Geneva Walters / Development Manager
TAPS nostalgia is everywhere these days. The 40th anniversary of TAPS operations arrived on June 20 and everyone is telling a TAPS tale: pipeline people far and wide, current and former TAPS workers, families and friends who grew up here or have never stepped foot in Alaska, media members and politicians in our state and beyond.
Geneva Walters has one heck of a TAPS story – she's held numerous roles at Alyeska for the better part of 20 years and her family's TAPS connection dates back to the pipeline's construction era. While she can certainly reminisce with the best of them, her position as Development Manager is focused on the future of TAPS and Alyeska.
"It's really impactful to think about 40 years, but how do we pay that forward?" she explained. "I'm working on the future 40. And it's both humbling and exciting to be given that responsibility."
For her years of diverse work, pipeline pride and ambitious vision for guiding the company and pipeline toward a sustainable future, Walters is being recognized with a 2017 Atigun Award for Professional of the Year.
"When you talk about someone who gives 110 percent, that's Geneva," said Susan Parkes, Alyeska General Council, Vice President, and one of Walters' mentors. "For her, the work isn't just a job or a paycheck. It's personal. She's a great example of TAPS pride – she has personal pride in her work and she also wants to make this company a better place."
Walters and her Technical Development Program team have created a comprehensive technician progression program and more than 160 training programs to educate and inspire hundreds of Alyeska staff and TAPS contractors. (That includes the popular "Roadwise" online training.) The programs range from one-hour online courses to classroom curriculums. Walters said her team has nearly 90 new trainings "in the oven," as well.
The group also has revamped how trainings are delivered, tapping the talents and institutional knowledge of Alyeska's workforce to teach new employees. This has been especially critical at pump stations and the Valdez Marine Terminal, where working relationships are close, pressure is high, instruments are complex and there is a balance of longtime employees and new hires.
"It's about taking ownership and having a commitment to make sure everyone knows what they need to know to be successful," she said. "It's happened from Pump Station 1 to Valdez, but a great example is Power Vapor where there's been a complete overhaul of the training. Now techs help design and deliver the training. It's impressive to see their depth of knowledge and willingness to transfer that knowledge."
Walters and her team are now reimagining the way all Alyeska staff are welcomed and trained, from new hires on day one to 40-year veterans, people just starting their careers to company leaders.
"We've set a bold vision to create formal training requirements for every critical system on TAPS,"Walters said. "This applies to everyone and it starts with onboarding. This is a special place and from the start, you're part of the family. We want them walking away on day one with that feeling."
Parkes added, "She's a real change agent. She isn't afraid to put ideas out there that might force people to think beyond the confines of how we’ve always done things."
As a young girl, Walters would ride her bike through East Anchorage to Alyeska's bustling Bragaw offices, where she would visit her father, Donnis Walters. It was the '70s, the TAPS construction era, and her father was using his math skills to help the engineering team calculate placements of the new pipeline’s vertical support members.
"The pipeline was a big part of our life – he was always telling stories," Walters said. "He loves the people he worked with and has lasting friendships. I go in the field and they always ask about my dad."
In 1991, Walters would once again have the opportunity to visit her dad on the job. He had become a TAPS operator who spent more than 15 years working at Pump Stations 1, 6 and 10. She was an Alyeska summer hire on her way to college in Oregon and thrilled with the opportunity.
"The first year, I ended up at Pump Station 10 and did my share of sweeping and mopping," she said. "But they also took me around and made me part of the work there. I'm grateful for that. And I still work with some of them."
Each summer home from college, Walters worked for Alyeska.
"I worked as a secretary for Engineering, in the mailroom and on projects," she said. "I took whatever they would give me!"
The English major's enthusiasm, hard work and wits eventually helped her get hired full-time. She's worked in preventive maintenance, system renewal, strategic reconfiguration and training, and at pump stations, in Fairbanks and in Anchorage, where she's currently based.
She left Alyeska for around six years, traveling the country for a variety of communications and safety jobs, including working on recovery efforts in the City of New Orleans following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"But I always kept tabs on Alyeska," she said. "It's a special, special place. If you've only worked here, you might not recognize that. But none of those other positions matched Alyeska."
Walters returned as a Technical Development Manager. She missed the people and company culture, of course, but really missed the field. She remains especially fond of Pump Station 10, where she got her start.
"I really love showing people our pipeline," she said. That's something she does often – part of the new technician training includes giving TAPS tours.
As Alyeska moves into its next 40 years of TAPS operations, Walters wants to provide that same level of support, understanding and excitement for employees in all corners of the company. The company shares that enthusiasm.
