(October 29, 2019) — When Stephen T. (Steve) Kaminski became CEO of the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), the organization was facing a number of challenges. Its finances were deep in the red, the number of calls its members were receiving was in steep decline, and several of the poison control centers it represented had closed due to federal and state funding cuts. During Kaminski’s five years with the group, those trends were reversed. As he prepares to leave the group for a new position, AAPCC’s finances are healthily in the black, call volume has increased for the first time since 2009, and not a single additional center closed—the longest stretch in the association’s 60-plus-year history.
Kaminski’s new position is in the propane industry. In September, the National Propane Gas Association
(NPGA) announced that Kaminski w
ould be its new president and CEO. “I look forward to getting started,” he told BPN on Oct. 10. “I bring a lot of drive to the table and I am very results oriented.” Kaminski spoke with BPN after being formally introduced at the Oct. 1, 2019 NPGA fall board of directors meeting, and before beginning his service to the propane industry Oct. 28.
He brings to NPGA nine years’ experience in association management in addition to over a decade of previous experience in law and business strategy. Before that, he earned degrees in chemical engineering and law.Legal, Business Experience
Kaminski earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from The Johns Hopkins University in 1997. For that degree, his studies included fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and heat transfer, and he conducted research in the field of chemical surfactants. During his college years, he also worked in a plastic injection molding plant, conducted public policy research in the field of alternative-fueled vehicles for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and had an engineering internship with NASA.
He earned his law degree from Harvard Law School in 2000. Kaminski then served as a clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. For the next four years, Kaminski was an attorney at a global law firm. There, he handled a mix of regulatory work, patent law, and corporate law, including on behalf of clients in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and professional sports leagues such as the NFL.
He then transitioned from legal work to business strategy work by joining Discovery Communications, the media company that owns dozens of cable channels. Kaminski served as a director from 2005 to 2007 and as a vice president from 2007 to 2011. “I was there when new technologies like video on demand, high-definition, and streaming came into play,” he notes. Working in the company’s distribution group, he negotiated deals with cable and satellite companies during that time of change.Association Management
Kaminski’s first experience with association work came when he was offered a prominent position with the American Humane Association, the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to ensuring the safety, welfare, and well-being of animals. As executive vice president, he largely oversaw all the group’s operations and programs. “The president was a terrific fundraiser and mentor, while I minded the bread-and-butter of the $20 million organization,” he explains.
American Humane’s successes during his tenure included revamping two of the group’s main programs: No Animals Were Harmed, which monitors the care of animals in filmed media production, and American Humane Certified, which monitors the care of farm animals. Kaminski grew the latter’s certification program tenfold.
Kaminski was also vital to turning around the organization’s finances. He did this in part by growing the farm program and in part by transitioning a money-losing portfolio of programs from American Humane to two universities with no loss of jobs. “At the time I joined, the association was losing $11 million a year; by the time I left, it had surpluses,” Kaminski said.
In 2014, he moved to his position as CEO of AAPCC, the national association representing poison control centers that provide medical advice via the national Poison Help hotline. (Kaminski says the relationship between AAPCC and these centers is akin to that between NPGA and the state associations.) Those call centers manage an average of 8000 calls per day.
AAPCC provides its members with services such as federal advocacy; regulatory leadership; communications and promotion of the hotline; national education campaigns; accreditation and certification programs; conference hosting; and data collection and utilization. Among the topics Kaminski worked on were the opioids crisis, e-cigarettes, laundry detergent packets, the Zika virus, the Ebola virus, marijuana, energy drinks, CBD oils, and suicide prevention. (A quarter-million of the calls received each year involve suspected suicide attempts.)
As he did in his previous position, Kaminski led a financial turnaround at AAPCC. When he joined, the group was losing approximately $1.5 million on a $4.5 million budget; now it has a surplus of over $1 million each year. In addition, during his time as CEO, through significant advocacy efforts, the federal funding received by the group’s membership increased from $18 million annually to $24 million and Kaminski secured a five-year, $158 million reauthorization of the Poison Center Network Act, which directly benefits AAPCC’s members.
Another challenge for the AAPCC was a decline in call volume as inquiries went instead to the internet. As a result, poison control centers had been steadily closing their doors due to a lack of funding since the 1990s, including six centers closing in the five years before Kaminski began. He led a turnaround here too. In his five years with AAPCC, not a single center closed down. Today, the call volume is rising for the first time since 2009.Turnaround Messaging
Kaminski accomplished this turnaround with a comprehensive strategy that included an increased emphasis on promotion and media outreach. Before he began this effort, 2000 articles a year mentioned the hotline; now, 5000 articles a year mention it. The popular Radiolab podcast did a full show about Poison Control and the hotline. The Department of Defense made certain the hotline number is in every military base. AAPCC collaborated with Johnson & Johnson and the publisher Scholastic on a campaign in schools that taught children how to read medicine labels and how to call the hotline. An AAPCC marketing campaign, Text-To-Save, promoted a function in which people could text a number and that would save the hotline number to their cellphone.
He also worked with makers of digital assistants: “It used to be that when you would ask Siri, Alexa, or Google to call poison control, they would give you all kinds of numbers; now they give you the national Poison Help hotline.”
Another program that earned media coverage for AAPCC was its campaign to warn parents about the dangers of children swallowing laundry detergent packets. These packets are colorful and, to a child, can look like candy. It was AAPCC’s data from calls to the poison control centers that brought this problem to the attention of the media and the public. The group worked with manufacturers of the packets on safety measures, which include voluntary standards to modify the locking mechanism on the packaging and addition of a bittering agent to the packets.
“But it was the Tide Pod Challenge that really garnered media attention,” Kaminski said, referring to the phenomenon in which teens would film themselves eating the packets and then post the video online. “That was only a couple dozen teenagers, but we used it to raise the profile of the dangers of these packets so that parents of toddlers would store the packets properly. I was interviewed by many major media outlets and AAPCC had 3 billion media impressions from the outreach.”
Today, the market share of laundry detergent packets continues to increase, at the expense of bottled laundry detergent, but the number of poisonings involving the packets has gone down significantly.
As he was preparing to transition to leadership of NPGA, Kaminski said that as he learns about the propane industry, he sees an opportunity for promotion and media outreach here, too.
“There is a lot that can be done around propane to promote it as the linchpin of a clean energy solution that will benefit all Americans,” he says. “There is an opportunity for turnaround messaging here. Driving consumer sentiment to view propane as a clean fuel will influence policymakers at all levels.”
On a personal level, Kaminski has a number of passions. He’s the author of four published mystery novels, is a cofounder of a small company in the men’s health space (which no longer requires any of his professional time commitment), has played soccer his entire life, including in college, enjoys cooking with his 13-year-old daughter, Maya, and likes traveling with his partner, Kristin. — Steve Relyea