Roberta MacGillivray grew up in the business of BGE, learning the ropes under her father’s tutelage before eventually purchasing the company with her husband, Ian. For Roberta, it has been a decades-long commitment to indoor air quality and the positive impacts clean air can make in everyone’s lives – a difference she experienced firsthand as a young girl.
In a testament to her leadership and advocacy for clean air, Roberta was recently named President of the National Air Filtration Association (NAFA) for the coming year. We took the opportunity to chat with Roberta on a wide range of subjects, from her BGE journey to the company’s future, her role with NAFA and the heightened focus on air quality as the world continues to grapple with the challenges posed by COVID-19. Here is some of what she had to say.
On her passion for the air filtration industry
My passion for the business stems from growing up in it. I am second generation BGE, following my father who started the business 53 years ago. Whenever there was a day off from school or my mom was away for the weekend and my dad had to work, we got to come to the shop and we had so much fun. I have fond memories of those times and it started my journey to where I am today.
I was always sick as a child, though. I often had sore throats and allergic reactions. It took a while for us to discover that, along with typical seasonal allergies, I was allergic to tobacco smoke, which was so common in most buildings and homes in those days. That discovery improved my life and really illustrated for me how important a clean air environment is and how unproductive and, frankly, ill you can feel when it is something less than that.
Given my dad’s work in the industry, we had easy access to all of the research and knowledge that was around, about the effects of smoking, a lack of ventilation, sick building syndrome, or a variety of other topics. Learning about all of that really ingrained in me the importance of air quality.
On leading BGE
Every day I am excited to be a part of BGE because I believe so strongly in our purpose of safely delivering clean, healthy indoor air environments. This is a family business – my second family, really. My dad was a great, charismatic leader and I got to watch him intently for so long. He created a great story, one that I think has so much impact. I’m really proud of the success that we’ve had and I’m honoured to work with my husband, Ian, to continue moving our purpose forward for the next 50 years.
Part of my role as a leader is to help us reach our potential and I think we will achieve that by becoming a provider of all things ‘clean air’. How we do that is through good products, including our filtration products and the host of services that we offer, whether it’s a filtration management program, system integrity services, system hygiene, remediation, or the specialized team we have focused on critical environmental services. At the end of the day, if I can sum it up in a sentence, our job is about making sure that we’re delivering clean air to our customers’ occupied spaces and meeting their needs, whatever they are.
I’ve learned so much about running a business at BGE. Top of the list would be having good people, which we do, and being clear on where you want to go. Without that direction, it’s difficult for your good people to be aligned. We also want to make sure we know what we do well and, while it’s important to continue to adapt and change, not forget about what made us successful. Those table stakes, that good foundation for your business, that’s what gives you the ability to test new ideas and opportunities.
On her role as President of the National Air Filtration Association (NAFA)
NAFA’s membership base is primarily distributors and manufacturers of air filtration products. The association provides a community where these individuals can come together to learn about industry trends and learn from each other. NAFA doesn’t set the standards – ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) does that – but NAFA interprets those standards and provides best practices to educate their members and, in turn, consumers.
I was in my teens when I learned about NAFA and saw what a great network it was for my dad. It really helped his business, whether it was through the Guide to Air Filtration and Installation, Operation and Maintenance manuals they produce, the certifications that they provide to verify our expertise or the bi-annual conferences. My dad didn’t have a formal post-secondary education so it gave him a lot of pride to get his certifications and accreditations from NAFA as a demonstration of his experience and knowledge.
Since I joined NAFA, I’ve seen the membership broaden. We’re no longer one national association, we are international and intercontinental, with Canadians, Americans Mexicans, and now Australian, African, and Middle Eastern members to give us a worldwide reach. For the last five years, I’ve been on this journey to being President, following the typical route of being a board member for two years and then serving as Secretary, Treasurer, President-Elect and now President for the next year. It’s a real honour for me and, first and foremost, I want to continue with the great culture, traditions, and momentum that NAFA has maintained over the course of many years.
COVID-19 will continue to play a role, though, like everyone, we hope that its impact will lessen very soon. COVID had a significant impact on our association from the start when it became clear that transmission was aerosolized and airborne. As we see more variants create a higher likelihood for transmissions, filtration plays an even greater role. The two mandates that came down for customers to mitigate the virus’ impact were to increase ventilation and upgrade their filtration to MERV 13 or higher. This can be tricky and even complex for some customers to do, but it has also created an important moment for NAFA to be front and center in providing guidance about air filtration. Part of my role, as a result, is to ensure we’re working with other industry associations to get the best results for businesses and, by extension, those that occupy those spaces.
NAFA needs to continue to be the voice for air filtration that assures when COVID-19 reaches an endemic stage, that people are returning to all-around safe and healthy environments and not just environments that protect them from a single virus. That means a lot of work with other associations and a lot of work to encourage our members to carry those important messages to their customers. We need to use this as an opportunity for education and a holistic approach to indoor air quality and improved air filtration.
On the impact of COVID-19 and the lessons learned
I say this with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but one of the biggest changes I’ve seen with COVID-19 is that our business has become an interesting dinner topic. Honestly, I’ve never heard so many people that I know talk about MERV 13 or ask about air filters. If there is anything positive about COVID, it is that it has created a higher interest, awareness and curiosity in what we do.
Customers are still asking ‘when can I get it?’ and ‘how much does it cost?’ but there is also an understanding that you need to make sure it is the right product for your facility. It’s leading to a lot of high-quality conversations with customers and prospective customers. The right questions are being asked and answered by us: Can the system handle these products? Which systems actually need it? Which systems are already in a good state and don’t need to be upgraded unnecessarily?
As with any new event, there are some out there who are looking to take advantage of it, maybe by coming up with ‘solutions’ that aren’t fully vetted. Those conversations we’re having are also an opportunity for NAFA to educate with knowledge and best practices, creating something we can point to in order to lessen any concerns among our customers. For a customer to work with someone like BGE who has a Certified Air Specialist designation from NAFA or employs NAFA Certified Technicians, means that the person or company is typically someone who has the right experience and truly understands filtration and a customer’s needs.
On the future of BGE and indoor air quality
One of the goals for BGE moving forward is to continue to grow and strengthen our base in western Canada. There are a lot of customers that we serve very well and we want to take that success and serve similar industry segments and other geographies. We also want to grow our product and service offerings, alongside making sure that we continue to grow and develop the talent within BGE. Our success has always been having long-term employees who know the business and we have to keep building that expertise throughout the organization.
Looking more broadly at all things clean air, I hope some of the supply chain challenges we face can die down. Filters are made using the same equipment as masks so there has been a lot of demand on those suppliers over the last two years. I also see our industry continuing to innovate. The world has been really busy and I think there is a need to shift to a higher quality of filtration and to shift the makeup of the materials and media we use every day.
Finally, I think there is work to be done on the ESG (environmental, social, governance) portion of our work. Our filters are filtering out all of the bad things that we don’t want in our building systems. But all of those filters get thrown away. So how do we make products that last longer? How do we create products that are better manufactured from an environmental preservation standpoint? These are all questions for us to consider.
What I hope is, down the road, I can go to every home or building that I visit or that you visit and I can never see another bad day in air filtration systems, where you see pigeons stuck in air handling units or a filter is falling apart because it was forgotten. That’s the job of an organization like NAFA and a company like BGE – to ensure that we are continually working with our customers to provide the cleanest environments possible for everyone.