From the time he was a child, Derek Potvin, P.Eng., had a sense of curiosity and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, so it should come as no surprise that he found his way to the trenchless industry.
Those traits led him from his small town in Quebec to the University of Ottawa and a civil engineering degree, followed by a job at Ottawa, Ontario-based Robinson Consultants Inc. (RCI). It also led him to his first NASTT No-Dig Show, spurred his first trenchless project and subsequently, many years of volunteering to help continue the transfer of knowledge and growth of the global trenchless industry.
While his professional work and projects are focused on Ontario, Canada, Potvin’s overall trenchless work stretches across the globe thanks in part to his active involvement with the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT). Potvin’s nomination for Trenchless Technology Person of the Year succinctly recaps his work with the association.
He embraced the volunteer spirit of NASTT and began a lengthy relationship with the local Great Lakes, St. Lawrence, and Atlantic Chapter (GLSLA). He joined the chapter’s Board of Directors and continued to attend the NASTT No-Dig Shows as a regular presenter in the technical paper program and as a volunteer NASTT Good Practices training instructor.
Potvin has also presented at the International Society for Trenchless Technology (ISTT) No-Dig events and represented North America as part of an expert panel discussion at the ISTT show in Brazil. In 2010, Potvin, along with two other Canadian engineers, was invited to Cairo, Egypt, to provide a course on municipal infrastructure management, including trenchless technology.
He co-authored NASTT’s Introduction to Trenchless Technology Rehabilitation Methods Good Practices Guideline. He became a NASTT director in 2010 and he volunteered on numerous committees and eventually became NASTT vice chair. This appointment led to Potvin becoming the NASTT Chair for 2013 and 2014. His term delivered constructive change and substantial growth to an already vibrant society.
“Numerous positive phrases spring to mind when I think about Derek, but I eventually settle on one word – that being trust. Used as either a verb or a noun, it essentially portrays a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or the integrity of someone. Trust is also a measure of character and the ability to build trust plays a significant role in the evolution of a skilled leader,” says retired NASTT executive director Michael Willmets. “This word, ‘Trust’ fits perfectly with the Derek Potvin I know as an exceptional civil engineer, an inspirational leader, a generous patron, a trenchless technology champion and a devoted family man.”
It is for this volunteer service and dedication to help advance the global trenchless industry that Potvin was selected to be the 2022 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year. It’s an honor that both surprised and humbled Potvin, who is only the second Canadian – and the first Canadian consultant – to receive the award in its 30-year history.
“I was completely caught off guard when I found out that I was the recipient of the Trenchless Technology Person of the Year Award,” Potvin says. “Now that some time has passed for reflection, I can say that I am truly honored to be included with such an esteemed list of trenchless leaders and am grateful to the selection committee and Trenchless Technology magazine for this award.”
Sight Set on the Sciences
A product of a nurturing home, Potvin is one of four boys all raised in Shawville, a small town in Quebec. Mentorship comes up often in the discussion and Potvin’s first mentors were his parents: his mother Bonnie a nurse and his father Earle, a surgeon.
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“In Quebec, we only go to Grade 11, so I left home at 17 to further my education in Ottawa, Ontario,” Potvin says. “I began a degree in science at the University of Ottawa but quickly switched degrees as I learned more about engineering. I had the good fortune of spending four years studying with a small group of students whereby we got to know our professors well. It was a terrific experience, especially given that I completed the co-op program.”
It was through this co-op program that Potvin’s world was opened to the many facets of engineering. Every four months it would be a new position, and one of those was with a small firm called Robinson Consultants. When Potvin completed his degree, it was Robinson Consultants that would give him his first job as a junior engineer. That was in January 1990 and Potvin – now president of RCI – recently celebrated 32 years with the firm.
In those early years of Potvin’s career, the small portion of trenchless work that the firm completed was mostly on the new installation side and a small number of rehabilitation projects. “At that time, new installation work was used sparingly, and rehabilitation was considered to be very innovative, and some clients felt it was experimental,” Potvin recalls.
