2011 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year: Bob Westphal

Bob Westphal was completely caught off guard when he was notified that he is the recipient of the 2011 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year. After all, he thought he was just joining a conference call to discuss potential candidates for this year’s honor.

“It was totally unexpected. I had no clue,” Westphal says. “I thought they wanted to ask my opinion on who should be Person of the Year. Then [Trenchless Technology publisher] Bernie Krzys said, ‘You are that person.’”

The name Bob Westphal is one that is well known within trenchless circles — horizontal directional drilling, microtunneling, cured-in-place pipe, to name a few. He is an industry figure who has been involved in pipeline construction, and later trenchless technology rehab and construction, since 1965 when he first joined Michels Corporation, then known as Michels Pipeline Construction.

In a business world in which the players change teams multiple times throughout their careers, Westphal has stayed loyal to the Michels family and the company he loves. He started as a laborer and over the years, earned greater responsibilities while maintaining a zeal for innovation, technology and what the next big opportunity is for the construction industry. He is a man who truly loves his job and the people he works with.

Michels president Pat Michels, son of founder Dale Michels, sums up Westphal’s importance to the company and industry this way: “Bob has been a valued employee of the Michels family for more than 45 years and has been instrumental in Michels entering the horizontal directional drilling business. He is a highly respected individual in the trenchless technology industry and we are very proud of him and his accomplishments. We’re extremely pleased that he is being recognized and is receiving this illustrious, well deserved award.”

Westphal is senior vice president of construction operations at Michels, in which he oversees multiple divisions of the family-owned construction company.  He is directly in charge of Michels Pipeline Construction, Michels Directional Crossings, Michels Pipe Services and Michels Canada, reporting to just one person: Pat Michels.

Like Dale Michels’ sons, Westphal acquired his business acumen from the Michels founder himself. He considers the late Dale Michels a mentor who provided him with invaluable life lessons, business savvy and the foundation for what has clearly proven to be a successful career. Westphal is lavish in his praise of what Dale Michels meant to him as a friend, business mentor and colleague, saying he taught him everything from how to deal with customers, contractors and employees, to knowing the importance of listening and communicating.

Today, it is now Westphal who is now serving in that mentoring role for others at Michels. “I don’t think you realize you are mentoring but that is one of the things I have been doing here with the generational knowledge transfer, which is vital.”

Getting Started

Westphal has been a part of Michels for more than 45 years — learning the business literally from the ground up, as well as learning the complexities of helping to run one of the largest and most successful family-owned construction companies in North America.

A Brownsville, Wis., native, Dale Michels founded his company in 1959 — then called Michels Pipeline Construction — in his hometown with a population of 500, about 40 miles north of Milwaukee. Dale and his wife Ruth, now Michels CEO, started out with four employees. Today, Michels has more than 5,000 employees across North America, 9,000-plus pieces of equipment (including 65 drilling rigs) and specializes in 14 different construction services including horizontal directional drilling (HDD), pipe rehabilitation, fiber optics, tunneling and wind energy, of which Westphal has his touch on most of these areas.

Known around the globe simply as Michels, the utility construction company has carved out an impeccable reputation with its customers, as well as its competitors, by continuing to follow Dale’s simple business philosophy: Work hard and take care of your customers. This is something Dale’s sons, as well as Westphal, have taken to heart as they lead Michels today.

Westphal applied for work as a laborer at Michels Pipeline Construction in 1965, during the early years of the company. He remembers Dale Michels calling him, asking him if he was ready to go to work — so began his professional career in utility construction, beginning in the pipeline and telephone cable underground construction businesses. And it was hard work. He jokingly remembers working as a laborer this way: “It didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t want to be a laborer for very long.

“I was interested in equipment and I started practicing on a backhoe, practicing on weekends. That’s the way you did it back then. You practiced until Dale thought you were good enough to be an operator,”  Westphal says.

For Westphal, that happened in 1966 and he worked on all types of equipment. Michels was doing well and growing. In spring 1969, Dale approached him about running his own crew. “Dale called me in on a Saturday morning and asked if I would be willing to start running a small crew,” he recalls vividly. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I was 24 years old at the time. I started out that [construction] season with a small crew and ended it with a 15-man crew, which was a pretty good size in those days.”

A few years later, he was promoted to foreman and then project superintendent. In 1979, Westphal managed several big water projects in South Dakota. “One of the projects was 275 miles of rural water lines to be placed in Chamberlin, S.D., and another was 675 miles of lines to be placed near Sioux Falls,” he says.
During the second year of the South Dakota projects, future Michels president Pat Michels came to work for Westphal. Dale had all of his sons start in the trenches of the business, learning every aspect of it. The two became close during the project, a friendship and respect that have remained over the years. The two continue to work closely together, understanding their roots but knowing the importance of growth. Since Dale’s passing, Westphal states, “I’m proud of what Pat has accomplished.”

