Dan Berube is a shining example of how a non-traditional student can help his career along by attending Montana Tech and, in his case, ultimately take the seat of one of the most traditional of posts in the state — the CEO of The Montana Power Co. (now NorthWestern Energy). To rise to that level in any career takes hard work, determination and a solid education.
But for the low-key and reserved Berube, much of it cameas a pleasant surprise.
"If you did your work well and had the opportunities presented to you, you were wise not to turn them down," he said in a wide-ranging interview recently.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Suffice to say, Berube graduated high school at age 16 in Boston in the 1950s, but didn't complete his college career until 1971.
"My kids always tease me about how long it took me to finish college," said Berube from his comfortable and spacious home in the Butte Country Club area.
"My message to students is that you should not be afraid to be a non-traditional student and spend time both working and going to school, despite the costs and extra effort. You should consider it, especially these days, when college offers so much more with the advantage of online classes and course offerings outside of regular business hours." Berube is a strong believer in the work ethic. A native of Boston, Berube earned associate degrees in chemistry and mechanical engineering at Northeastern University, and then served 5½ years in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
He earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington in 1964 and a master's in engineering science from Montana Tech(then the Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology) in 1971. He completed the Harvard Advanced Management Program in 1990.
Berube was a co-pilot in the Air Force, attaining the reserve rank of captain, flying refueling tankers at Malmstrom. Most of his stint was sandwiched between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"You have veterans' recognition for those wars, but there really ought to be some recognition of veterans of the Cold War. That's the war I was in for most of my service." Malmstrom played a significant role as a refueling stop for long-range bombers flying from the middle of the country to northern training routes.
He also got plenty of hands-on mechanical training as well. He completed a four-year apprenticeship as a toolmaker (a machinist trade) at the Boston Naval Shipyard before entering the Air Force and while attending Northeastern University in the evenings.
"I always liked to understand how things worked. When I was young I'd ask how something got built, and the reply was an engineer designed it." After graduating college in Seattle and a short term with Boeing, his love of Montana is what drew him back to the Treasure State.
"I knew it well from all the flyovers, of course. And my first wife was from Helena." In September 1964, he was hired as a beginning engineer for The Montana Power Co. joining a staff of about 50 and began work on the Corette Power plant under way in Billings. The starting pay then was about $600 a month.
From there it was a succession of projects with MPC, culminating in the construction of the $1.82 billion Colstrip 3 and 4 coal-fired power plants in the 1970s. The plants have a generating capacity of over 700 megawatts each and came online in the mid 1980s.
Berube was tapped as the project manager for the massive plant construction, hiring a corps of engineers to work with the contractors and between them accomplish the computer modeling, engineering, drafting, soil analysis, specifying, ordering, manufacturing and assembling the plant equipment. It was important to keep close tabs on the project for MPC and the other four owner companies to ensure that all parties held up their end of the numerous contracts.
Did he sleep at night?
"Well, yes, because if you hire the right people with the right skill sets, the job will get done on time and within budget," he said. This was accomplished.
From there, Berube was promoted through a chain of command with MPC subsidaries that were organized under the banner of "Entech," gaining experience in non-utility conventional businesses. (See the list on Page D6).
It's a credit to his dedication and shows how far one can go with an engineering background in technically oriented companies.
Q. How did you choose your area of study?
A. "My area of study at Montana Tech was a logical extension of my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering."
Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?
A. "Its location in the same city where I worked so that I could work and attend school at the same time was the primary reason, which was enhanced by Tech's excellent reputation. Montana Power encouraged its employees to better themselves by attending college. If the course of study benefited the company as well, it would pick up the tab. (That's something Berube believes in to this day, and promoted it while he was head of MPC. What better way of retaining employees than to help them increase their value to the company?)."
Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?
A. "Being appointed CEO of Montana Power." Berube worked through the chairs of the company and credits his supervisors and company leaders with helping him move forward. The list reads like a who's who of the power company top brass. There was Bob Labrie, a long-time mentor of 19 years and renowned engineer and manager in his own right. And there was Vice President Ray Ball who taught everyone including Berube the value of keeping costs down.
