By Gerard O'Brien of the Montana Standard
“If you look at it for the long term, are passionate about work, work hard and never quit, the sky is the limit.”
Giving out advice is always easy; accepting it is what is difficult. "It's a good thing I listened to my dad, because the decision to go to Montana Tech was one of the best I’ve made in my life," Chris Murphy said. Fortunately for Murphy, now 53, he did listen to his dad and his career and life have been greater than he could have ever imagined. As a young man, Murphy wanted to travel, perhaps lead the life of the classic ski bum at Bridger Mountain or Red Lodge or other resorts. And, he wanted to see exotic places. "I grew up in Montana, in Glendive, and spent my first two college years at Montana State University in Bozeman in Pre-Med. Basically, I majored in skiing and beer drinking," he laughs.
"I stayed out of college for a summer and a semester. But it was my dad--who was influential with me--who convinced me to go back to school, attend Montana Tech, and get a Mining degree. "My dad, Pat Murphy, has a degree in Economics and worked for small oil companies. Our family moved so often, I actually attended three different high schools in four years; one in Oklahoma, one in Billings, and one in Glendive. My dad operated small production oil wells in Wyoming. "I really didn't want to go back to school. I was working in construction for a while and started to see that I could travel all over the world." But construction is a seasonal occupation, and the vagaries of weather dictate when one works and when you have to hole up, and wait for the storms to blow over. That didn't sit well with Murphy.
Yet construction led to his interest in engineering, especially mining. "At least with mining, there is work year round," he said. He applied, and got accepted to Montana Tech, and Tech launched him on an engineering/construction career that is matched by very few in the industry.
Here's a Q&A look into Murphy's success:
Q. When did you attend Tech?
A. 1976 to 1980, earning a Bachelor's degree in Mining Engineering.
Q. Why did you choose Montana Tech over other schools?
A. It had a worldwide reputation, a track record of nearly 100% placement for jobs and the smaller classroom size. I got to know the instructors well. When I attended MSU in Bozeman, there were classes with 300 people in them. At Tech, there may have been 15 to 30 students in a class. The professors really pushed you, but were there to help, that was a big plus. It was clear at Tech, you were there to get summer work experience, aside from the studies. One summer, I worked at the Bureau of Mines on campus detailing exploration drilling programs.
One summer, I was an intern with Intrasearch, a mining consulting engineering firm out of Denver, specializing in digital mapping, working with mine consulting engineers. I also did a stint drilling on a coal property, north of the Decker mine in Montana, called the Tongue River Mine, supervising drilling and gathering marketing information. I was 20 or 21 at the time, and it was a blast.
Don't limit yourself if you think you are weak in math and science. I was horrible in math, absolutely horrible. My ACT scores were high in History and English, but not science. For me, I wish I would have known that while you need to work at math, and work hard, all the other disciplines will apply to your career, too. The message I tell my own kids is: Listen to what the adults are telling you. At age 18, you do not know who you are or what you can do. Many people write themselves off prematurely, they tell themselves they cannot be a success. It is just not true, but it does take hard work. You need to listen to people's advice.
Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?
A. Being elected to the Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. Board of Directors. Actually, Kiewit is a Fortune 500 company, doing $8 billion in revenue annually. Located in Omaha, Neb., they are one of the largest self-perform contractors in North America and one of the top 10 coal producers. It is a big company with a board of 15. It was an honor to be asked to be on the board.
Incidentally, Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are located in our headquarters. It is unusual and unique to ride in the elevator with the world's richest man. And, you often get to rub elbows with other high-power people such as Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Peter Ueberroth, formerly Head of the 1984 Olympics, and the late Dave Thomas.
Q. What goals or project are you most proud of?
A. Taking a company called Kiewit Materials Co. (an asphalt aggregate and concrete firm) from $40 million in annual revenues to $650 million in revenues and selling it to an international building materials company for about $700 million. Obviously, I did not do this on my own, it took a strong team, and with that, you can accomplish a lot. This task was sort of given to me on the run, which made me think on my feet. You learn the quickest when you are given a challenging and difficult assignment. The company said, "Let's put him in a business that is struggling and see how well he will do when he is out of his comfort zone." That is the thing that will take you further ahead. We were chasing after everyone else for jobs. We didn't have enough market share, we either had to get bigger fast, or downsize. We were not doing anything wrong, but we were focused in the wrong direction. This is not always the best way to get sleep. For seven years in a row, this business lost money. We put together a methodical business plan, like you would do a Tech research project.