Learning About Trenchless
Two years into his career, Potvin began reading a new trade journal focused on the North American trenchless industry — Trenchless Technology. It was in these pages that the curious engineer began to learn about the latest technologies, projects and the many benefits of the still-young trenchless industry. It was also in the magazine that he learned of the 1995 NASTT No-Dig Show taking place in Toronto.
“When I joined Robinson Consultants, we were working on a few trenchless projects on the new installation side and the odd rehabilitation project. Our corporate involvement in the trenchless industry, as well as mine, really kickstarted in 1995 when I attended my first NASTT No-Dig Show in Toronto,” Potvin says. “We would get the Trenchless Technology magazines and I would read them and say, ‘That’s an interesting twist to engineering that I didn’t know much about,’ and I asked to attend the No-Dig Show in Toronto.”
He was so focused on being able to attend that show and grow his knowledge that he offered to reduce the cost of attending the show by sleeping at his brother’s apartment in Toronto. Clearly seeing Potvin’s enthusiasm, he was given the green light to the attend the show. While there, Potvin listened to informative and enlightening presenters, who opened his eyes to the world of possibilities that trenchless construction methods provided.
“I was really excited by the opportunities and the technological side of trenchless technologies,” he says. That fire inside to further explore trenchless technologies never died, and in 1998, Potvin was approached by a client with a problem: a 36-in. water main in the downtown core of Ottawa needed replacement.
The representative for the City of Ottawa – Michael Willmets – worked closely with Potvin, solidifying what would become a lifelong professional relationship and friendship.
Derek Potvin, second from left, on what he credits as the project that started his trenchless career; a water main relining project in Ottawa. Also in this photo are Ian Doherty, far left, and Michael Willmets, second from right.
“Mike [Willmets] and I were talking about the significant disruption that would be caused by an open-cut replacement, [and] all I could think about was the No-Dig Show [in 1995] and one presenter in particular who I listened to discuss sliplining of a large diameter water main,” Potvin says. “I called that speaker and partnered with him. We successfully sliplined the 36-in. water main with minimal disruption. And that person who I called to join us was Ian Doherty [P.Eng.] and we are still working together on trenchless projects to this day. I still value Ian’s advice as much today as I did more than 25 years ago.”
When asked about his relationship with Potvin, Doherty says, “When working on trenchless design with Derek, he could be relied on to ask the difficult or perhaps overlooked questions in a timely manner. More often than not, this led to design changes eliminating potential installation and performance issues.”
In addition to Doherty’s guidance and working together with Willmets on this project, Potvin also credits RCI corporate founder Andy Robinson for supporting his, and the firm’s venture into the trenchless world in its early days.
One of Derek Potvin’s first trenchless projects, the Gloucester Street Water Main Sliplining, in Ottawa received a Consulting Engineers of Canada award in the Water Resources and Supply category.
While Potvin’s career at RCI has included its share of new installation projects, rehabilitation projects are what Potvin is best known for. That seed was planted with the 36-in. project for Ottawa.
“Seeing the reduction in disruption, the reduced construction duration and the cost savings opened my eyes to the greater socioeconomic benefits of trenchless rehabilitation,” he says. “That experience drove me to work with municipalities to make the best use of rehab technologies for the benefit of residents and businesses.
“I really believe in the technologies that can get great value for our clients and a great value for our society. It’s a big part of what continues to drive me in this part of the business.”
Potvin’s belief in the many benefits of trenchless technologies and a drive to educate others on those benefits led him to join the GLSLA Chapter in the early 2000s. Almost in tandem with his rise through the ranks at RCI – Potvin was named president of the firm in 2010 – he also rose through the hierarchy of the GLSLA chapter, as well as the NASTT Board of Directors.
“I had the good fortune and honor to be nominated a NASTT board member and eventually be the chair in 2013 and 2014,” Potvin says. “And in that short time as the chair, and with the assistance of a great board, including Kim Staheli as my vice-chair and George Ragula as past-chair, we were able to accomplish some significant milestones for NASTT, including the development of the strategic plan and the Municipal Scholarship Program, which was led by Kim.”
