Idaho’s little-known Power Engineers an engineering heavyweight

Come work for Power Engineers

CEO Bret Moffett says Power Engineers can never find enough engineers. Here is his pitch for why fresh college graduates should work at the growing company, including at its largest office in Meridian.
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CEO Bret Moffett says Power Engineers can never find enough engineers. Here is his pitch for why fresh college graduates should work at the growing company, including at its largest office in Meridian.

Bret Moffett, the freshly promoted CEO of Power Engineers, keeps a brass door handle from Morrison-Knudsen’s former Downtown Boise headquarters in his Meridian office. His wall displays a grainy 1923 photo of M-K’s Boise mule teams, like the ones that helped dig the Ridenbaugh and New York canals in the Treasure Valley more than a century ago.

Moffett says he owes more to M-K than fodder for his interest in engineering history. Power seized a moment in 1985, when M-K moved its engineering department to Ohio, and Power hired some Treasure Valley M-K workers who did not want to go.

M-K was an international powerhouse, with projects such as the Hoover and Arrowrock dams under its belt. The 10 or 12 former M-K engineers propelled Power Engineers’ push into bigger projects and into new areas, such as power generation and industrial plant design.

Power Engineers opened a Boise office in 1990 and moved it to Meridian in 2008. On Wednesday, Moffett will succeed Jack Hand, the CEO since 1998. Hand will stay on as chairman. Moffett said the board allowed him to stay at the Meridian office instead of moving to Hailey.

Pete Van Der Meulen and Hans Buhler founded Power Engineers in Pocatello in 1976. Their original headquarters burned the next year, so they relocated to Hailey. The founders are no longer involved in the company.

Today, Power Engineers has offices in 38 U.S. markets and another in Johannesburg in South Africa. The company designs power plants and transmission lines as well as food manufacturing plants, including the $100 million CS Beef Packing plant under construction near Kuna co-owned by J.R. Simplot Co. Power is working on 1,500 projects around the globe and expects to boost revenue 8 percent this year, Moffett said.

2,100 employees at Power Engineers, including 200 at company headquarters in Hailey and 400 in Meridian.

$396 million Power Engineers sales for 2015, up 10 percent from 2014.

Moffett, 52, worked at Micron Technology in the 1990s when the Boise company tapped Power Engineers to help design a semiconductor plant in Lehi, Utah. After earning an MBA at Boise State University, Moffett joined Power in 2000 as manager of its automation group.

He and his wife of 28 years, Katrin, live in Boise. His daughter, Annika, 20, attends Boise State, and his 16-year-old son, Berint, attends Borah High School.

Q: Not all engineers design transmission lines and geothermal power plants. Was delivery always a Power Engineers specialty?

A: We started mainly as an electric-distribution design engineer. That’s the low-voltage stuff, like what comes to your house. We did work early on in the mid-’70s that brought power to mines.

In the early ’80s, Morrison-Knudsen moved its engineering staff to Cleveland. A bunch of folks involved in geothermal power plants, power generation and industrial systems didn’t want to move. Power hired them. That got us started in power plants, food-processing facilities and other areas.

Shortly after that, we got involved in the communications business through an ex-executive of U.S. West.

Q: How did the M-K hires expand Power’s portfolio?

A: It got us into power plants, specifically geothermal. We inherited a world-class geothermal design practice, and we’re still the leading geothermal detail designer in the world. The problem is, there’s only a handful of geothermal plants done every year. But we do quite a few of them.

That eventually led to gas-fired power plants, peaking power plants and now combined-cycle gas turbines.

It also brought people who had industrial-automation and industrial-controls experience to Power. That got us into projects with Potlatch, Boise Cascade, Simplot and those kinds of companies. It got us into industrial controls as well. Both of those practices have grown a lot.

Q: What work is Power Engineers doing on the Simplot beef-packing plant near Kuna?

A: As design engineers, we probably did the packaging and processing part of the meat plant. We’d specify the equipment, do the engineering calculations to make sure the meat will pass safety requirements. We design the insulation, the steam, the electricity, all of the systems that make the plant run. We deliver a set of blueprints to the contractor, who builds the design.

Q: Power Engineers isn’t a beef packer. How does the company wrap its arms around the needs for a particular industry?

A: We have a lot of experience with process and packaging. This isn’t the first meat packing plant. The knowledge came from people we’ve hired. On the industrial side, we’ve done roasters for Starbucks and Hewlett-Packard’s LaserJet automation in Singapore, France, Germany, the United States, Brazil and Mexico. We’ve done fiber draw towers for Alcatel-Lucent. We’ve done semiconductors. We’ve done a lot of work for Simplot, Kraft, Heinz, Ore-Ida.

Q: How do you find that expertise?

A: Competing for engineers and scientists is the biggest challenge we have right now. We’re not graduating enough of them, and older folks are retiring. About 50 percent of our staff has been at Power for three years or less. We hire a lot of college graduates. They don’t come with a lot of knowledge, so we have to train them.

Portland State has a power program. We support that program through scholarships and donations to the power lab. As a result, we have good relationships there, and we recruit the cream of the crop with interns and hiring every year. We do that some with the University of Maine, Gonzaga University and the University of Missouri.

Q: What can a large contract mean for Power Engineers?

A: For a $1 billion power-delivery project, our fees would be around $10 million to $12 million. A large transmission line of several hundred miles will cost in the billions to build. We might get anywhere from $20 million to $30 million in fees for something like that. A lot of the smaller work we do, like upgrades, fill the gaps between the big greenfield projects.

Q: Who owns the company?

A: About 300 of us employees own the company, including probably 200 in Idaho. No one person owns more than 5 percent. Everybody owns a piece, and we think that’s what makes us successful.

Q: Power Engineers has bought 15 engineering firms in the past decade. What role have acquisitions played in the company’s growth?

A: Those acquisitions ranged from five people to 400 people. Acquisitions are hard. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes, but by and large they’ve been good for us. We’ve acquired many of our key people today. Many of the acquisitions could be seen as mass hires.

Q: What’s something you’ve learned from your predecessor, Jack Hand?

A: One thing I learned from Jack is fill out your calendar in January to make sure you have all of those things scheduled, because work is going to demand a lot of you. There’s a lot of travel. You have to manage your time, or you’re going to miss your birthdays, your anniversaries, your kids’ concerts.

This business is a contact sport. You can’t manage this in an ivory tower. Jack is awesome at that.

Power Engineers CEO Bret Moffett on his predecessor, Jack Hand

Q: How will the company change under your leadership?

A: We’d need a change agenda if we had a problem, but we’ve been extremely successful. Jack and I worked together successfully for a long time even though we were much different people. Jack is more of a larger-than-life figure. He’s from New Jersey. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and if he thinks you are full of it, he’ll tell you. I might think about things a little more.

Edited for length and clarity. Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @IDS_ZachKyle