NASSCO Standard Bearers: Steve Mortensen, P.E.

EDITOR’S NOTE:
NASSCO just completed its 42nd year and continues to set standards for the assessment and rehabilitation of underground infrastructure. As the association experiences remarkable growth, this series profiles those who have made significant contributions, and impacted the continued acceptance and growth of trenchless rehabilitation methods. This is a bi-monthly installment in a series of articles exploring the history of NASSCO through the eyes of industry leaders.

This month, NASSCO honors Steve Mortensen, co-founder of Project Engineering Consultants, Phoenix, Ariz. He has been an integral part of both the rehabilitation industry and the growth of NASSCO for more than 35 years.

Growing up in Phoenix, Ariz. taught me to love the desert. Soon I will be entering my 70th year and I hope to always call Phoenix home.

The first time I lived anywhere other than Arizona was in the late 1960s when I was 18 years old and was drafted into the United States Army. Upon completion of engineering and airborne training, I was shipped off to Vietnam in March 1969, serving there for a total of 365 days. Not that I was counting the days or anything! I left Vietnam on Friday, March 13, and therefore Friday the 13th has always been a very lucky day for me.

While in Vietnam I was assigned to the 27th Engineering Battalion (Airborne) at Gia Le adjoining Camp Eagle, which was southeast of the city of Hue near the Demilitarized Zone. I guess you could say this is where my infrastructure industry experience began. My Division built roads from the city through the forest out to Firebase Bastogne, Firebase Blaze and other smaller firebases, all of which were located in the middle of the jungle and designed to provide artillery fire support to infantry units.

We designed strategic areas along the road near the A Sau Valley to support Hamburger Hill. This was a joint U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam military operation that was designed to keep pressure on the People’s Army of Vietnam to stop them from mounting attacks on coastal provinces via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During my year in Vietnam, I transferred from my engineer role to one of a mechanic servicing trucks, which I am convinced played a part in my survival.

Civilian life

When I returned from Vietnam in 1970 I was transferred to the 82nd airborne unit in Fort Bragg, N.C. When my service ended in 1972, I headed back to Arizona driving my brother’s car, which broke down on the side of the road along the way in North Carolina. I hitchhiked the rest of the journey home to Phoenix, where I took a job with American Engineering as a draftsman. After a little over two years on the job I realized I wanted a career shift, so I headed for Brigham Young University to continue my education.

I met my wife Pam at BYU and, coincidentally, she was from North Carolina. We graduated in April of 1978 and I convinced her to return to Phoenix with me. She did a little kicking and screaming, but finally obliged. She’s been living in the desert with me for more than 40 years now, and she still doesn’t like it! But we have four sons who are now grown and love living in Arizona, so she makes the best of it.

Once we were back in Phoenix I returned to American Engineering, this time pursing work with its land development division. Projects included huge developments – 2,000 to 3,000 acres each – in the Mesa, Scottsdale and Phoenix areas. I worked in that position for about five years until in 1982, I was ready to have more responsibility and earn more to raise my growing family. I accepted a job with another engineering firm, Wadsworth Jensen and Associates, which does a lot of transportation work. After six months on the job I partnered up with the gentleman who hired me, Larry Maldonado, to start our own firm, Project Engineering Consultants (PEC).

The year was 1983 and we started by offering land development services because that’s what we knew. Our combined knowledge and experience, coupled with Larry’s Hispanic heritage, allowed us to organize as a minority-owned company and helped accelerate our business’s growth. The timing was right because in the late 1980s massive freeway systems were built in the metropolitan Phoenix area. Relying on state and federal funding, every one of those projects required that a minority-owned business work on the contracts, so we were grateful to be highly successful without needing formal sales or marketing initiatives.

Our services expanded to include land surveying and utility relocations for the massive highway projects. This past July marked PEC’s 35th year in business, and we have grown to more than 80 employees with offices across the Western United States.

Trenchless and NASSCO

I first learned about NASSCO when we started using trenchless technologies in Phoenix, and realized NASSCO had the knowledge and resources we needed to do the work correctly. We did our first CIPP small-diameter job in 1996 for the city of Phoenix. The city was also starting to do some large-diameter condition assessment work, so in order to compete we needed someone to help us with those projects. We hired the city’s project manager, Bob Webb, to manage inspection services for PEC.

In 2001 we hired another NASSCO member company, Pro Pipe, to do the assessment work, and have been with it ever since. Dean Monk and Mark Metcalfe (who has since retired from Pro Pipe and is a past president of NASSCO’s Board of Directors) are just all-around, good people and share our commitment to excellence. If we have any type of problem with a video, for example, they re-do it without question and never charge extra, because it’s just the right thing to do. I think that goes for most NASSCO members. We all want to see our industry grow, and do whatever it takes to support one another.

Also, in the early 2000s Bob had learned about NASSCO’s PACP from John Jurgens, who is still training PACP today. I took time to learn more about the program and received my PACP certification from Rod Thornhill in 2002, the year the program was launched. I immediately saw the value of standardization and realized I needed to make sure all our workers were certified. I became a PACP trainer to ensure our employees had the knowledge they needed to assess pipes consistently and with full integrity.

Using PACP as a competitive advantage, PEC won a 120-mile pipeline assessment job for Phoenix and convinced the city to adopt the PACP standard. Our business and the acceptance of PACP just snowballed from there. We went to surrounding cities and convinced them that PACP was the way to go. And now all of the cities in the metropolitan Phoenix area use and trust PACP.

The influence of PACP has positively impacted the many different states in which PEC provides services including Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. The benefits of standardized assessment coding to cities are many, including flexibility in working with multiple contractors who all speak the same language.

Over time I became even more involved with NASSCO, eventually serving on the Board of Directors from 2004 to 2008. As a contractor-based trade association, NASSCO provided me the opportunity to share ideas with contractors as well as other engineers, municipalities and vendors. No other organization offered that networking, and it proved to be extremely valuable in many ways, including the fact that multiple facets of our industry are involved in contributing to and developing standards. It is never one-sided for a particular technology or method.

NASSCO standards have benefitted our company and, ultimately, our customers. Over the years PEC has performed more than 2,000 miles of pipeline assessment work and approximately 200 miles of trenchless rehabilitation, including CIPP, pipe bursting, tunneling and other technologies. The resources available from NASSCO help us determine which method is most appropriate to provide the best solutions for each unique project.

I still train PACP three or four times each year, primarily for our clients. After retirement I plan to continue to train so I can stay involved in the industry and contribute to NASSCO’s mission: to set standards for the assessment, maintenance and rehabilitation of underground infrastructure and assure the continued acceptance and growth of trenchless technologies. I also plan to enjoy life – and lots of golf – in in the desert!

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