Also, I think I'm fairly personable and outgoing. I went down to Phoenix and Tucson and talked to almost all of the employees, all of our competitors, vendors in the industry, asphalt suppliers and the community; because everyone offers a different perspective or point of view. The toughest part was lying off about 45% of salaried positions. This is tough and emotionally difficult to do, but was the right thing to do. A lot of cases were people who had 20 or 25 years in. It is like a ship going down, and you have to get rid of half the passengers to save the other half. However, it was the right business decision and the business turned around in the first year. And--this was the odd part--I convinced the board if we could get bigger, we could grow rapidly. I wanted to put more money into the business, not less. It is all part of not taking "No" for an answer. We were able to grow the company up to $650 million in annual revenues. We had a lot of happy shareholders, and I became President and CEO. The company grew to 3,000 employees and was based all over the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, the Bay Area, Utah and Nebraska. Our motto is no job too big or too small. So, you should not limit yourself by thinking you cannot do these jobs by not having an MBA or law degree. I had to deal with financial and legal issues. The value of my education was not what I learned. It was how to learn, how to weigh the evidence, test it out, form your own assumptions and conclusions. It is invaluable in today's world.
Q. Tell us about some memorable college experiences, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun for you at Tech.
A. My summer jobs were critically important to my experience and helped me early on in my career. One thing that struck me at Tech was the large number of foreign students--Canadian, Venezuelan, Nigerians, and Iranians, who paid to come over to the U.S. to learn. Their families had high positions in the governments and they were very bright kids. I met a number of foreign students. They were a good mix of people for a Montana boy.
One I knew invited me over to his house. He was married and had two wives! But that was part of his tribal family tradition. He accepted a job with the Nigerian government, but there was a military coup at the time and a purge on his tribe. He wound up in Canada. Another was the son of the Minister for Oil in Venezuela. Where else would you get to meet people like that?
At Kiewit, we hire a lot of Montana Tech grads for these reasons. There is something about a small-town environment, where you are raised, the fact that you have to work hard, you do not mind working up through the system. Being raised in Montana is a gift, really. Tech kids don't mind starting out on the lowest rung. They have a strong work ethic and are raised with the right values. We have about 40 interns in our mines. They learn to sink shafts, tunnels, and run frontend loaders. They get some very good hands-on, real-time experience. On the other hand, we're having a hard time getting kids from Montana to go to Montana Tech. It's a shame. You could be anyone you want to be. You have a first-class school right in your own backyard. I had seven job offers when I graduated. And there's a shortage of engineers for mining jobs right now. You can choose to work outside or work in an office, or work on Wall Street, there's a career path at Tech for all of that.
Q. Who is a hero to you, or favorite mentor?
A. My father. He was a Marine in the Korean War, the first college graduate in his family, an oil company executive and finally an independent oilman.
Q. What is your favorite book?
A. "Soul of a New Machine," by Tracy Kidder, about a group of young computer engineers who had "serious" fun. No one limited their horizons. It was about the rise of some of the first software for mainframe computers. It reminds me of my younger days as an engineer. During my first year out of school, I was hired by a mine with other graduates from South Dakota and Colorado. We had more fun because we didn't know what we didn't know. We were given tasks and just had to make it work. We didn't think we were capable of failure. When I look back 29 years later, those were some of the most intelligent people I ever worked with.
Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or even potential, future jobs? Give us some examples.
A. We have hired lots of Montana Tech graduates. We also have been fortunate to employ a number of summer interns through the years.
Q. How do you stay connected to Montana Tech?
A. I'm on the Industrial Advisory Board and the Montana Tech Foundation Board of Directors. My nephew is currently enrolled in Mining Engineering and has been a summer intern at several of our coal mines for the last two summers. He was a typical high school kid, who didn't know what he wanted to do. I pointed out that I did pretty well and so could he. I also donate personally to Tech. Our company regularly gives scholarships to recruit incoming students.
Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?
- Think big and work hard
- Look at the long term
- Never quit and never give up
"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." – Thomas Edison
- Expand your horizons, take risks, and read everything you can get your hands on.
- Explore, be curious, and make mistakes. Don't be afraid of failure, because that's how you learn.
If you look at it for the long term, are passionate about work, work hard and never quit, the sky is the limit. I'm always excited to come to work, because it's fun. You'll naturally do well if you love it.
After the interview Murphy was off to China for business consultations, and plans a vacation in Argentina and Chile for some skiing. He got his wish, to travel to exotic places and to ski.
About Chris Murphy
Current address: 5101 N. 196th Street, Elkhorn, Neb. 68022
Job title: Senior Vice President/Division Manager/ Board Director of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. in Omaha, Neb.
Family: Wife, Teri, has a business degree from Montana State University-Billings; daughters, Katie, is pursuing a journalism degree from Prescott College in Arizona and Allison, is attending Arizona State University, majoring in construction management; two brothers, one attended Tech for two years and another earned a degree at MSU and the University of Washington.