"We are really excited about her team taking their successes from the technician training to our onboarding process and leadership training," said Parkes. "She has made some pretty bold suggestions and we know that she will put her heart and soul into it."
Walters expanded, adding, "My first day in this job, I thought 'How do you know? How do you know if someone is properly trained and qualified?' That was a touchstone for me. … We took lessons learned for training technicians and that led to, How do we develop all of our employees? How do we measure that? How can you demonstrate your knowledge and competency within your department?"
That's a lot of questions and there are always countless unknowns in Alyeska's complicated work. But Walters said that she and her team are confident, excited and prepared to guide the company into a sustainable future.
"To do my job well, I need to know a little about a lot," she said with a smile. "And when I've asked to learn something, no one has ever said no. The TAPS family has invested in me and been so gracious and generous with their time. I'm a product of their investment."
Rachel Baker-Sears / Projects Compliance and Admin Lead
The quest for continuous improvement can be arduous. For Rachel Baker-Sears, the journey holds constant immersion in safety, compliance and risk, and an endless search for savings and efficiencies. She must be a teammate and a leader, a facilitator and a solo act. She has to initiate and inspire, collaborate and compromise. Her efforts and communication need to touch practically all levels and locations of Alyeska and TAPS.
Yeah, it's busy and complicated, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's challenging work but I love it," said Baker-Sears, the Projects team's Compliance and Admin Lead who will reach her 20-year anniversary at Alyeska in June. "It's very motivating to come to work and know that I have these challenges in front of me and that I can influence change. And it's gratifying to see the results of that."
Others say that it is equally rewarding to work with Baker-Sears, who is receiving the 2017 Atigun Award for Integrity. The award recognizes her commitment to the highest ethical standards and achievements in meeting commitments to protect the operating integrity of TAPS and the integrity of Alyeska business practices.
"Rachel is the embodiment of integrity through her words and actions," said Julia Redington, Alyeska's Director of Project & Project Controls. "Rachel is incredibly hard working and a conscientious leader that consistently delivers above expectations. I maintain tremendous respect and appreciation for Rachel and the Atigun Integrity Award could not go to a more deserving person."
Redington and others who know Baker-Sears will tell you that she doesn't drop the ball, miss a deadline or overlook a detail.
"She is an amazing person to have on our team," added Redington. "She always takes time to share her knowledge and develop understanding on different project processes throughout our team as well as across TAPS."
Baker-Sears, based in Fairbanks, doesn't back down from a challenge or an opportunity to improve her work, her team's work, her department's work and Alyeska's work. It's fitting that she leads the AMS-003 Continuous Improvement Team, which ensures that Alyeska project management practices, procedures and tools are effective and efficient.
Redington added, "She has passion around continuous improvement."
Baker-Sears started making a difference, and learning the complexities of TAPS work, shortly after arriving at Alyeska. She helped centralize the reporting and tracking of the organization's commitments.
"The previous lack of consistency and visibility caused serious integrity related issues, such as duplication of effort, missed deadlines and commitment gaps," she explained. "The team I worked with was able to identify and consolidate the commitments company-wide so they could be effectively assigned, prioritized, and tracked using a central system."
When Baker-Sears moved to Projects in 2006, she noticed that different projects used different formats for safe project procedures. She developed uniform guides and templates for working procedures that improved efficiency and safety. Today, she regularly reviews different types of project procedures and work practices so that "they make sense, are organized, easy to follow, clear and concise."
"I really enjoy helping people get their job done more efficiently," she said. "My role places me in a position where I can influence changes to our processes and tools to make them more streamlined and fit-for-purpose, and that they help ensure compliance of our work."
Organization is key. She starts Mondays going through the week’s schedule, noting deadlines, meetings and goals. She then looks beyond at the month's deliverables and goals. That commitment to organization is mirrored by her team of project coordinators, who support Alyeska’s diverse projects work and teams.
Baker-Sears said she also recognizes that to be effective in her wide-ranging work, she must be a trusted partner.
"Communication is critical – I have to work with a variety of people and personalities to help motivate the team collaboration needed to accomplish mutual goals," she said. "Your interactions with people come down to how much they trust what you're saying, your integrity and being able to convey that in a way that they are open to. This helps me understand different viewpoints and I’m able to see the bigger picture."
For that vision, the focus of the Atigun Award spotlight is now on her.
