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Insights from Sid Lasswell

Insights from Sid Lasswell

Editor’s Note: The following was published in the CH2M HILL Water Business Group Quarterly Alumni Newsletter in 2007. Sid passed on February 24, 2019, at the age of 95.

Sid Lasswell
When I graduated from Oregon State with a B.S. Degree in 1949 and Fred Merryfield offered me a job with CH2M, I was 25 years old with a wife and one child. I had finished my freshman year in 1941-42, fell in love, quit school, got married at 18, got a 6-month deferment, and worked at the Vancouver, Washington, shipyards that were turning out Liberty ships at the rate of one per day - most of them actually floated.

Fred wanted me to stay in school for my Master's Degree. But I had been living on $90 a month in a one-room basement apartment after returning from serving 3 years in the South Pacific, and I wanted to make some "big bucks." I started at $265.00 per month and received a $10.00 per month raise when I got my engineer's license in 1951.

My first two jobs were as a resident engineer on a water job in Bingen, Washington, and then in 1950, on a primary treatment plant for Forest Grove Oregon. When the bids came in too high, the city broke out the mechanical work and authorized me to order all materials and do the mechanical, with the help of the city's ex-fire chief. We had to work after 4:00 p.m. when the union contractor was off the job. This was CH2M's first design-build job!

When we moved into our first 3,500 square-foot corporate headquarters in 1951, there were about 15 of us, as I remember, including the original partners, Earl Reynolds, Bob Adams, Fred Harem, Ken Bielman, Neils Nordquist, Charlie Bayles, Wayne Phillips, Vic Bredehoef, and myself. This "palace" had no air conditioning; but it had six partner offices, a conference room, reception area, mechanical/lunch room, a "family" room for the engineers and draftsmen, and a carport for our one company vehicle. The first winter the carport blew away in a wind storm, and our structural reputation was tainted.

In January of 1953, Bill Watters and I got the short straw to go down to Coquille, Oregon, on the coast for a week to replace an impeller on a raw water intake pump in the Coquille River. We had finally finished and were in the hotel bar arguing the virtues of artificial insemination with two guys there at a seminar. Bill and I were on the side of the bulls. About 2:00 a.m., my mother called and informed me that Archie Rice had taken my wife to the hospital for the birth of my oldest son, Scott. This was one of many sacrifices for CH2M in my 45 years.

I served as department and division water group manager during much of the 1950s and 1960s and was made partner in 1961, along with Bob Adams and Wayne Phillips. When we incorporated in 1966, there were 12 partners, including the six original equal partners, Reynolds, Adams, Phillips, Harem, Watters, and myself.

After the merger with Clair Hill in 1971 and the adoption of the discipline system, I became the discipline director for water and wastewater; and Holly Cornell became the director of technology.

In 1975, Jim Howland retired as president. Holly took over as president, and I got the job of director of technology and the title of senior vice president in lieu of a raise. Shortly thereafter, I was named the Corvallis regional manager and served concurrently as technology director through 1987 and regional manager through 1989, plus 12 years on the Board. I retired in 1990 at 65 and continued as principal-in-charge on the Milwaukee [Program Management Office] job until about 1995.

In 1978, the management of CH2M HILL was scheduled to make its first transition from the original six partners. All of the candidates were long-time employees from within the combined organization and included Harlan Moyer, Les Wierson, Jim Poirot, Earl Reynolds, and me. As you know, Harlan was selected and ran a great ship until Ralph Peterson took over in 1991. I remember Holly calling about the selection quite late in the evening after I'd gone to bed. I immediately called and congratulated Harlan in Redding, rolled over, and slept like a baby.

As I reflect over the past 48 years, I have come to the conclusion that five key events can be identified as the catalysts that caused CH2M HILL to double in size every 4.4 years, on the average; grow from 6 to 5,000 people; and become the largest consulting engineering firm in the world by 1990. You can judge for yourselves, but I believe:

  1. The 1946 decision of the original partners to become a full-service consulting engineering firm with emphasis on water and wastewater proved the key to the tremendous growth of the firm well into the early 1990s. The environmental business, driven by water and wastewater, became the dominant income producer and essentially "drove the boat" in guiding the growth, success, and reputation of the firm. Even at the beginning of 1990, environmental nonfederal income represented 57 percent of our work, with hazardous waste a distant second.
  2. The introduction of broad-based ownership in the 1960s was the second event that had tremendous impact on securing, keeping, and motivating staff. This was significant in separating us from our competitors. When we incorporated in 1966, the stock was valued at $4.00 a share and reached close to $300.00 before revaluation.
  3. The success of the Lake Tahoe Tertiary Treatment Plant was, without doubt, the major driving force for the growth and success of the firm in the 1970s and beyond. The national and international coverage we received in newspapers and magazines opened doors unavailable to us just a few years before and gave us a paid opening into the East Coast with the Upper Occoquan and Montgomery County projects. If Tahoe had not been successful, Clair Hill and CH2M very likely would not have merged; and our reputations, at best, would have been tarnished for years.
  4. The introduction of the discipline system into our regional, office-oriented organization was the most important factor in separating us from the competition in getting and producing work. It was the glue that held the regional offices together by providing more effective use of scarce technical personnel, providing a more responsive reaction to the market place, and centralizing responsibility for staff training and career opportunities. The transition to a business group orientation in the mid-1990s was not a reflection of the disciplines' value in the 1970s and 1980s.
  5. Finally, our selection for REM/FIT Superfund work in 1982 was the significant initial success that catapulted us into the "federal player" arena. Our win was the result of a brilliant proposal by Ralph Peterson and his industrial staff, coupled with the fact that we were then a major environmental firm with offices throughout the U.S., and aided by a great deal of luck. (Some of you may remember Ralph as that very smart young OSU grad that we sent to Stanford around 1970 for his masters and maturity training.)

In listing the above five events, you'll notice I did not list particular people, leadership, or the thousands of other successful projects that were an absolute necessity in our journey into the 1990s.

In closing, I look back at my 45 years with CH2M HILL as the greatest time of my life, a hell of a ride, and an opportunity I'll never forget. I'm proudest of the great people I had an opportunity to hire, help train, and work with over those years, and the great friendships maintained to this day. I'm proud of the great company CH2M HILL has become and my contribution to that success. I’m most proud of the contribution my son, Mark, is making to the success of OMI and the firm. And then there's that brass commemorative plaque in my honor over the low urinal in the Corvallis office executive washroom that I'll always cherish. I will also miss the Sid Lasswell Softball Tournament--a real firmwide event. It just can't get any better than that!

As a young Ralph Peterson might say about the 40+ years leading up to the 1990s: "Damn, Sid, we really kicked butt in those days!" Ralph would have been so right then, and it looks like you are continuing to do so into the 21st Century.

Good luck and God speed in your Journey.