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Recollections by Les Wierson

Recollections by Les Wierson

Corvallis (CVO)

Spring Term 1958, Professor Merryfield called me into his office in Apperson Hall OSC. He asked me to meet with Jim Howland for a job interview on Western Avenue. I met with Jim Howland and the next day received a job offer of $425 per month on Cornell, Howland, Hayes and Merryfield letterhead. I had previously accepted an offer of $525 from a Portland steel fabricator. I accepted Jim's offer the next day. I was assigned employee No. 47.

I later learned that Fred Merryfield was responsible for the firm's staff hiring and established the policies, principals and procedures for all staff additions. In the early years the policy was to find good people, offer below market wages and challenge them to come with a firm that was on track to be a West Coast leader.

I was assigned to the structural group led by Bob Adams. Harry Mejdell was the young star in the group. Fortunately after three months I was asked to be resident engineer at Cannon Beach for their $250,000 sewerage improvements. At the time the career path was to work on the project design, then follow the project as resident engineer. I leapfrogged the process because our designated resident engineer was in jail in Hood River on bigamy charges. Sid Lasswell was principal in charge for the project. Lots of stories from this time, but I learned that my love was client management and finding new projects. As many of us know Sid was a great friend, mentor and boss. He encouraged us to go anywhere but he never left CVO.

While in Cannon Beach, a number of weekends I worked and charged my time to Job Number 2, Cannon Beach Water Company. Fred Merryfield was the partner in charge. Mildred Merryfield purchased a lot on the north end of Cannon Beach for $100. Fred and Mildred camped on the property. The lot had an over-flow line from the 1920s north end reservoir. The Cannon Beach sewerage project probably came from Fred's contacts. Les and Myrna built a home on the Merryfield lot.

When I returned from Cannon Beach in 1959 I was asked to stay in the Roderick / Lasswell group, basically the future 70s and 30s. That was where I learned to do good work and bring in new clients and projects. Lasswell was the heart of wastewater project delivery. Remember the red-line review? Bob Pailthorp led the industrial work, later to pioneer these efforts for the future 30s. Sid was not convinced but supported Bob's efforts. Doing good work was paramount but in this decade bringing in the work was a must. Ralph Roderick was the most effective leader for the wastewater group. Ralph had contacts from Portland to the Oregon border. This included major projects in Salem, Springfield, Eugene, Roseburg, etc. and smaller projects in Coos Bay, Gold Beach, etc. Ralph would start on Monday in CVO and head out for the week developing projects.

The $500 study is sometimes remembered as a failing of Roderick. Anyone could sell that work, but nobody could produce the work at that price. In the 1960s and before most Oregon consulting firms did studies for free! Ralph would tell the prospect that we charge for the study. "If you get something for free be worried." It worked and we had a foot in the door. In my experience Ralph had a 90% success rate and it led to clients that were loyal to us for many years. Later Farmers Home Administration (FHA) grants paid for small city planning studies.

During this decade I worked on the Jackson County Bear Creek project, North Roseburg STP and associated sewers, Pony Slough North Bend, Deer Creek City of Roseberg, City of Salem study and design, Rogue River STP, Springfield STP, Yakima STP (Pailthorp did industrial waste), Yakima Treatment Plant. Fred Merryfield did the original design for Stevens and Koons in the late '30s. Good process, low-cost operation, but a nightmare to expand. I told Fred it was a classic design. There are many more success stories from this era. In '63, I recollect that the firm did $2 million in fees, mainly because of the Salem project. Sid was a partner then and quietly said you could purchase a car with his bonus. It got our attention to continue good work, develop new work and to become an owner. We worked 12 hour days 6 days a week and went home for lunch. What I learned from Ralph Roderick was to knock on doors, build trust, be there, then follow through with good work. Ralph and Sid's principles guided me in developing PDX, Hawaii and International. More on this later.

