Work on some twenty capital projects with million-dollar price tags is just part of the day for Allen J. Spivey, director of the office of corporate engineering for AGL Resources. He oversees a top-level, cross-disciplined group of eight techies that handle special projects.
"If there's a major decision to spend $300 million, this dedicated group will do the conceptual analysis. Once we elect to go forward, the project can move to a larger engineering group, or we may elect to keep the project and manage it ourselves," he explains.
AGL Resources (Atlanta, GA) is a Fortune 1000 energy services company that distributes gas to approximately 2.3 million customers in six Eastern U.S. states. Spivey has been with the company since 2005, when he left the presidency of Starline Trenchless Technology, a company he'd led to prominence for its gas-pipe lining products.
A variety of projects
"Two of the guys on my team handle construction as well," Spivey notes. One such project is the installation of a pipeline under a major artery in Virginia; the project is nearing a world record for size. The team may also handle innovative issues like developing caverns to store natural gas. "When you're doing something like that, it's a fun part of the job," Spivey says.
In general, it's up to Spivey to assess project status, solve problems and make sure the projects stay on track. The challenge and the excitement come when big projects change course halfway through. Spivey relishes the challenge.
"Recently I asked a guy in another department for something, and he said, 'Here you are, asking for the impossible again.' I said, 'No, I was asking for the impossible yesterday; this may be a little harder.'
"That's what makes the job fun," Spivey says with a laugh. "The outcome is usually beyond what everyone expects it to be."
Managing seasoned engineers
Spivey's team is made up of seasoned engineers. He likes that because he can focus on guidance and leadership. But he also works with Junior Achievement to bring in high school summer interns. "I enjoy working with young people and showing them how to do things easier," he says.
Spivey sums up his management style as "laid back." But he keeps in touch. "I usually talk to my staff daily about what's going on. I keep up to speed on how the project is going and communicate that to my boss." he says.
The job also involves interesting travel. He's been to every continent except Africa. To work well with diverse people, you have to understand their languages and cultures, he points out. "The Chinese and Japanese have a lot of pride in their languages. If you go over there and try to speak their languages they respect that you made the effort to learn."
Spivey enjoys innovation and has developed two patents for the gas industry. His patented technology is still ahead of its time, but "At some point, someone will find good use for it!" he says with a laugh.
An engineering leader
He also has a record as a leader for other African Americans in engineering. He was a founding member of the Kansas City chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE), which launched twenty-five years ago.
"The timing was perfect," he says. "The late 1980s was a time when a lot of companies were looking for diversity and reaching out to increase it." Spivey is still a member of the AABE group in Atlanta, GA and, in fact, works at AGL Resources with the group's current president.
Early in his career Spivey was selected for the Kansas City Black Achiever Award, which he received for working with organizations like Junior Achievement. "I felt very good about that award," he recalls with pleasure. "You met people from different companies, which was good for your career, and on a personal level it told me that maybe I could do great things."
As a kid Spivey wanted to be an artist. But he lost his mother in a car crash, an older brother was taking care of the family, and there just wasn't the money for education after high school. Spivey entered the Air Force instead, but "After two years I realized it wasn't for me. But by then I had some money to go back to school," he says.
He decided that the nearest thing to art that paid well was drafting. So he got a 1977 associate of arts in drafting technology from Kansas City Community College. During school he worked in architectural design. Around Kansas City, it was young Spivey who drew up the plans for the local McDonald's and Holiday Inn franchises.
His high grades in community college won him a scholarship to the University of Kansas. But should he go?
"It wasn't an easy decision to come to," he says. "I was out of the Air Force and doing well in drafting. I was married with two children, two cars, a dog and a cat. And besides, at that time I didn't know anyone who had gone to college and graduated," Spivey says.
But he did it, and received his BSCE in 1981.
From 1981 to 1985 he worked as a design and planning engineer for Panhandle Eastern Pipeline (Houston, TX). "This company believed in investing in young engineers: they treated you like a top executive," he recalls.
"You flew around on a corporate jet. You drove a Jaguar into the hangar and said, 'I need to be in Denver at noon today and leave for Houston at three. Can you guys take care of me?' They treated you well to say the least," he says.
And then the bottom fell out of the industry. Spivey was happy to find a job as a gas engineering manager for Missouri Public Service, where he stayed from 1985 to 1994.
"I walked into an office where all I had was files. So I started pulling things together I knew people at the pipeline company and used them as a resource to set up engineering specs and standards to show how to have an effective operation." He started with three engineers, managed the technical services group of drafting people and ended up with six people. In 1992 he completed a masters in business management from Webster University (St. Louis, MO).
Gas research and beyond
In 1994 he left to become technology manager for the Gas Research Institute (Des Plaines, IL), where he managed projects and contract resources to deliver new technology and products to gas industry customers. He moved up to principal technology manager in 1999, managing multi-million dollar research projects. The focus, he says, was "digging and restoring."
Next came trenchless technology: how to repair pipes without digging. Spivey developed a liner like a water hose that went inside a leaking pipe, glued itself to the inside and sealed the leaks.
Later, when the institute dropped out of supporting the endeavor, he found a German company doing something similar and worked out a business plan to get them started in the U.S. The new Starline Trenchless Technology (Des Plaines, IL) lost $500,000 its first year of business and asked Spivey to take over as president in 2000. Spivey ran the operation at a profit for three years.
Back into utilities
One day Spivey was giving a talk about gas industry technology, and the senior VP of AGL Resources heard him. He offered Spivey his current job, and Spivey started in 2005.
"I wanted to get back into the utility industry and to move back to the South," he says. "Besides, the economy was slowing down, and one of the first things likely to be cut back was research."
His advice is to "Keep up to date with your industry and know whether it's growing or shrinking. I wanted to get back into utilities, and here I am, saying what the future holds and working to give us a competitive edge.
"Every industry wants to do things more efficiently," Spivey concludes.