"I take a tremendous amount of pride in my work at Alyeska and it is a huge honor to receive this recognition," she said. "But it caught me off-guard. I just try to do the best job that I can. I had no idea that people were paying attention to that. … Those people are the reason I’m still here. I work with a lot of talented people. The people here inspire me to do the best work I can."
Alan Beckett / Mechanical Integrity Manager
A small, nondescript plaque hangs on a wall amidst the maze of pods, offices, meeting rooms and supply closets on the second floor of Alyeska's Centerpoint West headquarters. The American Welding Society awarded it to Alyeska in 2002 for Outstanding Development in Welded Fabrication.
Years ago, Alan Beckett's office was near the plaque and he often read its words: "In recognition of the advance technology and high quality of welding used in the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which, as a significant supplier of our nation’s oil, remains one of the technological marvels of the modern world, and a testament to the quality of work undertaken by the welders and engineers who constructed it."
Beckett, currently Alyeska’s Mechanical Integrity Manager, has changed offices a few times over the years, but the message on that otherwise unremarkable plaque remains powerful and inspiring to him. It symbolizes how his work and his Mechanical Integrity team's efforts are connected to an extraordinary past while reminding them of their great responsibility to the future.
"For over 25 years, I've had the unique privilege and passion for continuing the legacy established by the welders and engineers who built TAPS by meeting the challenges of engineering repairs to the pipe," Beckett said. "And now, along with a new generation of bright and technical savvy engineers, I have been entrusted with the future opportunities to search out and discover integrity threats and address them before they curtail TAPS operations for the next generation of Alaskans."
For his own history of exceptional work, vision, leadership and commitment at Alyeska and TAPS, Beckett is being recognized with a 2017 Atigun Award for Engineer of the Year.
"I am honored and very humbled by the personal recognition," Beckett said. "But I know full well that my past successes represent the combined efforts of the entire TAPS family, both Alyeska and contractor co-workers, past and present."
Kurt Helms, a Welding Engineer for Houston who is based in Fairbanks, has long worked with Beckett, dating back to their early '90s meeting while installing a sleeve on TAPS in Thompson Pass. They have since bonded over welding, TAPS fixes and even Ham Radios. He's seen Beckett cool under pressure, collaborative in a team environment and skilled in all settings.
"He's one of the finest individuals you could ever wish to work with," Helms said. "This award is a long time coming and well-deserved."
Beckett's engineering work is immersed in the present and future, but he could easily moonlight as a TAPS historian. He has a deep appreciation for the pipeline’s significance, its place in the world, the monumental effort it took to build it and the sweat stains and brain power required to maintain it.
"TAPS started with the thought that it can't be done, too many regulatory obstacles, relentless environmental opposition, too difficult and complex a design," Beckett said. "And yet, with the engineering genius of Dr. Hal Peyton as TAPS initial Design Engineering Manager, a practical balance between the negative mindsets that prevailed at the time and practice of engineering judgement was forged to accomplish what has been considered by many as one of the technological marvels of the modern world."
Beckett then mildly joked, "This is an awesome challenge to be entrusted to a guy who thought he should become a baker."
Yes, as a youth, the Pennsylvania-raised Beckett weighed culinary arts versus vocational school. His parents preferred the latter, which pretty much meant he accepted the latter. Pastries' loss was pipelines' gain as he went from wheat to welding, kneading to engineering, mixers to metals.
In high school, his interest in metals technology was encouraged by a mentor, a retired metallurgist from the steel industry, who guided Beckett to study metallurgical engineering and welding engineering at LeTourneau College in Texas.
"That way I could learn to weld and have some practical skills to get a good job just in case I failed at becoming an engineer," he said. "Over 40 years later, I am still ready to pursue a job in welding pipe if I need to."
The engineering gig has worked out pretty well. He admitted, "I have not welded at work or home for about 10 years. I sold all my welding equipment. Welding is kind of like playing the piano. Once you learn you can always pick it back up with practice … that is, if you still have the eyes for it."
Long before he had eyes for Alaska, Beckett was offered a vision of his engineering future on TAPS. Alyeska chief welding engineer John Wormeli spoke at LeTourneau during Beckett's junior year in 1975 and showed "Weld #38031," a documentary about welding 48-inch pipe on TAPS.
"This film grabbed my attention and started my lifetime interest in pipeline welding," Beckett said.
After college, he spent 15 years as a welding, nondestructive testing and materials engineer at Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation, the nation's third-largest integrated natural gas transmission company. Based in Charleston, W.Va., his work took him to New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia – and eventually Alaska.