The Corvallis office at this time was very structured. Strong structural, mechanical, electrical, soils, water, waste water, etc. groups. All small. Several large projects were won in this era, Kingsley Field, American River Project (With Clair Hill), etc. Ralph Roderick, Clair Hill and Harlan Moyer got this work started at Lake Tahoe. Gene Suhr captured the technical side of Lake Tahoe that made it work with the help of Russ Culp and many others. A gold mine of work came from Earl Reynolds in our new Boise office with the Boise Bench Project. Earl's work set the stage for our Regional System.

The Waste Water Group in that era was somewhat arrogant. Lasswell's group existed on numerous small and larger projects. Gene Suhr in Cave Junction. (At that time he insisted on doing all the technical design-process, electrical, mechanical, etc.) Dean Parsons in Canyonville, Dick Humphrey in North Roseburg and Bear Creek and Bob Pailthorp on every industrial waste client he could find and he found a lot. At Frontier Leather he tells of sitting on a dead cow eating his lunch! The water group was separate.

Working in CVO in the 1960s was a special time with many memories and a feeling that we were the best and were making the world a better place. Salem, Springfield, North Roseburg and Yakima STP, all secondary treatment with trickling filters, were my last design project manager projects. Right or wrong you could not do treatment design in the late '60s without a Masters degree and as some believed, you were not from Kansas. This change led to the firm building one of the strongest wastewater/industrial design firms and led to national recognition.

About the Portland Office (PDX)

The Portland office was started by Lloyd Anderson in the early 1960s. Jim Howland was the partner in charge and managed the start-up goals and operation of the new office. John Denny was our long-term P.R. expert and political advisor in Portland. John brought Lloyd to Howland's attention and assisted in the hiring. He advised Anderson not to go to CVO but hold out for the PDX location. Lloyd managed the office until around 1969, when he was appointed to a vacant City Council position, serving five years, then was Director of the Port of Portland for thirteen years, and is still a civic leader in Portland. In my view the Portland Downtown Plan was the most significant planning project we did in the '70s and Dick Ivey is still remembered for his work on that plan, a true milestone in our development.

The Portland Office as conceived by Howland and Anderson was unique. The office had no regional responsibilities, only to do planning projects or assist in planning efforts throughout the firm. I believe this was a factor in the origin of the discipline system. In 1967 Ralph Roderick won and negotiated a contract with the City of Portland (Com- missioner Bowes) for the Northwest Industrial Sewer Interceptor. Ralph, Gene Suhr and I met with Commissioner Bowes and we started the project. Gene and Les worked out of the PDX office for a week or two. Our arch rival at the time, Stevens and Thompson (S&T), dusted off an old contract they had for the work. Commissioner Bowes asked Ralph to stop work and not bill the City. Ralph agreed with a promise of future work. It never happened.

Both Ralph Roderick and Jim Howland were convinced that we could win more engineering work if we had a PDX engineering presence. (Jim Howland was the lead on the Portland Dock Commission work-Terminal 2, etc.) The partners agreed (Cornell, Howland, Hayes, Merryfield, Rice, Reynolds, Roderick and the new ALPHA group: Adams, Lasswell, Phillips, Harem, Watters). Howland asked for volunteers to move to PDX and to start an engineering section. Everyone wanted to stay in CVO. I was asked (I think Lasswell and Roderick had a hand in this) and I said yes. We moved to PDX, I think it was in August 1967. The office was located in downtown PDX with 12 people all supporting the planning efforts.

From the start, boundaries had to be established. We only were chartered to do wastewater projects from PDX and of course planning. CVO had long-term relations with Parkrose Water District, City of Camas, City of Lake Oswego, Frontier Leather Co., Portland Dock Commission, etc., and retained exclusive rights to those clients. Earl Reynolds in BOI had pioneered how regional officers can work together; work exchange, multiplier, etc. In PDX the big question was geographic boundaries. It was decided that PDX would have counties in Washington up to and including Skamamia County, on the Washington side of the Columbia River. On the Oregon side, Clatsop, Columbia and Multnomah counties including Washington and Clackamas County. Woodburn on the south was a do-not-cross area.