What Potvin has learned and continues to learn from his and RCI’s involvement with NASTT are invaluable and he credits with helping better position himself to lead Robinson Consultants.
“Certainly, I learned a lot from the networking opportunities that you get when you join NASTT. I really was working with some extremely accomplished individuals, and you can’t help but soak up [knowledge] from interacting with those people and making use of it,” Potvin says. “I was able to share a lot of that knowledge with some very successful business people who have helped my career not only within the trenchless industry but as president of the company as well.”
Like Andy Robinson fostered the growth of Potvin’s trenchless career at Robinson Consultants, Potvin continues to foster that growth at the company. RCI vice president Kevin Bainbridge, who has worked with Potvin for almost two decades, emphasizes the role that Potvin has played as a mentor to those in the trenchless industry.
“His collaborative leadership in the trenchless industry since the early 2000s has contributed to ushering in a professional recognition which has played a key role in the acceptance and growth of the industry,” Bainbridge says.
Shortly after becoming president, Potvin created a trenchless technical lead position and brought Bainbridge to RCI.
In 2012 Derek Potvin, then NASTT chairman represented NASTT at the 30th International NO-DIG 2012 in São Paulo, Brazil.
“During his time with the City of Hamilton, Kevin had an incredible thirst for knowledge when it came to trenchless technologies. As a result of his curiosity and thirst for knowledge, he developed into a trenchless expert in many ways. We wanted him to continue that after he joined us,” Potvin says. “Kevin was initially a client and now a colleague, who passionately promotes trenchless technologies.”
And Potvin continues to emphasize the importance of being involved in associations like NASTT and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies (ACEC), of which he is on the board. He briefs the staff on things that he has learned from these organizations. He relates to them the reasons why this information is important and why the company and its employees need to stay engaged and support the organizations.
“I believe it’s important to join and be involved in associations and organizations. We greatly benefit from these organizations and it’s important to give back to them with our time and energy. And to set a good foundation for the next generation in the industry,” Potvin says. “This is especially important for organizations that are based on knowledge sharing and networking because those organizations need active and engaged participants at all levels. At RCI, we encourage staff from all levels to join and be active in industry organizations and associations for this exact reason.”
Good leaders learn lessons along the way and it’s clear when talking to Potvin that he has learned many lessons along the way. One of the biggest is the importance of enjoying your work and believing in what you are doing.
“The work that I do in the trenchless industry fulfills both of those things for me. The trenchless industry is full of creative, inventive, resourceful, successful, passionate and fun people,” he says. “And they really believe in the proven benefits of trenchless technologies.”
Another lesson he has learned along the way is the importance of having a good work-life balance.
Derek Potvin and his wife Shelley enjoy traveling. Here is the pair in Austria.
“I’ve been fortunate to have Shelley, my strong and supportive wife, who has allowed me to focus a lot of my efforts on my work. I wouldn’t be as successful as I am without her support and the same for my kids, Katy, Nick and David,” Potvin says. “I was traveling for a fair bit for NASTT and to attend these ISTT shows, so I am grateful for that. I was also fortunate that she was able to attend some of those ISTT shows with me so we both got to experience that.”
When not working to support all the engineering work at RCI, Potvin enjoys time with his family and childhood friends at the cottage fishing, golfing, water skiing and cruising the lake in the boat in the warmer months and snowmobiling and downhill skiing in the winter. He also enjoys traveling the world, something that his involvement with trenchless industry has allowed him to do.
“There is not much that I don’t like to explore and learn more about. That’s what’s led me to my interest in traveling and engineering,” he says.
At the close of our conversation, Potvin wanted to leave readers with a parting thought and a bit of advice.
“I encourage all the young readers of Trenchless Technology magazine and the NASTT magazines to put your hand up if you get offered a chance to go to a NASTT No-Dig Show and don’t hesitate to volunteer for the industry if you get the opportunity. I do not regret my decision to do so over 25 years ago.”