An engineer he once tried hiring at Columbia reached out to him about an opportunity at Alyeska. In 1991, he joined a team of four welding engineers on TAPS.
He's since held numerous engineering positions at Alyeska, giving him diverse experience in the design, construction and maintenance, compressor and pump station facilities, and process piping systems. And he's faced serious pressure and problem-solving challenges. He led teams that designed and completed field repairs for the mainline bullet hole leak at PLMP 400, the booster pump piping internal corrosion leak at Pump Station 1, and the temporary pig trap at PS08.
Today, his team of nine integrity engineers are accountable for the detection, identification and assessment of integrity threats for repair, mitigation or replacement of all TAPS crude oil, natural gas and process liquid and gas containing assets using in-line inspection ("smart pigs") and direct examination nondestructive testing methods.
He's a mentor internally, but also shares his knowledge of TAPS and his trade with engineers around Alaska and beyond. In 2005, he received the AWS's A.F. Davis Silver Metal Award for co-authoring "Maintenance Welding on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline." He was a co-recipient of the 2004 President's Award for Excellence in Health & Safety on the TAPS Mechanical Damage Features Assessment Project. His most recent published technical paper, "An Experimental Study To Evaluate The Performance Of Competing Filler Materials Used With Type B And Stand-Off Steel Sleeves," was acknowledged at the 2016 International Pipeline Conference.
Beckett's a respected voice at Alyeska, on TAPS, in his trade and industry. But he said ultimately, his focus remains on the success and the sustainability of TAPS. He knows that responsibility rests on many shoulders, including his own. And he loves it.
"A favorite quote of mine that I feel sums up Alyeska engineering and the value of teamwork is by Lyndon Johnson: 'There are no problems we cannot solve together and very few that we can solve by ourselves,'" he said. "To be a successful Alyeska engineer requires the individual to understand and embrace the TAPS culture; to have been on the firing line with regulator questions and concerns; to successfully handle emergency situations under extreme operational pressure demands; and to have proven they can build consensus and deliver innovative and cost-effective change."
Hillary Schaefer / Sr. Director, Pipeline Operations & Maintenance
Hillary Schaefer has been selected as Alyeska's new Senior Director for Pipeline Operations & Maintenance.
Hillary began work with TAPS in 1999. Most of those years were spent in roles in the field and at pump stations; work in recent years deepened Hillary's knowledge of the inner workings of pipeline operations and Alyeska's core business functions.
"Hillary has built a reputation as a leader who collaborates across workgroups, utilizing unique strengths to achieve the best possible outcome," said Rod Hanson, VP Operations & Maintenance. "She actively participates in creating a system view by drawing on her diverse experience on TAPS, using every opportunity to leverage resources and share knowledge. She has demonstrated exemplary leadership and decision-making acumen during crises, shutdown projects and everyday operation of TAPS."
Hillary joined Alyeska as an Environmental Coordinator. Since then, she has held positions of increasing responsibility and visibility, including Pipeline & Civil Maintenance Coordinator, Response Base Supervisor, Pump Station O&M Supervisor, and Pipeline Area Manager accountable for safe operations, effective maintenance, and emergency preparedness.
"The Pipeline Operations and Maintenance team has reached remarkable milestones, and I attribute that to both O&M leadership and line-wide teamwork," Hillary said. "I am thrilled about this opportunity to lead pipeline operations as we turn the corner on 40 years of moving oil safely and reliably for Alaska."
Prior to Alyeska, Hillary spent five years working for environmental consulting firms in the Fairbanks area. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Health from Colorado State University and has successfully completed numerous additional leadership training opportunities while at Alyeska. Hillary also has extensive experience in Incident Command System (ICS) processes, having served as On-scene Commander, Ops Section Chief, Deputy Incident Commander and Incident Commander on numerous actual responses and drills.
She will assume full responsibilities of this role on April 26, coinciding with John Baldridge's retirement and last day in the position.
"Please join me in congratulating Hillary on her new role and provide her with your full support as she assumes the responsibilities," Rod said. "Please also join me in once again congratulating John Baldridge on his 40 years of TAPS service and an outstanding record of strong leadership as he moves into a well-deserved retirement."
Lisa Booth / Alaska Native Program Director
Lisa Booth is the new Alaska Native Program Director for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.
Lisa is an 18-year APSC employee and Alaska Native who first joined Alyeska through the internship program. Lisa said she is especially proud to take over the Alaska Native Program because it played a personally meaningful role in her career, and the careers of many other Alaska Native company employees.