Not a large area but no western limit was established. That proved to be a later factor in Hawaii and International efforts. A business plan was developed in CVO. Ralph Roderick would continue to pursue the City of Portland (it took another 6-7 years before we won a job). I would cold call (Roderick style) the smaller cities around Portland and Clatsop County. Many of the sewerage projects were started by Farmer's Home Administration "small city" study grants. In the first year or two we were working for the cities of Troutdale, Tualatin, West Linn, Cannon Beach expansion, etc. plus county service districts in Clatsop and Clark counties. In the late '60s we were able to win two major clients, Clackamas Co. Service District No. 1 and Washington County Unified Sewerage Agency Rock Creek Service Area.

Clackamas County came to us because of a newly elected commissioner, Tom Telford who had worked for Stevens and Thompson (S&T) and held strong negative feelings about them. Telford introduced me to the new Public Works Director, John MacIntyre. We developed a strong mutual respect and friendship that lasted until his untimely death of a heart attack at 40, in the early '80s. The PDX office expanded to over 50 because of these projects.

Unified Sewerage Agency became a client in a little different manner. The Wiersons lived in Washington County and I volunteered to help on the speakers' panel to form the County Service District and to pass the bond issue. We had no conflict because CH2M was not engaged at that time. I became good friends with the county administrator and arranged a visit to our plant in Lake Tahoe for the commissioners. When USA was formed and the bond issue approved Washington County asked both CH2M and S&T to submit proposals for the design. This was a significant breakthrough since S&T had done all the preliminary work. The County selected S&T to do half the work, Fanno Creek drainage basin and CH2M to do the Rock Creek basin including the advanced waste treatment facilities needed in that basin. These two projects provided a steady stream of work to the PDX office for over 20 years and probably continues today. The AWT Rock Creek plant was another star in CH2M's crown. All plant, pump station and special work was done in CVO including all smaller projects in suburban communities.

In the late '60s Joe Worth moved to Portland to develop water projects and become assistant office manager. Worth and I were in many ways opposites but together formed a strong management team. Joe Worth truly led the "Young Turks" of PDX. By the mid '70s we tried to cap our growth at 100. We were somewhat successful, but the dynamics of the time were a real challenge. Bill Johnson moved to PDX to establish Civil work and Ken Durant came on board to start our Industrial, Electrical, Mechanical division. Joe Worth and Arlin Borgen were the catalysts of this hire. I was an interested bystander. Ken brought Wayne Hanson for Air Quality work and promoted construction management. From this group came IDC. Worth and I supported the new company. Durant, Archie Rice and Lamont Matthews made it happen. Ken Durant and Wayne Hanson made it work--another story, another chapter.

By the mid '70s CH2M was a dominant player in the Portland geographic area. We had nurtured a team built on growth but our client area was very small. This led to expansion in Hawaii, and International (we had no western boundary), and IDC.

Hawaii and the Pacific Rim

By the mid '70s PDX had grown to the planned 100 employees. We were struggling to find new significant long-term clients. Boundaries limited our growth north, south and east. The office had no discipline core except planning. We did not have a western boundary. In 1968 Norman Saito of Norman Saito Engineering Consultants called on Me to ask CH2M to partner with his firm on Maui. They did civil projects for the County of Maui and private clients. Norman was secretary for many years for the Director of Public Works. After consulting with Lasswell we agreed and sent qualifications to Norman. Sometime later (2-3 weeks) he called to tell us we had won one of the three projects (Lahaina) and to come as soon as possible. When I arrived we learned the project was Kihei, not Lahaina. Kihei at that time was a dusty strip of houses on a beautiful Pacific shoreline. I was somewhat disappointed, but later found this was the best of the projects. Saito did the sewers. CH2M did the pump stations, treatment plant, AWT for park irrigation and deep well injection for disposal. All cutting-edge technology. Gordon Koblitz and Dick Humphrey took lead roles in delivering an award-winning project. Being halfway across the Pacific we were tempted to look for other opportunities. The CH2M Board gave the OK for PDX to develop work in the Pacific Rim and SEA to explore Western Canada and Alaska. (Clair Hill had an office in Anchorage.) With Toray Engineering, pilot projects in AWT, ammonia stripping, etc. It never led to big projects, but a good learning exercise in work in foreign countries. The PDX office also worked in American Samoa and Guam. The Hawaii operations initiated early with the US Pacific fleet operations and other military branches.