"You may still see some substations from the '30s and '40s built from wooden timbers instead of steel, which was hard to come by. People called them ‘Ray Ball's lumberyards'. He'd find scrap to make things work and they lasted." Also there was Jack Burke, MPC's vice chairman, and long-time MPC presidents and CEOs Paul Schmechel and Joe McElwain.
Q. What goals did you accomplish or project of which you are most proud?
A. "Being Project Manager for the multi-owned coal-fired electric power generating units called Colstrip Units 3 & 4 and leading their on-time under-budget construction which was the largest private capital investment ever in the state of Montana." Not only was Berube responsible for the plant, but helping the town grow as well. His youngest son attended the brand spanking new Colstrip High School, complete with indoor swimming pool. In those days, new schools were rare and the small school district benefited from the taxes on the huge project.
Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun at Tech.
A. "Receiving my master's degree with my wife and children present. I was the youngest of six siblings and the only one of my family to attend college." He also followed Schmechel to a Harvard Business School training session where he got more help on how to manage such a huge company as MPC.
Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, mentor, public, private and why?
A. "I had several special mentors at MPC that helped my development. My principal mentor and immediate supervisor for 19 years was Bob Labrie who became vice president and chief engineer of MPC before he retired. I also had great models to learn from in people like Ray Ball, Roger Hofacker and Paul Schmechel. All of these people had great qualities of integrity, intelligence, and dedication to providing essential utility services to the public. Paul Schmechel was my predecessor as CEO and persuaded the Board of Directors to appoint me to my officer positions." Berube points out that these mentors cared deeply for the company and strove to keep costs to their lowest for the consumer. Later, while he was running Entech, some of the subsidiaries needed to be sold or shut down. It was counseling from his mentors that helped him make those tough decisions.
Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or event potential, future jobs. Give us some examples.
A. "Supplementing my technical education through the master's degree program at Tech greatly improved my ability to understand issues around the kinds of facilities the company needed to have to provide essential services. Constructing and maintaining industrial facilities raises many concerns about environmental, economic, management and civic matters. Learning to assimilate what others are telling you is an important management trait."
Q. How do you stay connected to Montana Tech?
A. "I have served on Montana Tech's Foundation Board of Directors and Local Executive Board, and currently serve on Tech's Industry Advisory Board for the Engineering Department. I enjoy personal contact with a number of Tech's faculty and staff members."
Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?
A. "Certainly you should expect to have to work hard, but you must also be open to opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. Be patient. Be aware that if you haven't yet had the opportunity to work in any particular field you may find the study areas you begin to pursue may need to be modified to suit your aptitudes and changes in your interests, and this can add to the time it takes to earn a degree.
Today, non-traditional and part time students have many opportunities to add to their credentials. Don't avoid college just because you aren't a recent high school graduate or can't afford a full schedule of classes."
Age, address: 75. 27 Cedar Lake Drive, Butte, MT 59701 Job title and company you work for: Retired from The Montana Power Co. at the end of 1997. At the time of retirement was Chairman of the Board of Directors.
Brief work history: Served in U.S. Air Force from August 1957 to January 1963. Graduated from the University of Washington in Mechanical Engineering in1964 and joined The Montana Power Co. engineering department. Worked primarily on power generation projects and was appointed Vice President of the Colstrip Project Division in 1984. From then until retirement served a succession of executive officer positions in Montana Power Co. and its subsidiaries and was appointed MPC's Chief Executive Officer in January 1992.
Personal data: Lived, worked and studied in Boston until entering the Air Force. While serving, married Kathryn (Kitty) Fox in Helena in 1962. Three children: Martha, Thomas, and Robert. Kitty passed away in 1989. Married Louise Noyd of Butte in 1991 and she passed away in 1999. Now married to the former Darlene Panion of Butte.
When did you attend Tech: While working at Montana Power attended Tech from 1969 to 1971. Earned Master of Science degree in Engineering Science.
The Montana Tech Football team will host College of Idaho on Saturday, November 5 on Bob Green Field. Tailgating starts 10 a.m., Kickoff at 12 p.m.