"This role is about more than running a program; it's about giving back and supporting opportunities and development for others, and I'm passionate about the value in that," Lisa said. "I have seen firsthand how our Alaska Native Program builds on relationships and cultural foundations to achieve amazing business results, while growing and supporting really talented employees who care deeply about Alaska's future."
Lisa's Alaska Native roots run deep: she grew up in Metlakatla, and is Tsimshian, Yupik and Alutiiq. Her parents and maternal family still live in Metlakatla, while her father is originally from Bethel and her maternal grandfather is from Ninilchik.
Lisa joined Alyeska in December 1999 as an intern through the Building Foundations for Excellence Program, working as a contract administrator. Since then, she has held positions of increasing responsibility in Business Planning, IT, HR, and Supply Chain Management and most recently as Business and Strategic Planning Director. Lisa has also served on the Alaska Native Program’s Advisory Board for several years.
"I'm excited to lead a high-functioning program with a proven track record of hiring, training, developing and retaining Alaska Native people," she said. "One of my goals is to fully integrate the various components of the program to ensure we are meeting and exceeding the requirements of the Alaska Native Utilization Agreement and working effectively with partners such as ANSEP, Alaska Native Corporations and TAPS contractors."
Alyeska's Alaska Native Program was created in October 1995. Through the program, Alyeska supports recruitment, employment, mentoring, education and training opportunities for Alaska Native People. The program helps fulfill commitments embodied in the TAPS Federal Agreement and Grant of Right-of-Way.
"Lisa brings a rich and unique background to this role," said Tom Barrett, Alyeska President. "She has demonstrated excellent leadership at Alyeska, she is passionate about the value and culture the Alaska Native Program brings to our company and community, and I look forward to working with her as we continue to build on the program's strong legacy."
Lisa has a Bachelor's of Science in Business Administration degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a Master's of Business Administration in Management from the University of Alaska Anchorage.
TAPS 40th anniversary / What's your pipeline story?
Share your TAPS memories as Alyeska celebrates 40 years of operations!
TAPS' 40th anniversary of operations arrives June 20, 2017, and Alyeska is commemorating the milestone all year. At the heart of this celebration are the memories and voices of those who helped build, operate and maintain the pipeline, and the stories of people, families, businesses and communities with unique ties to TAPS.
What's your pipeline story?
• What are your favorite moments working on TAPS?
• What has TAPS meant to you and your family?
• What's your vision for the next 40 years of TAPS operations?
• How has TAPS impacted your community and Alaska?
Share memories, stories and photos by emailing them to TAPS40@alyeska-pipeline.com. All submissions will be entered in a random drawing for very special TAPS 40th anniversary gifts! Alyeska will contact you for more information if they plan to use your content.
#mypipelinestory #40more #TAPSPRIDE
Lisa Kangas / Field Environmental Coordinator
Lisa Kangas is a lifelong Alaskan who has been an Alyeska Field Environmental Coordinator for almost five years. Originally from Ruby, a small village on the Yukon River, Lisa earned a Biological Sciences degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and started her began as a fisheries biologist. She transitioned to Alyeska to broaden her environmental work experiences. Lisa recently shared stories, photos and a video from her work around Alaska as the guest host of Alyeska's social media sites. Lisa said, "I have so much love and respect for all Alaska has to offer. My current position inspires growth for myself and others through laughter, learning and a healthy dose of environmental compliance. I love my job and I'm looking forward to sharing my work and the work of Alyeska's Environment team!" Click here to go to Lisa’s first Facebook entry and then travel through the timeline to see more of her stories and images.
Cyndy Strickland / Alyeska Sourcing Manager
Integrity is more than just a word on TAPS. Integrity fuels flawless operations. It's a quality that's aspired to in an organization's work and by its people. Integrity is at the heart of Alyeska's Speak Up, Step Up culture and Open Work Environment. Integrity is the driver behind Alyeska being recognized as one of the World's Most Ethical Companies for five-straight years.
For epitomizing integrity at a company in which this value carries such weight, Alyeska Sourcing Manager Cyndy Strickland is being recognized with a 2016 Atigun Award for Integrity. The category identifies those who demonstrate a commitment to the highest ethical standards and protect the operating integrity of TAPS and its business practices.
"I am awed to be recognized with this honor and it gives me pride in our sourcing process," Strickland said. "Alyeska could not get the highest-quality services and resources and the best values at the best prices without having high integrity in our marketplace and internally."
In praise of Strickland, Ed Hendrickson, Alyeska Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, wrote: "Integrity and ethics is everything and Cyndy embodies this in all she does. She understands that treating people with respect and acting with integrity, honesty and ethical accountability inspires confidence and builds a culture of trust. And this culture of trust extends beyond her colleagues to our contractors and external stakeholders."