International

Prior to 1974 anyone in CH2M could go anywhere if they had signed a contract. We learned later that a signed contract was only a part of the puzzle.

I went to Japan for Toray to promote AWT and our ammonia stripping process for Lake Biwa (the Lake Tahoe of Japan) projects. We learned that the only thing they wanted was our technology and a black box solution and that "Hai" meant only I hear you and I may or may not agree. I also learned that you could not take all the work back to CVO. We need a local office or partner to do the basics and in the local language and customs.

In the late '60s Jim Howland developed Consul, an Argentina joint venture company with a local engineering firm. We received a number of good projects that could be done jointly by the local partner firm and CVO. The work was paid in local currency. Inflation was skyrocketing in Argentina. We agreed to contracts that were worthless when we completed the project. Lesson learned: know how you will be paid. Jim Howland and the CH2M board gave the company to our local partner. The local partner did well in the following years and may still exist.

Ralph Roderick had a very good contact in Venezuela and learned of a project he thought we could win. Many of us got passports to go to Caracas for a waste treatment project. CVO was energized but our wives felt left out. We did not get the project but I carried that passport in the early overseas efforts. Lesson learned: employees were very excited about overseas work and to include the family.

Holly Cornell, now in Seattle had an employee with strong contacts in Pakistan. Pakistan needed a country-wide plan for grain storage and distribution. Holly and a local firm submitted a winning proposal. CH2M successfully completed the work and had the opportunity for other work there. "CVO, we have a problem." We were paid in local currency that could not be taken out of the country. Lesson learned: "how do you get paid." After International was formed we (maybe Gus Pantazi), through my friend Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh, sold rugs to Atiyeh Bros. to get our earnings out of Pakistan. We also purchased airline tickets in Pakistan for business travel. For at least 10 years Vydra and I had a Pakistani rug in our office to remind us to ask how you get the fee back to CVO. During this time Fred Harem, Bill Watters, etc. developed the Trinidad work. But it was not part of International until late in the project cycle. Independently, Flowmatcher and Microfloc were also active. Black Crow & Eidsness (BC&E) was active in South America.

In 1974 CH2M HILL formed the International District patterned after our U.S. operations. Canada was to remain a part of the SEA operation. CVO was to independently continue the Trinidad work. The purpose of the start up International operation was to learn how to work overseas, do projects, make a profit and become known as an international firm. We were to do it slowly and not disrupt our expansion across the U.S. to the East Coast. BC&E was yet to come.

Harlan Moyer reminded us that California was the 5th largest world-wide economy and that what we were doing was a boondoggle. Many agreed with him. I therefore buried it in PDX with lower financial impact. Our goal was to identify countries where we could work in language, culture, ability to pay and find a trusted local partner. Our first efforts were the Far East, Middle East and Africa. At the time we felt that selling work in Europe, Australia, etc. was like "carrying coal to Newcastle".

We established two strategies: identify the target countries and win USAID assignments. USAID contracts were competed in the U.S. and paid in U.S. dollars. Target countries required cold calls to whomever. We got to Iran because of Jim Howland's L.A. friend and eventually signed a contract for over $1 million of design engineering projects in irrigation and water resources, contingent on the Shah remaining in power. He fell and so did our contract. Many U.S. firms lost millions in Iran. CH2M HILL lost a local bank account of $2,000.

