Mike Kennedy arrived in Panama earlier this year to head CH2M Hill’s management of the $5.25 billion Panama Canal Third Lane Expansion. The CH2M Hill Executive Vice president is a 38-year veteran of the Denver, Col.-based firm. He previously served as the president of the company’s Transportation Business Group, handling management services for several major jobs such as London’s $22 billion Crossrail Programme and Vancouver’s $4.5 billion Gateway Program. CH2M Hill is working in close association with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) to oversee the expansion effort and, particularly, the design/build locks contract due to be awarded this summer. Kennedy sat down with ENR in his new office near the Miraflores Locks in Panama City to discuss the historic project and the challenges it presents over the next five years.
Why did CH2M Hill choose to pursue this job?
We had, as a transportation business, a desire to build a brand as the group doing the largest infrastructure projects in the world. In 2005 we looked at what were the biggest programs in the world and we picked half a dozen we wanted to target and the Panama Canal expansion was one of them. The advantage CH2M Hill has when we want to do something new, is almost anywhere in the world we have already done something. Turned out we had done work down here and we had some relationships here. In addition, we had a couple of individuals in our organization who not only were Panamanian, but loved the country and wanted to contribute.
Then we started to educate ourselves about the project and the program. What’s being done? Who’s doing what? What are the dimensions of the program itself? We started to get involved and we looked for good advisors.
From the company perspective we looked at this job as one of those benchmark reputation-setting programs that are so universally recognized that they would carry your reputation for decades if done well. This is... the Panama Canal; you don’t really have to say much more than that.
What about this job appealed to you personally?
I’ll be 60 in July and if I think back over my career, it started off in projects and I sort of worked my way up until I became a corporate president and running a very large group. I really enjoyed that but to a certain point I missed the satisfaction of getting something done. It’s not that you don’t do something when you are an executive in a corporate role but it’s not the same as having a tangible focus on having something becoming finished.
That’s kind of how I’m wired, that’s kind of what engineering is all about. And the Third Lane Expansion is the most visible programs in the world. It is a “program” so it has a beginning, middle and end, you can see the progress. And it’s in a country that is so focused and dependent on the success of this that the stakes are really high. To me it’s an irresistible challenge and it crystallized what I want to do.
How intimidating is the historical importance of the Panama Canal?
At a personal level it’s sort of like remodeling the White House. You are touching something that is, in some respects, almost sacred. You’ve got a situation where you really have one of the engineering marvels of the world and you are privileged enough to be a part of it. The historical dimensions of this, the legacy that goes back more than 100 years certainly isn’t lost on anybody working here. It isn’t something we talk about every day but you can’t escape it. You just can’t.
Are there any lessons from the original construction that can be used in the current effort?
We talk about sustainability; well these locks have been operating for ninety four years with very predictable reliable operation because they are simple. And I don’t mean that to be demeaning to the original builders but they actually figured out how to make this very reliable and very maintainable. As an engineer you strive to make things durable so surely there some lessons there. There is no frills, no fanciness here; it just works. Every day, over and over again, time after time.
There is also a logistical element. If you go back and look at the original story of how the canal was built you see how it was about how the right people were in the right place. From Goethals all the way through his organization and even before that... you had the right people at the right time doing the right thing. I think you are starting to see some of that emerge here.
Although you are just starting out on this effort, what is the most important thing you’ve learned so far?
We’ve gained an appreciation of how important and how critical this is for the country and how much pride the people have in ACP, the canal and this project. Almost everywhere you go here, if people find out you are working on the project, the first thing they say is “what can I do to help?” It isn’t really a surprise but the realization and actually seeing it in action is pretty powerful. This is truly the country’s project.
We are trying to be respectful of the fact this is their program and being clear about what it is that we can contribute and how we can strengthen and enhance what they know. The folks at the ACP are brilliant and have such depth in terms of knowledge of this subject so we are trying to be clear about where we can add value. How can we do that efficiently in ways that will help them grow as an organization. I think about that every day.