actually enforce that in the community. That underpins the value of what you do and underpins the value of the plumbers’ business.”

Ken’s passion for plumbing is as strong today as when he started as CEO. He sees plumbing as an issue for every community across the world, which is why he has taken positions on boards including the Secretary for the World Plumbing Council.

 “I’ve been incredibly lucky to be part of the World Plumbing Council, with strong connections across many countries, including America. I have met a lot of members that are real characters. It’s not just a job, it’s like a family and like a family everyone likes to give you advice. It’s the people I will miss most.”

Ken plans to spend more time with his family, travelling the world and doing wood work. He has also taken up the presidency of the North Carlton Railway House community house.

Interested in being part of the future of plumbing? Join Master Plumbers now, call 9329 9622 to talk to the Membership team.