USAID became our best client. In the late '70s we won a number of indefinite quantities contracts for water resource engineering. The work was in Africa and the Far East. Over a 6-year period we did work in Chad, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and other countries. Through this contract we won a major contract in Sri Lanka for irrigation work. The project was partly completed when civil war broke out and we moved out. Over 20-30 people gained international experience (Anne Merryfield, Bob Charley, etc) through USAID work. This was helpful in later proposals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Lesson learned: we could work successfully overseas and our employees loved it. Many firms hired outside for overseas projects. CH2M HILL decided to grow our own which had a major impact in future work in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Iran was becoming a very "iffy" situation and we looked elsewhere. Dick Ivey had a good friend, Dr. Nohad Toulan, who introduced us to Effat Monsour. Effat had very strong contacts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He was recommended by Dr. Toulan and others. Together we won the Eastern Province Contract (Dhahran, Al Khobar and Damman) in Saudi Arabia. At that time a million-dollar contract with an office staff of 20-30 in Damman. Nofal Kashrawi joined us for the project. Effat Monsour was designated project manager. CH2M HILL agreed to a joint venture company with Monsour for a share of all Middle East projects. Otto Vydra agreed to be deputy project director and Gus Pantazi joined the team as office administrator (he carried a brief case full of local currency) to pay local bills, cash only. All was in place for a great project except Effat Monsour went "off the deep end" and became an unpleasant project manager. Otto and Nofal called for help.

Toulan and I came to Damman. I reviewed the situation with Effat, Nofal and Otto. He presented our concerns to Effat Monsour, but he refused to consider complaints or management corrections needed. I fired Effat. (Cornell or Howland knew this might happen). The project was in jeopardy. Dr. Nohad Toulan and Nofal Kasrawi were well respected by the Saudi prince in charge of the work. We met with the prince and explained why Monsour was leaving the project and that Nofal Kasrawi would be project director. Dr. Nohad Touland supported Nofal and pledged his support. Otto Vydra was our rock and continued as assistant Project Director. The Saudi team completed the project with high marks and won many more projects including work in the Holy City of Medina.

The Mansour saga continued. When he returned to PDX he sued CH2M for millions based on his joint CH2M HILL Mideast planned company. A very tense time. Dr. Nohad Toulan rose to our defense. Vydra and Kasrawi may also have testified. The judge ruled in our favor. Effat later died in a flight to Egypt from NYC when an Egyptian TWA pilot crashed the plane into the Atlantic. CH2M HILL dodged a million-dollar bullet, but I remain sad. Monsour and I should have done better. The stars of the Damman project were Nofal Kasrawi, Otto Vydra, Gus Pantazi and a dedicated staff. Lesson learned: we could operate a 20-40 person office in a foreign country and we were better off to use dedicated CH2M HILL staff and resources.

Before we leave the early Saudi Arabia period I would like to remember Ed Worth. In the late '70s we competed and won a project, ten dams to hold flash floods in the arid areas. Ed won the work through his expertise and ability to work with local people. We lost the work to a stronger politico. I was convinced that we could have won future projects with Ed.

An early word about getting work overseas. Jim Howland said "if you don't want to see comments in the CVO Gazette don't do it." Many jobs came with local expense. Increase your fees and kick back 25-50 percent to local officials. We said "NO" and struggled but did a little better each year without kickback or whatever. Egypt was a target country from the start. The first USAID proposal was a grain distribution study. Holly Cornell helped, but we lost. We then proposed on a planning study for Sadat City with I.M. Pei. Dick Ivey was excited but we lost. We then joined Black and Veatch (B&V) and a British firm to form AMBRIC and proposed on a preliminary wastewater study for Cairo and Alexandria, USAID projects, but we again lost. Lots of local politics. After six years of effort in Egypt we had good local partners and were respected by Egyptian officials and USAID.

After the early years, the success of International may have been somewhat a mixed bag. We did not have mega projects and the bottom line may have been marginal. Twenty to 30 projects were completed. We had successfully worked in over 10 countries. Over 50 permanent staff had worked on International projects. In the late '70s major USAID projects were being discussed for predesign and design of the Cairo, Alexandria and Canal Cities wastewater improvements. We had a good Egyptian partner and were well respected by USAID-Cairo. CH2M HILL had previously teamed with B&V for the study phase but lost to Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM) and their strong local partner. For the next phase B&V dumped CH2M HILL and joined CDM. Metcalf & Eddy (M&E) contacted us about forming a team to win the Alexandria project. We knew M&E overseas mainly from our joint efforts in China when Gene Suhr and Ralph Peterson were involved. (The team may have come from a joint-venture effort for the Metro-Portland Solid Waste Study.

