Kevin Bodenhamer Sets Lofty Standard for Engineers

September 2015, Vol. 242, No. 9

Jeff Share, Editor

What more can you say about Kevin Bodenhamer other than he has had a career that most people in the pipeline business can only dream of having.

His professional accomplishments can fill a whole page so let’s start with the resume:

• 1979-1993, engineer, supervising manager for Cities Service/Occidental Petroleum/Trident NGL.

• 1993-1998, manager, Mid-America Pipeline Co.

• 1998-2002, director, Williams Cos.

• 2002-2013, vice president, senior vice president, Enterprise Products.

• 2013-2015, vice president, chief engineer, Willbros Engineers Inc.

Bodenhamer was responsible for two significant pipeline construction projects in the 1900s, the Rio Grande Pipeline, which was the first LPG pipeline built between the U.S. and Mexico, and the Discovery offshore 30-inch gas gathering system.

Add to all of those accomplishments that he is one of just a handful of professional engineers licensed in all 50 states, and that in 2013 he was named American Society of Mechanical Engineers Fellow. Now you get a sense of one of the premiere engineers in the pipeline business, and one who has worked on both the contract and operations side of the business.

Bodenhamer has a story worth telling, beginning with his humble roots in rural Missouri. It’s indicative of the type of person any company would want on its payroll; in this case, the pipeline business won out. His answers in this interview are direct and focused, just what you would expect from a well-trained engineer.

P&GJ: Where are you from, what did you learn as a child, and how did you become the man you are today?

Bodenhamer: I grew up a poor farm boy in the hills of southwest Missouri. My dad had a great mechanical and “hands-on” aptitude. He built every building on the farm and several pieces of farm equipment. He taught me to use all types of hand tools and equipment, so overhauling an engine or adding on a room to a house was all part of my formative years.

When it came time to graduate from high school, I knew I wanted to get a degree where I would be building or making something, so engineering was a natural fit. I worked (during school and summers) my way through the University of Missouri-Rolla and received my BS in civil engineering in four years with no debt or student loans.

P&GJ: How and why did you get into the energy business, in particular pipelines? Did you ever have any second thoughts about your decision?

Bodenhamer: When I was attending college I thought that I would go into building or highway construction, but when it came time to interview on campus in my senior year, all of the major oil companies were there recruiting (it was the middle of the late ’70s, early ’80s oil boom) for their engineering departments.

I ended up taking lots of energy company recruiting trips and after discovering that I could design and build pipelines for a better salary than building buildings or roads, the choice was clear, I was going into the energy business.

I started my career with Cities Service Company in Tulsa designing and building gas-gathering systems and compressor stations. The energy business has been a great career and if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

P&GJ: In what ways has the energy and pipeline business changed since you began your career?

Bodenhamer: I’m glad to say that I have seen (and glad to have been a part of) many changes in the business, all for the good. Pipeline hydraulic modeling programs used to take hours to run on the mainframe while today much more complex models run in a matter of seconds on your tablet.

Materials and equipment have gotten stronger, better and more reliable. Information and communication have moved from paper to the cloud, and anyone around the world can have instant access. While the time and effort to permit projects has grown exponentially, the number and volume of spills and releases continue to decline.

However, the most important improvement is that the industry is much safer, both for the public and for the people who build and operate the systems as incidents and accidents continue to decline.

P&GJ: What are your responsibilities with Willbros, and why did you decide to join the service sector at this point in your career?

Bodenhamer: As vice president and chief engineer, I’m responsible for the engineering, design, mapping, and GIS information for the pipeline portion of our clients’ projects. After spending 35 years in the engineering, operations, compliance, regulatory and EHS (environmental, health and safety) areas of various operating companies with the last decade of that in Houston, my wife and I wanted to go back to Tulsa.

After talking to several operating and engineering firms in Tulsa, I saw a unique opportunity at Willbros where I could work with a broad base of clients and projects while being able to mentor some of the next generation of individuals who will be taking the energy industry forward.

