Making a contribution to a sustainable energy system

August 9, 2010
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Keith Oldewurtel took over the reins of the former county-owned District Heating and Cooling Operation in late 2008, when Veolia Energy North America bought it for $2.4 million. As vice president and general manager of the facility, he has initiated upgrades that have made the plant, which provides service to roughly 130 customers in downtown Grand Rapids, more efficient and more sustainable.

The environmental upgrades at the facility, 156 W. Fulton St., were rewarded last month by the Energy Solutions Center in Washington, D.C., which honored the local Veolia Energy team with an innovation award for installing a cutting-edge heat exchanger that reduced the volume of fuel used, lowered the cost to produce energy, and cut the DHCO’s carbon footprint.

At almost the same time, Veolia Energy North America, which is headquartered in Boston, recognized Oldewurtel’s accomplishments by making him vice president of the company’s central region. The promotion means that he is now responsible for the firm’s operations in Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Tulsa and, of course, Grand Rapids. He will also be in charge of any new facilities the company adds in the central region.

“This is a great opportunity for me both personally and professionally. I take great pride in the team we have built and the improvements we have made in the business in Grand Rapids. I am pleased that Grand Rapids is one of the business units I’ll now be responsible for so I can stay engaged with our customers, the Veolia Energy team and the community,” he said.

“The energy business is an exciting industry to be in right now, and Veolia Energy is focused on growth. This new role allows me to contribute on a broad platform.”

Oldewurtel said being recruited by Williams & Works about 25 years ago was the move that established his career path. At that time, he was the superintendent of the wastewater utility authority for the cities of Iron Mountain and Kingsford in the Upper Peninsula.

“It brought me to Grand Rapids, first of all, and into an industry and a company that really provided me with exceptional growth opportunities. It got me to a place within an organization in the industry that afforded me a lot of opportunity.”

That first version of Williams & Works was acquired by Earth Tech during Oldewurtel’s time there, and he climbed the Earth Tech ladder to become a senior vice president of its North America Contract Operations Division. Just two years ago, Oldewurtel was honored with Earth Tech’s Leadership Excellence Award, which recognized his safety record and financial accomplishments.

Oldewurtel said he still remains in touch with some of the people he worked with at Williams & Works, including Steve Williams. Williams is a principal in the current Williams & Works company and played a vital role in its reincarnation. Oldewurtel considers an associate and a friend.

“I view Steve as a good friend and have actually done business with Steve. He and I kept in touch when he left and restarted Williams & Works. I knew Steve from day one. He was one of the key individuals when I came down and joined the business,” he said. “There are a lot of great people around the Grand Rapids area with the engineering firms that came out of that Williams & Works business.”

Williams said he has known Oldewurtel for about 25 years. “Keith was instrumental in growing the contract-operations part of the old W.W. Engineering & Science. He took it from being a regional firm to an international operation when it was purchased by Earth Tech,” said Williams. “While it was a good break for him to come to us, it was probably even a better break for us to have him.”

Oldewurtel was born in Ontario, Ore., a small town on the state’s east side, not far from the Idaho border. But he didn’t grow up there. His father, Fred, was in the U.S. Navy for much of his life, and the family lived in Washington, California, Virginia, Wisconsin, and on the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

After four years in sunny, tropical Cuba, the family moved to one of the northernmost cities in the nation, when Fred was transferred to a recruiting station in Escanaba, Mich. As a sixth grader, Oldewurtel found himself facing a bit of culture shock.

“Our Christmas was 90 degrees when we were living on the Navy base in Cuba, and we moved in November to snow in the U.P. We settled there and my dad retired there, where he ultimately became a circuit court bailiff. So I pretty much grew up there. I’m not a native Yooper, but I’ve spent a good part of my life there,” he said.

“When we were living in Cuba, it was great at that age. It was summer year-round, with the beach every weekend. But you don’t have the seasons. You’re restricted to being on the Navy base because it was a closed base. On a Navy base you’re with your friends, and the kids you hang out with are all in the same situation. And now you move to Escanaba, and it’s not a Navy base but a different environment. But I grew up moving around and was used to that.”

Oldewurtel graduated from high school in Escanaba and then attended Bay College there, where he earned a degree in water purification technology. His interest in the subject began when he was a junior in high school. He signed up for an emergency medical technician class whose instructor was married to the man who directed the water technology program at Bay College.

“So she would talk about the different things he was doing, and I also had an interest in science and engineering types of things. I was trying to sort out what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted to go to school for. So I … had an opportunity to sit in on a couple of classes. I really developed an interest in it, signed up for it, and that’s the story,” he said.

After graduating, Oldewurtel immediately went to work in the water utility department for the nearby city of Gladstone, where he worked for five years. During that time, he earned some upper-level industry certifications, and those credentials helped him become a superintendent of the wastewater utility department at Iron Mountain/Kingsford.

“I worked there for about 2½ years, when I was approached by Williams & Works,” he said.

“When I joined Williams & Works, I was the eighth employee at the time in what was known as the O&M group — operations and maintenance services. The revenue for that business was probably less than $500,000 at the time. It was a small group that had a lot of potential.

“I worked at Williams & Works for almost 25 years, and over those years, I went through a variety of acquisitions. And with each of those acquisitions, I had opportunities,” he said.

For the last eight years that Oldewurtel spent at Earth Tech, he directed the company’s North American operations for that business unit. “When I left the Earth Tech organization to join Veolia, we went to about 400 employees and about $80 million in revenue,” he said.

“That’s why I say that joining Williams & Works was the biggest break of my career, because it was an industry that had growth and it was a company that participated in growth. Throughout all of the acquisitions, there were always opportunities to grow the business, and personal opportunities for me to grow my career professionally. So through those 25 years, I had a wide variety of experiences and opportunities to move forward.”

Keith and Kerry have been married for 28 years. They met when he was three years removed from college and working in the Escanaba area. Kerry was from suburban Chicago but her family had a cottage near the U.P. city. After Kerry graduated from college, she moved to Escanaba and worked as a human resources director for a bank. Keith knew Kerry’s brother fairly well and he introduced the two of them.

“It was one of those whirlwind things. We both had been out of school and working for a while. We met each other and got married shortly thereafter,” he said.

“My wife left her career as a personnel director in the banking industry to raise our two great kids, since my job at Earth Tech required significant travel. She is an avid gardener and now provides elder care for her mother, who stays with us in the winter and returns to Escanaba for the summer.”

Kate, their oldest child at 24, is a personalization specialist at the Party City store on 28th Street and a Grand Valley State University graduate. Nineteen-year-old Jackson is about to begin his sophomore year at Central Michigan University, where he is studying health care administration.

Oldewurtel said finding spare time is difficult for him for a couple of reasons. First, he is on the road a lot for his job. Second, he said he was raised with a strong work ethic, a commitment he has held to throughout his successful career. He said some of his friends have even called him a workaholic.

When he does find a few free moments, he likes to cook. He has a number of specialties, the kind that take a full day to shop for and prepare. Oldewurtel said his family’s favorite is his lasagna. The Oldewurtels live in Cascade Township.

As for his future, Oldewurtel sees himself staying busy. He said he is looking forward to meeting the challenges that will emerge from his new position with Veolia and continuing to develop the local system.

“I hope to remain engaged in the community and intend to build on the great progress we have made since purchasing the business in November 2008,” he said. “The Grand Rapids district energy system is a jewel that, with a continued focus on efficiency improvements and customer service, will play a key role in the sustainability and continued development of the city.”

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