Alyeska's integrity was the focus of Strickland's work when she was hired as an internal controls specialist 18 years ago. She was part of a team that implemented commitment tracking, ensuring that Alyeska authorized, monitored and resolved commitments company-wide.
"Alyeska had been through some painful ups and downs, so we were trying to improve the company's controls and its accountability culture," she said. "It was a huge effort, but when it was all done we were at a place where we could rebuild. As an organization, we knew we needed to sustain our commitments and follow through on them."
Strickland said she is proud of the company's evolution and its current reputation around Alaska and beyond. Today, as a leader of a team of 12 in Alyeska's always-busy Supply Chain Management department, Strickland continues emphasizing the importance, impact and fragility of integrity in her team's daily actions.
"It's so easy to have the integrity of Alyeska put at risk, so integrity has to be lived out in our work," Strickland said. "We do that through the fair chance proposal process, by keeping data confidential, by recognizing any conflicts of interest. We also have some very complex and challenging services to source. But I love those opportunities. I get excited about collaboration, finding connections to leverage and getting value to multiple people in multiple ways. And I really enjoy sourcing, helping the Operations, Engineering and Projects teams, and accomplishing goals in significant ways."
Dan Flodin, Supply Chain Management Director and Strickland's supervisor, added: "Cyndy and her team source millions of dollars of work every year. Her leadership around the integrity of each sourcing process is critical and she delivers great results aligned with our company’s core values."
While integrity is interwoven with her work, Strickland says that she also considers how to demonstrate it in every step of her life's journey. That includes her daily decision-making, her interactions with family members, friends, coworkers and others, and her faith.
"I believe that we are all accountable to someone other than ourselves," she said. "In every word, choice and action, if I don't live with integrity I'm violating my relationship with God and myself. ... I believe in personal accountability. If you make an agreement, live up to it or revisit it. And you can't be afraid of acknowledging your wrong decisions and choices."
Strickland understands that the standard she sets is high, but she wouldn't have it any other way. That's what a leader, a mom and a friend does. And that’s what Alyeska, TAPS and the Atigun Awards represent.
"I am honored to receive this recognition because this company is filled with so many people with high integrity and who are working for more than themselves," Strickland said. "I hope that this award inspires others to strive for the highest of integrity in their work and uphold the integrity of our organization."
John Baldridge / Senior Director of Pipeline Operations
One-of-a-kind. Tough. Alaskan. A proud legacy. Standing the test of time.
They don't make pipelines like TAPS anymore. And they don't make pipeline people like John Baldridge anymore, either.
As Baldridge approaches his 40th anniversary with Alyeska, he's reflecting on his time here. And there's a lot to reflect on. When it comes to TAPS operations and milestones, he's just about seen and done it all.
He was a teenaged technician in Valdez at pipeline startup. A month later, he helped load the ARCO Juneau with the inaugural shipment of TAPS oil.
He was among the initial responders to the Exxon Valdez oil spill at Bligh Reef and then was part of the team that created SERVS.
He literally wrote the book on the pipeline's 30-year right of way Grant and Lease renewal. He's served in some of the most pivotal and high-pressured positions on TAPS.
He's recognized as one of Alyeska's most respected and knowledgeable leaders. And he's currently the Senior Director of Pipeline Operations, a position he's held for more than 11 years, longer than any of his predecessors. Overseeing the pipeline is a role that fits him and his history.
"I have a certain amount of pride in my career and doing it against the odds," Baldridge said. "But it's been more than that. This is the greatest pipeline system that has ever existed. It's been a privilege for me to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, a part of running the Trans Alaska Pipeline System and everything that stands for."
For his longevity, leadership and track record of excellent work, capably filling many positions and always displaying TAPS pride, Baldridge was recently recognized with a 2016 Atigun Award for Lifetime Achievement, among Alyeska's highest organizational honors.
"John bleeds Alyeska red," said Scott Hicks, Senior Director of Valdez Operations, referring to when Alyeska's vehicles were red.
Hicks, whose work connection with Baldridge dates back 30 years, added: "Here's a person who started as an entry level technician and is now senior director of an 800-mile pipeline. That's a pretty significant achievement and I can't think of anyone more deserving of this honor."