P&GJ: How have you witnessed the relationship change between operating companies and service providers?

Bodenhamer: Over my career, I have seen virtually all of the energy companies outsource the majority of their engineering, design and construction work to firms such as Willbros. This transition has made it critical that suppliers and operators have very close relationships and stay in close communication throughout all phases of a project.

P&GJ: When did you have your first inkling that an energy renaissance in North America was looming?

Bodenhamer: I’ve seen several “booms and busts” in the energy industry over my career, but I believe the current energy renaissance began in the Barnett Shale a little over a decade ago. Once George Mitchell and his team worked out the bugs in horizontal drilling, it was only a matter of time until it spread to the previously unproductive formations, most of which have been known about for decades.

P&GJ: As the pipeline industry moves into somewhat unchartered regions such as Pennsylvania, what are some of the biggest challenges companies face?

Bodenhamer: We shouldn’t forget that the first commercially producing oil well in the United States was drilled in western Pennsylvania and pipelines were laid in these areas by our great-great-grandfathers’ generation.

The biggest challenge then and now is the terrain. A hundred years ago the problems were solved by using small-diameter pipe and laying it on top of the ground. Today we are faced with totally burying large-diameter pipe in much more congested circumstances. New technologies such as direct pipe are being used in challenging areas.

P&GJ: What do you think the public’s perception of the pipeline industry is today, and what can be done to make it more positive?

Bodenhamer: I believe that the pipeline industry is largely “out of sight, out of mind” until something noteworthy comes to their backyard or neighborhood. Education is one method.

The average American is unaware of the importance of pipelines in their daily lives. They don’t realize that the gasoline to run their cars, the natural gas to heat their homes or businesses, the fresh water to drink, and the sewer that carries away the waste are all provided by pipelines, many of which come directly to their home.

I believe that if the public realized how critical pipelines are to their daily lives and how commonplace they are, they would be more receptive to the pipeline industry.

P&GJ: What’s your outlook for the pipeline business for the next couple of years, both in terms of new construction and pipeline integrity work?

Bodenhamer: I’ve been through several ups and downs of the energy business throughout my career and I’m sure this dry spell will pass, too. We’ve seen continued strength on the gas side and pipeline integrity continues to be immune from the current economic downturn.

P&GJ: What achievements are you most proud of?

Bodenhamer: One of my proudest achievements was being named a Fellow by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2013 after having served for over 20 years on pipeline standards committees.

P&GJ: How does one achieve a PE license in all 50 states, as you’ve done?

Bodenhamer: It takes a lot of paperwork and perseverance. Each state has its own rules and requirements for licensure. A person must first graduate from an accredited university, pass an initial eight-hour exam, work four years under the direction of a professional engineer, and then pass another eight-hour exam. This gets you licensed in one state, which you can then use to get licensed in others.

P&GJ: What are your leading priorities as a senior executive, and how do you go about implementing them with your staff?

Bodenhamer: My first priority at Willbros is to meet the needs of our clients by delivering to them engineering solutions that are safe, compliant and reliable. To meet these deliverables, I keep my staff current on the latest codes and regulations, new technologies and up to date on the best practices in the industry. We also keep our employees current on safety training and procedures.

P&GJ: Are you seeing more young people enter the industry, and what do you advise those who are interested in such a career?

Bodenhamer: We have a good number of recent graduates and actively recruit on campus. I believe the energy industry is an exciting career and I encourage those in college to give it serious consideration. The industry needs a vibrant upcoming generation to continue what has been accomplished thus far.

P&GJ: What about your family and your activities outside of work?

Bodenhamer: I’ve been married to my wonderful wife Mary for 33 years, and we have a married son who has a Ph.D. in computer science. I’m very proud of them both. When work doesn’t get in the way on weekends, I like to upgrade and renovate old homes.

Someday Kevin Bodenhamer should write a book about the pipeline industry. Maybe he’s saving that for retirement.

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