Cliff Freeman Interview

Cliff Freeman

Former Civil/Structural Department Manager

How and when did you get started at Anvil?

Ron Vekved hired me in June 1976. I was fresh out of school and made a phone call to Anvil and he said to come on in for an interview. At that time, we were engaged in soils work as well as other engineering work. I remember Ron telling me when he hired me that they had work into the Fall but it wasn’t quite certain after that. He said there were no guarantees and he may have to give me my notice in the Fall. Every Fall I used to remind Ron and ask if this was the Fall he was talking about.

We were about 20 strong when I joined the company. We had a small office on Main Street in downtown Ferndale. We had both the first floor and the basement of a building and then we rented a little house out back where we had the soils lab. I was with Anvil for about 42 years before retiring.

What were your different roles at Anvil?

We all wore lots of hats. Personally, in the beginning I ran some numbers and then emptied the garbage. You know, Ron and Larry were both pretty clear about learning how to wear a bunch of hats. If you could do that, then you could survive in the business.

I worked in the soils lab, so we were doing compaction testing in the fields. The first two days on the job I came to work with a shirt and tie and before noon I was out in the Coker unit doing NDE work. All of a sudden the phone would ring and you’d drop your pencil and go chasing the technical guys out in the field. Then, I went into doing more discipline work. There was period where Bill Chambers and I were running the soils lab and then I started working my way into some project stuff and onto a range of things.

In 1993, I took over the Civil/Structural department then within the year I decided to move to Alaska for about 10 years. When I came back from Alaska, I worked with the NDE department for a few months and then slipped back into the Civil/Structural Department Manager role. I went back to Alaska in 2011-12 and when I came back, worked in the BP program for a year. I finished my last few years back in the Civil/Structural department. As I said, lots of hats.

We were always able and willing, whatever the need, we just dove in and did it. Sometimes you might think a task is beneath you, but you did it because it was the best thing and what the company needed at the time. And, we always learn from those things.

How have things changed from then?

We went from an office in downtown Ferndale with 20 people to a Bellingham campus with four other branches. Peak employment at one point was 600 people. That’s big growth in those years. Back in the beginning, a project that was about 1,000 hours was a major project. We had lots of little bitty stuff, but anything approaching 1,000 manhours was a big, big deal. And today, 100,000 manhours doesn’t scare us. We’ll take on that and more.

What are some of your best memories at Anvil?

I think about a Christmas party around 1980 where we left the Christmas party sometime after 9:00 pm and we went back to the office and huddled for an hour because ARCO gave us a crude heater project that was about 10,000 manhours. I remember thinking that’s just beyond belief – how we’re ever going to work off a project that big! I just couldn’t imagine it. We were anxious to get after it.

I also think about my first North Slope project. It was the summer of ‘83 and a small job, but Jim Fox, Larry Levorsen, Ron Vekved, and I kicked that job off. We did a small project in Prudhoe Bay. Jim Fox and I spent a week up there. Jim worked the day shift and I worked the night shift. We were preparing a barge slip for the STP, which was the salt water treatment plant that Bechtel had built for the North Slope. That was that was a great little job. That’s where I had my first experience with 24 hour daylight. We couldn’t tell the difference between night and day, except for when I got up in the morning I had a steak for breakfast and at the end of my shift I had pancakes and eggs. It was a small thing, but it was memorable.

What factors, events, technology, etc. do you think helped shape our growth?

First, Larry Levenson’s deep experience in the oil and gas arena. He knew how to build projects and he had some tremendous connections. When he first got started with Ron here locally and dealing with the Cherry Point refinery as well as the other two that he got involved in back then, folks immediately knew that he was a guy that could get things done. I think Larry’s background was significant in our growth.

I also think about a time around 1984 where we were about 40 strong. We landed a nice big job that was going to chalk us full. Then out of the blue, we landed another major job with MAPCO where we needed to double the size of the company. Some of us didn’t know how we were going to possibly double our size, but we did. We took building G, which was just built as a warehouse and never had anything stored in it, and immediately went into a remodel to add a second floor and move people in. We doubled our size and pulled it off.

And out of that, we gained some huge horsepower – Dennis McGrew, BK Smith, and Dennis Bennett all joined us then. Those are three powerhouses that came on as a result of our forced growth. That opened my eyes. The notion that we had the ability and could double down and get after those things. We can hire good people and the upside of that, even though work falls off, we were able to gain a tremendous amount of experience with three of those guys and maybe others who stayed with the company for the rest of their careers.

What do you think are some of Anvil’s defining moments?

One was securing the Kuparuk Alliance with ARCO Alaska in 1993. What was significant about that was there were five engineering contractors and we were one of five. After a year, the client looked at what we were doing and said we were the best fit for them. From that point on, we had an exclusive alliance for the next 10 years for all Kuparuk work. That was really a defining moment and was based on our work performance, the people we had in Anchorage, and what that client saw we could do. At one point with that alliance, we had about 300 FTEs working.

Another moment was transferring ownership to the employees and becoming an ESOP. That’s huge. Ron and Larry could have sold the company to a number of other suitors. Larry refused multiple offers from other companies. I think they could have had more money in their pockets if they had sold it. They wanted to keep the company in the employees’ hands which certainly gave us the best opportunity to control our future. That move by Ron and Larry was probably the single biggest thing that defined Anvil.

What do you think sets us apart from others? What are Anvil’s greatest strengths?

One thing that maybe sets us apart and that I’ve always touted was our constructability thinking. I learned early on from Larry the importance of constructability, meaning that you must be able to build things. Whenever I’d sit down with Larry with some drawings, he’d always say it was a pretty picture and ask where’s the material. We’d always start with how to build it and work our way back. As time went on I realized that was the indoctrination we all got, and that we all started thinking about. Engineers are just part of the engine. You must be able to build it smart and we think about that. As a result, we are more willing than most to bring in constructors and have them be part of the team. That’s a huge strength for us. Knowing about constructability and being open to and understanding that it’s a key part of the design process.

What was the culture like while you were at Anvil?

I think it was simply about teamwork. Get it done. We all share in the success. There really wasn’t any one person looking for personal glory. We were all in it together and we tried to work smart and nobody was looking to climb the ladder for personal gain. We were just in it together working and working as best we could. It was actually warm and personable. We all had a connection with the leadership and it was really good. I’ve heard Ron and Larry both say that they just believed in a hard day’s work, a good day’s work for a reasonable pay, and that was what ought to be set in our minds – to produce good work for reasonable pay.

What were some of our bigger successes over the last 50 years?

One is certainly 50 years of continuous work for the BP Cherry Point refinery. That’s no small task. When you have a client from the very beginning, from the time they were under construction to today. That’s the ability to continue to transition our leadership to match with their leadership and to have their new leadership see value is just monumental. I’m proud of our long and lasting relationships with our clients. We all think about that sort of thing, and I think we all have that in the back of our minds we’re doing work.

What moments stand out for you? What are you most proud of?

Personally, it is being part of the Anvil team for my entire career, which was about 42 years. Anvil provided me with challenging work, exciting work, some travel, and makes me continue to think that this was the best company to work for. I couldn’t do better. Every time I looked over the fence, I realized the grass isn’t greener. Not only is the work good but if I wasn’t happy there was always an avenue to go talk to your boss and say you’re looking for a change and you need something different to keep growing. I’ve seen people leave Anvil and come back. You have to be feeling good about what the company is doing when people say they want to come back.

What is one word you’d use to describe Anvil?