Right time, right place, right person for the job
Baldridge's resume is around 10 titles long and spans from technician to first line supervisor to Terminal Manager, Compliance Advisor to Business Unit Advisor to Pipeline Advisor, and more. He's worked alone on complicated projects, led large system-wide teams, traveled every mile of TAPS many times over and spent shifts in Prince William Sound. One aspect of his work history has remained consistent, however.
"I never had a desire to work for anyone else and never applied for a job outside of Alyeska," he said. "But I couldn't imagine myself doing just one job for decades. So probably the keys to my longevity are moving around in the company and taking advantage of opportunities. And I've had a lot of great opportunities."
Most of those opportunities were byproducts of Baldridge's tireless work ethic, toughness and eagerness to tackle challenges, solve problems and continually learn and grow.
Baldridge was born in Homer and grew up in a large family on the Kenai Peninsula. His father was a heavy equipment operator during TAPS construction in the Valdez area, where John's brother also worked. As a youth, Baldridge spent summers processing fish for his uncle in Kasilof. His experiences of getting familiar with boats, operating a forklift, building strength and gaining perspective on working life eventually became invaluable.
When he arrived in Valdez at 17 looking for a job with Alaska's historic new pipeline, he said he was thinking of a long-term career while others were just trying to ride the construction boom to big bucks. Renowned BP tanker Captain Bill Fisken interviewed Baldridge one-on-one for a berth crewman technician job and saw something familiar and promising in the young man.
"Bill knew how old I was and he said, 'Don't worry about that. I first went to sea when I was 14,'" Baldridge recalled. "In February 1977, I got the call. I was a technician in the first group hired for the Marine Department. We spent February through August getting ready for startup."
The training evolved into system-essential work like commissioning berths and response skimmers, practicing loading 800-foot tankers with seawater and installing oil spill containment boom. As a relative youngster working alongside seasoned mariners, Baldridge said his education was endless.
"They were tough guys to work for and they would beat a lot of work ethic into you," said Baldridge, smiling. "One time, I got my butt chewed for having my hands in my pockets. I was watching someone demonstrate something and my supervisor, another BP tanker captain, tells me, 'Get your hands out of your pockets! You're supposed to have your hands ready to work at all times!' I was flexible, malleable to that. The older guys didn't last long. They wouldn't put up with it."
By the time the ARCO Juneau showed up for the first load of cargo in August, his training was complete and the TAPS dream was finally reality.
"We filled up that tanker and there was a big celebration; Valdez was going nuts," Baldridge said. "It was tough work, but it was great work. There were seals and otters in the water and eagles flying around. The weather conditions could be pretty miserable out there, but I look back at it with fondness."
Safety, solutions and success
Early on, the admitted "introvert" was "happy being a tech" and reluctantly accepted step-up and fill-in management slots. His progression into a leader came from his work history and increased responsibilities during drills and crisis situations. He also drew inspiration from managers he admired and trainings with The Levinson Institute.
Baldridge eventually moved into advisor, lead and manager positions over two decades in Valdez, then into Right of Way Renewal and Pipeline Operations in Fairbanks. Hicks said Baldridge was known then for being "even-keeled and calm, even in the face of challenge or adversity."
"I've enjoyed all my jobs but especially the advisor roles where they'd say, 'Here's a gnarly mess; see what you can do with it,'" Baldridge said. "I like problem-solving and I like fixing something once instead of just making the problem go away and then fixing it three or 10 more times."
Hicks has seen Baldridge in action many times.
"He's one of the most organized people I have ever been around and he's always been a fanatic for details," said Hicks. "He's so thorough and knowledgeable. He makes sure you've got everything you need to do the job."
In every job, Baldridge said he always kept safety at the forefront. Contingency Planning Preparedness Coordinator Shana Clay worked as Baldridge's administrative assistant for nearly 10 years in Fairbanks. Clay saw the direct impact that Baldridge had in transforming safety on TAPS from a concept to a culture.
"Slowly, over time, we started to really get it: how to work more safely, and he'd keep raising that bar," said Clay. "John would say in every weekly staff meeting, 'We can have zero recordables. It is achievable.' When he said it, he meant it, and people believed it. And then it happened.
"His goal every day is that the pump stations are safe, the pipeline is safe and the people are safe," Clay added.
Baldridge shook his head when he recalled that there were no written procedures for Terminal operations during the early years, just operations manuals that had to be memorized. Today, he's gratified by how far TAPS workers and organizations have come in their commitment to safety.
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them 'I manage safety,'" he said. "If you do safety well, everything else will follow – discipline, being more systematic, attention to detail, housekeeping and even financial success. ... The worst thing that can happen to you as a supervisor or manager is for an employee working in your area to get seriously injured."