Westphal permanently moved into the Brownsville office full-time in 1981, becoming a general superintendent, involved in everything from bidding projects to having complete control of projects. In 1989, he was named vice president of Michels Pipeline Construction, a position he held until 2000. “I was asked to spread my wings and I was now in charge of not only the telecom and pipeline but others as well. HDD became a part of my responsibilities,” he says. He was named senior vice president of construction operations for Michels in 2009, challenging him with the development and execution of strategic business initiatives both domestically and internationally.

Michels entered the HDD market in 1986 and it quickly became a staple of its business, with the company pushing the envelope for longer and larger HDD crossings. “Leo Barbara [founder of American Augers] built our first HDD rig,”  Westphal says. “We got involved in HDD because we perceived that there would be a customer demand for the technology.”

Starting out with smaller diameter telecom projects, today the Michels name is synonymous with large diameter pipeline HDD work. And over the years, the same could be said for Westphal’s name with regard to HDD, microtunneling and pipeline construction and rehabilitation. Under Westphal’s leadership, many of Michels large HDD rigs have been designed and fabricated in the Brownsville facilities, as well as other ancillary HDD equipment.

Student Becomes the Mentor

While his job keeps him in Brownsville most days, Westphal enjoys going to jobsites, just not as much as he would like. “It keeps you well connected to the project so that when you are dealing with a client, you can speak intelligently about what is going on,” he says. “They are happy to see us on a jobsite and we are happy to see them.”

Another aspect of his job has come with the years he has spent with the Michels’ company: mentoring the next generation of employees. With this, he has come full circle in his career. Dispensing his experience, guidance and knowledge is something he takes seriously and is appreciated by those who have received it.
“He has selflessly mentored myself and many others at Michels and helped us achieve levels of production, efficiency and excellence that would have otherwise not been possible without him,” says Tim McGuire, vice president of Michels Directional Crossings. “Bob doesn’t mince words or beat around the bush when it comes to tough business decisions either, which has further contributed to his success and garnered much deserved admiration from his colleagues.”

“Dale had the ability to mix with people from all walks of life, regardless of their educational levels,” Westphal says. “He could communicate very, very well with them. That was one of the things that I learned from him… I also learned from him to surround yourself with good people to make yourself successful. I feel like I’ve done that. We have core values [at Michels] and I have learned to surround myself with those values.”

What also has kept Westphal busy over the years is his involvement in the various industry associations. A long-standing relationship with NASTT, Westphal serves on the board of directors and is currently its vice chairman. Beginning his 13th year, he continues to serve on the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) board of directors, served as president in 2005 and a member of the PLCA labor committee and the Pipeline Industry Advancement Fund. He is active as a trustee on the Labors National Pension Fund. Additionally, he is an engaged member of the Canadian PLCA, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) and the International Pipeline and Offshore Contractors Association (IPLOCA).These valuable associations have kept Westphal in touch and in tune with the markets that Michels services.

“You collect value from all of them,” Westphal says. “Associations have provided us with educational opportunities as contractors and have also driven awareness of the technologies on the owners’ side.

Person of the Year

Westphal has worked hard his entire life and with his success, brings him the opportunity to enjoy life with his family through travel at home and abroad. He and his wife of 48 years, Jone, enjoy boating on Chain of Lakes in northern Wisconsin, as well as taking part in numerous charitable organizations. They have four sons, Scott, Jeff, Matt and Chad, with Matt following in his father footsteps, working in the pipeline division at Michels. The Westphals have 10 grandchildren.        

Westphal was taken aback when he learned he was named the 2011 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year and is clearly humbled by his inclusion into this diverse and deserving group of trenchless professionals. “I am so very humbled by this,” Westphal says. “I am joining a very prestigious group of individuals who have been chosen over the years. When you are awarded something like this, there really aren’t words that you can put forth to describe how you really feel.”

Westphal is a team player to his core and effortlessly credits his success to his colleagues and all employees at Michels who have made the company what it is today. “I’ve had the opportunity over the years to work with some incredibly talented people from all aspects of our business,” he says. “We are multi-dimensional here and we do a lot of different things. These are good people and they are all very dedicated. They all embody our core values…I’ve always had huge support from corporate and the employees in the field, along with the employees in Brownsville, who are our greatest asset. [This award] is not just about me. This is about a lot of people who brought me here.

As for staying with Michels for his entire career, he simply says: “I always had the sense that there would be continuous opportunity for growth, not only from the company’s standpoint but for myself and that has continued throughout my career. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people throughout the organization and throughout my years here.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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