The joint venture was known as COR-MET. Mike Kennedy, a new E-1, took a leading role in the work and established himself as a rising star in the PDX office and the firm.) We agreed that the Alexandria team would have two local Egyptian firms. Unfortunately the two firms neither liked nor respected each other. Each of them wanted to be the sole local firm involved. I spent a long week negotiating an Egyptian joint venture of the two firms that equally split their efforts as CH2M HILL/M&E equally split their efforts. Sid Lasswell, Gene Suhr, John Filbert and Dale Cannon stepped up and said we can win this project. They put the proposal together in CVO and SEA with very little help from M&E and none from their Egyptian counterpart. The CH2M HILL team provided an excellent proposal partly because of the 70s group's commitment to "win a big one for International."

In the selection process: "CVO we have a problem." Our team is rated best by USAID- Cairo and the local Alexandria Sewerage Authority but the CDM local partner is appealing to the National Authority with lots of special gifts and favors. USAID and the Alexandria Sewerage Authority did not like CDM's partner and called our local partners and me for help. I took the red eye from PDX to Washington, D.C. for meetings with USAID-WASH. Meetings with USAID-WASH went well. They telexed Dick Dangler at USAID-Cairo of their preference for the CH2M HILL / M&E team. I left that night for Cairo, having gone 48 hours without sleep. After a shower at the Shepherd Hotel, I met with Dick Dangler, USAID. He would approve our selection. He had problems with the CDM team but would support the Alexandria Sewerage Authority. Both local partners and I traveled to Alexandria and were well received by the chairman and local officials. At the time the chairman and the Alexandria governor were battling for their independence from Cairo. I returned to PDX and a few days later we were officially notified of our selection and invited ASAP to come to Cairo/Alexandria to negotiate the contract.

Usually it takes 6-12 months to negotiate a USAID contract in Egypt. I knew that Dick Dangler was a rising star in USAID and wanted to show that it could be done in less than a month. Called M&E and they didn't believe we were on a fast track and sent their U.S.-Egyptian to join our team.

The CH2M HILL team was Gene Suhr, Mike Fisher and I. Gene Suhr was on a sail in the Puget Sound, but within 48 hours Mike and I met him at New York Kennedy for our flight to Cairo. How Gene got off his sailboat and why he appeared in full beard for our negotiations is another story that only Gene can tell.

Lots of stories about the negotiations, all probably true. We negotiated from 10a to 2p, and took the normal Egyptian afternoon break, returned at 6p to 9p returning to our hotel where we worked until midnight or later. This went on for 3 or 4 days. We were helped and hindered by live music playing in our hotel courtyard. We ended up with a marked up / locally typed copy of more than 100 pages. Gene Suhr recruited local boys in the market area to help us copy and collate 15 sets for signature. Mike Fisher gave me a crib-sheet for negotiating the fee, "best to no way." In a hotel room "one on one." Dick Dangler and I agreed on the fee. It was not at U.S. standards but was higher than any other USAID-Egypt project.

The next day while we were signing the contract and initialing all the pages, Gene Suhr, assisted language-wise by our personal Egyptian agent leased a villa that would be our future "guest house." The previous tenant was CDM who folded their tent and moved farther out the Corniche. We had a happy return trip to the U.S. with contract in hand. M&E never really forgave us for the fast-track contract. The contract led to 10-15 years of extensions and many other Egyptian projects.

Tales to tell of our work in Alexandria but they need to come from Suhr, Filbert, Harem, Bealman and close to 100 CH2M HILL employees who worked on the project. M&E mainly used contract hires. The Alexandria project, USAID Independent Quantities Contracts in water resources, and our project in Saudi Arabia provided the foundation for future work overseas. Otto Vydra carried the torch for International after Alexandria and did very well.