'A good day on the pipeline'
When the longtime pipeliner was promoted to Senior Director of Pipeline Operations, Baldridge said it was among the most special moments of his life. That sentiment was shared by many.
"I have a high level of rapport with field personnel and some of those people told me, 'It's a good day on TAPS when a former tech becomes director of the pipeline,'" Baldridge said. "I took a lot of pride from that and motivation not to screw up this unique opportunity."
He's lived up to that responsibility.
"The way the pipeline operates today, our successes in operations and safety, has a lot to do with him staying in that job for so long," Clay said. "He's an anchor, the cornerstone and a real forward-thinker. ... And I think people also really respect him because he's walked in those steel-toed boots and turned those wrenches."
Baldridge said TAPS is in great hands moving forward – the workforce at Alyeska and on TAPS is as strong as he's ever been around. He points specifically to the diverse group of O&Ms and Area Managers he's assembled.
"I was sure to put together a good team, because I know my limitations," he said. "And it's the most solid group of pipeline leadership that has ever existed on TAPS."
Baldridge has seen plenty of changes on TAPS, from miniscule to monumental. But he says the most important change makes the organization successful today and continues propelling it forward.
"The biggest change I've seen in my time at Alyeska is that the silos and boundaries have been knocked down," he said. "In the '80s, it was, 'We do our thing, they do their thing.' VMT and Pipeline were like two separate companies. Now when issues arise, we tend to do things similarly from Pump Station 1 through Valdez."
After 40 years of seeing and doing it all on TAPS, Baldridge said he remains excited about what the future holds for the pipeline he loves.
"Not many people get the opportunity to work for one organization for 40 years – it's pretty neat," he said. "And I tell new employees during orientation that there are still at least 8 billion barrels of oil on the North Slope. There's no reason they can't have a long career on TAPS, too."
Vinnie Szymkowiak / Senior Civil Engineer
Life is good for Vinnie Szymkowiak.
He's an engineer who channels his passions for math and science to solve unique and difficult challenges. He works at Alyeska, a place he calls "an engineer's dream," and has coworkers who are "so great at what they do." He lives in Alaska, a wonderland for him and his active family. And now he's the first TAPS worker to be named an Atigun Award Engineer of the Year.
"I really enjoy working at Alyeska, where the standards are so high and our work benefits the state and its people," said Szymkowiak, who will celebrate nine years at Alyeska in July. "There's 40 years of engineering excellence here and we get to continue that. We apply the absolute truths of physics to real problems and collaborate to fix those problems. That’s pretty fun for engineers."
As a high school student, he "liked seeing how physics and math applied to the real world." Now as a Senior Civil Engineer and Interim O&M Design Engineering Supervisor, Szymkowiak knows firsthand how "engineers have an opportunity to improve society and our work can make life better for people."
That was true when he was providing wastewater solutions in rural Alaska at a previous job and it's true today with his role on TAPS.
His colleagues are certainly happy to have him here. Szymkowiak is known for his enthusiastic project support, work order development and jumping in wherever he's needed. He's also recognized for his seismic stewardship, which became an interest for him while he worked as a Valdez Facilities Engineer.
David Heimke, Alyeska Engineering Standards and Programs Manager, wrote of Szymkowiak, "When pressed with the issue of how to make the company compliance with seismic easier, Vinnie built up an educational program and went out amongst many departments to share that information."
A recent example of Szymkowiak's talent and tireless work came last spring when he stepped up to be part of the repair and investigation teams responding to the Pump Station 10 isolation fitting that began weeping. Szymkowiak and others immediately sprang into innovative action, eventually crafting a never-before-on-TAPS solution -- a reinforced sleeve that enclosed the fitting while also being sensitive to the high seismic activity in the Denali Fault area.
"It was a very urgent issue, so a bunch of people from different disciplines got into a conference room and worked the issue until the solution rose to the top," Szymkowiak said. "We have such sharp people here and you definitely avoid group think because people are willing to speak up if they have different ideas."
He added, "That's what's great about working here. There are so many intellectual challenges and really smart people who care about their jobs, who are good leaders and teammates, and who have a vision for TAPS."
As for Szymkowiak, he deflects any special attention about receiving an Atigun Award. He instead credits his surroundings and circumstances.
"I was surprised to receive the award -- some ideas get passed to me from leadership and I just implement them," he said with a laugh. "I truly feel like this is a shared award. No individuals can succeed without a team that is successful and a company that is successful. And I have the pleasure of working with a strong team at Alyeska."