People Power

Thursday, May 1, 2008

It’s a long way as the crow flies from Williams, Iowa, population 427, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a city whose regional population approaches 7 million.

Text by Jean Florman

Dean Oskvig spanned that distance— and many others—en route to an illustrious career in engineering and business. But unlike a crow’s route, Oskvig’s path was anything but straight or predictable. During a 32-year tenure with Black & Veatch, Oskvig has managed major energy development and delivery projects on four continents. He also traveled up the corporate ladder to become the president and CEO of the energy business of one of the world’s leading engineering, consulting, and construction companies.

In 2006 Oskvig took the helm of the energy portion of the employee-owned company that earned $3 billion annually in the development of energy, water, telecommunications, government, and environmental infrastructures. Black &Veatch currently employs 9,600 professionals in a global workforce located in 100 offices, including approximately 3,700 employees in the Kansas City area headquarters. Since unfurling its first blueprint paper in 1915 as Black & Veatch, the company has completed projects in more than 100 countries on six continents.

He is proud of the Malaysia project, which entailed the design and construction of a 500,000 kilovolt backbone electrical transmission system along a northsouth axis of the peninsula. Starting in 1993, Oskvig and his Black &Veatch team designed and built nine massive, high-voltage substations and 510 kilometers of double-circuit transmission lines that traversed rivers, high mountains, and rubber plantations. Despite many challenges, the project “was done well, on schedule, and under budget.”

Thanks to the Black &Veatch system, Malaysia now has reliable electric power and the ability to transfer electricity from areas where there is a surplus to areas of need. The project also enabled the country to become part of a developing Southeast Asian transmission grid that will move electrical power around the countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia—and eventually, via undersea cable, Borneo and the Philippines.

“It was a terrific project with a great team of people who had many diverse talents and interests,” Oskvig says. “Some of them spent four or five years in Malaysia, and given the opportunity today, many would drop what they’re doing and go back.”

As the company’s top energy professional, Oskvig no longer leads onthe- ground engineering projects, but he continues to cut a global swath. The pages of his July 2007 day planner, for instance, indicate that he traveled to California, Wisconsin, New York, North Carolina, England, Scotland, and Russia—a long way from his start on a Midwestern farm.

“I try to encourage engineering students to think about how they can prepare themselves to work in a global context. Before they even get into their technical bag of tricks, engineers must understand what drives the business and public policy that shape the design, creation, and maintenance of our infrastructure.”
Dean Oskvig

Although Oskvig attributes much of his success to serendipity, it’s clear that initiative, organizational skills, and smarts had a lot more to do with it. And he believes his engineering education at Iowa established a crucial foundation that allowed him to take advantage of the good opportunities that came his way.

“When I first came to Iowa City, I was straight off the farm,” Oskvig says, “and The University of Iowa—The university in Iowa—was the biggest deal I’d ever seen.”

After a year studying liberal arts, Oskvig spent a summer working as a survey rod man and technician in Hamilton County.

“The very last day of the summer, the county engineer stopped by,” Oskvig recalls. “We hadn’t seen him all summer, and he started asking me what I wanted to do and what I was majoring in. When I said political science with an eye toward law school, he wrinkled his nose. Then he said, ‘You should go into engineering,’ and I did.”

Making up for lost time meant almost doubling his course load, but Oskvig performed well and graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Among his many excellent instructors, he counts Lane Mashaw and Dan Branson, who somehow “managed to mix reinforced concrete with philosophy and baseball.”

While fulfilling his postgraduation military commitment at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.—where he served as a base civil engineering officer for three years—Oskvig decided to pursue a Master’s degree in business administration from the University of Utah (1975). He joined Black & Veatch in 1975.

From time to time, Oskvig visits Iowa to share his wisdom and experience with engineering students, most recently as an invited speaker in the “Grabbing the Globe” series.

“I try to encourage engineering students to think about how they can prepare themselves to work in a global context,” Oskvig says. “It’s important that they get involved in more than the engineering curriculum. Being a good 21st-century engineer means being culturally aware, developing business savvy, and becoming politically astute. Before they even get into their technical bag of tricks, engineers must understand what drives the business and public policy that shape the design, creation, and maintenance of our infrastructure.”

While he and his wife, Tammy, have traveled to many countries around the world, Oskvig still has the heart of a Hawkeye.

“If you could see my office,” he says, “you’d know immediately where I went to school.”