Member Spotlight: Meet Geoff Roberts
Author: Geoffery D. Roberts Jr.
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So Much For Plans…
Almost every single day of my 40+ year career in the energy and water space has been different from my carefully developed plans as a civil engineering student and student member of ASCE at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL. I should have known better. After all, I grew up on a farm in Massachusetts. I was continually building and rebuilding things, from new ponds to fences, stonewalls and buildings. I loved the idea of building things – especially things you could see and use every day. My father was an engineer’s engineer who designed and built the machines he envisioned. I was raised around lathes, milling machines, a jig bore and even a foundry and blacksmith shop. It was natural, after a brief distraction as a marine biology major, that I would follow in his path and become an engineer.
Despite my best laid plans, projects almost always got interrupted by weather, animals and on occasion, parental approval. I had to learn to be prepared and constantly adapt to changes beyond my control.
During college, I worked 2 nights/week at a comedy club called the Funny Bone in Hollywood, Florida as a comedy magician. Not surprising, I was the youngest performer and the only engineering student. I experienced first-hand how other performers changed and improved their acts and adapted to the different crowds each night. Each act had a different approach to achieving the same desired outcome of making people laugh. Much like ASCE while we might compete with one another, we also help each other to improve and become better. One night we were fortunate enough to have the Great One, Jackie Gleason, in the front row of the audience (…I know what some of you are thinking “who?” – look him up). After seeing our show, he stayed late and generously provided each of us with the gift of experience and feedback to help us improve. While it was sometimes painful, he told us what we needed to hear, not what we wanted to hear, and his feedback was both specific and actionable. This was a valuable lesson I’ve tried to play forward. My Career took me in many different directions, including technical, operational, and commercial experience with NextEra (formerly FPL), Shell Oil, Enron Corp. and Entergy, including international leadership assignments developing and operating energy infrastructure and building and managing energy origination and trading businesses in North America, Europe, South America, Australia and Asia.
In my first supervisory role, I was a service center scheduler and supervisor, leading 5 field crews at FPL. On my first day in the new role, I pulled up on a site where one crew was working. I remember the crew leader walked up, looked me up and down and said “I’ve been doing this job longer than you’ve been alive. What are you supposed to supervise?”. I realized that this was going to be a very tough audience. I don’t know where my response came from, but I answered “Yes, I am the supervisor, but I’m here to learn from you and hopefully become a better engineer as a result.” We ultimately developed a strong working relationship, and I learned a great deal of practical realities in the field that I continue to use to this day. He helped me to become a better engineer. It also taught me that during your career you can and will learn from unexpected sources if you’re open to it.
During the past 19 years, I served as a Board member for 9 different private equity sponsored portfolio companies, including 7 as Chairman of the Board, in the energy, infrastructure and environmental space. These companies included Innovyze, Synagro Technologies, Contanda Terminals, Midland Cogeneration Ventures, Peregrine Midstream Partners, Restaurant Technologies Inc, Entegra Power and Primus Green Energy. I am currently an advisory Board member of FiberSense, Ltd. that has patented technology to utilize fiberoptic networks as a massive array of vibration sensors to provided RADAR like detection and ranging of objects and events from fiber cables, from potential strikes and intrusions to pipeline leaks, seismic and subsidence events. Another unexpected path on my career journey.
Regardless of what I was doing, I learned that the most valuable skill from my civil engineering education, one that I would use throughout my career, was the methodical approach to problem solving. The more complex the problem, the better the challenge.
Along my journey I picked up an MBA at night, earned a TCEQ class A Operator license in Wastewater Treatment and an executive certificate in Strategy and Innovation from MIT Sloan. When I look back, I realize that these educational experiences taught me that I need to continue to develop new skills and capabilities throughout my career. I consistently ended up applying these new skills in far different ways than I anticipated when I started. About two years ago I was looking for an aerobic exercise option during the pandemic. I decided to learn Wing Chun Kung Fu and started taking classes 2-3 nights per week. I ended up discovering that the greatest benefit was mental, not physical health. There is nothing that purges the challenges, frustrations, and problems of the day from your mind (my RAM) faster than a series of fists and kicks directed towards your chest and head. I learned the hard way that being distracted or trying to multi-task was not a winning strategy. It was literally a painful lesson. When I focused on the task at hand, I found I left class with a clear head, a few new aches and pains, and a renewed energy to tackle problems. I went seeking one thing and found another, greater benefit.
As my schedule evolved, I had more time to give back and logically thought of ASCE. I volunteered for the Infrastructure Report Card and then at the height of winter storms Uri and Viola volunteered to lead the Beyond Storms Reliability and Resilience in the Balance Committee. The best part of these efforts was the chance to work with outstanding fellow members of ASCE, a gifted leadership team complemented by a terrific staff, from across the State of Texas and learn from them.
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