In 2002, with the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan at an end, Larry Walker '76 knew that his company, The Louis Berger Group (LBG), would be rebuilding the Kabul-Kandahar Highway. What he didn't know yet was that the company would be expected both to complete construction of the first layer of asphalt on 389 kilometers (242 miles) in only eight months and ensure that the highway was open.
At the time Walker, a senior vice president with LBG, was leading a division that was expanding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. His colleagues were about to embark on one of the most challenging engineering assignments of the new country, a construction project that he would inherit in 2004.
Originally built with U.S. government financing in the early 1960s, the Kabul-Kandahar Highway handles major north-south highway traffic in the eastern part of Afghanistan. And with more than 35 percent of Afghanistan's population living within 50 kilometers of the highway, President Hamid Karzai saw reconstruction of the country's principal road system as key to Afghanistan's economic recovery. President George W. Bush, himself eager for a major U.S.-funded construction to begin, agreed and promised Karzai in early 2003 that the project would be completed in eight months or by December. "Not being a construction guy, the President didn't fully grasp what he was committing to," Walker said with a smile. "So, instead of doing 50 kilometers, which we were supposed to do that first year, all of sudden we had 389 kilometers."
The road to Kandahar
Even without a short deadline, the challenges in building any road in Afghanistan were considerable. Decades of civil war and strife had degraded the country's infrastructure and there was a shortage of trained workers. "There was no equipment in the country, no materials," Walker said. "So we began a massive logistics effort." Materials and labor would be brought in from around the world through three Turkish subcontractors, along with an Indian joint venture and a newly formed Afghan company.
Among the first problems to be confronted was the removal of land mines and other unexploded ordinance. The Kabul-Kandahar highway had been the scene of considerable fighting for 24 years and extensive mining had taken place over two decades. Mine-sniffing dogs were brought in as well as specialists, Walker said, and some 1,060 mines and other ordinance were found.
During reconstruction there was continued instability along the highway, especially in the southern sections. The Afghanistan Ministry of Interior provided nearly 1,000 troops for security. "Still, there were people shooting at us," Walker said, and more than 30 workers were killed before the road was completed.
"The reconstruction of the road had extremely high visibility," Walker said. "It was briefed weekly to the White House." The media and construction teams quickly dubbed the project "the George Bush highway." And there was grumbling from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others, who kept asking whether they were laying asphalt. "What the politicians didn't understand, is that putting down asphalt is the last thing done when building roads," Walker said. "And you can't lay it in winter."
In the end the Kabul-Kandahar Highway was completed within eight months. As a result travel time between the two Afghanistan cities was reduced from two days to five hours. "It was a tremendous engineering achievement," Walker said. "If you think about it, it's like building a road from Washington, D.C. to the Connecticut border. Something like that had never been done before."
In 2004 Walker was promoted to group vice president of the Louis Berger Group, at which time he inherited responsibilities for completing the construction of the highway.
More than roads
The reconstruction of the Kabul-Kandahar Highway was historic, but it is by no means the only large project managed by The Louis Berger Group - a company that Walker now heads. The company has been ranked as the 2nd largest international transportation firm, the 12th largest program management firm, and the 15th largest international design firm. Headquartered in Morristown, N.J., it has more than 5,000 employees and affiliate employees in more than 90 countries.
Prior to becoming president of LBG, Walker served as vice president of the firm's Global Infrastructure Services group. He was firm principal for infrastructure reconstruction work in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and the Philippines for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Among the projects Walker had responsibility for in that position was an emergency water treatment program in Southern Sudan that provided treated water to 25,000 people during a cholera outbreak. He is understandably proud that many lives were saved through the project. And in the Philippines the company has reintegrated over 28,000 former Muslim insurgents into productive civilian life in an attempt to ensure peace between the Muslim Moro population and the Philippine government.
In Afghanistan The Louis Berger Group also completed an additional 1,400 kilometers of road beyond the Kabul-Kandahar Highway. But Walker is quick to point out that the company doesn't "just build roads and leave." The goal, he explained, "is basically to work ourselves out of a job. In our first contract in Afghanistan, from 2003 to 2007, we employed five million Afghan-person days. We created 11 Afghanistan engineering and construction firms. Building corporate and human capacity in a country is very important to us. Part of what we do is not only building something, but creating the capacity for the local population to be able to sustain it."
Louis Berger also rehabilitated water supply and irrigation systems in Afghanistan, bringing water to over 20,000 farm families, and built 93 schools and clinics that now provide education and healthcare to thousands of Afghan citizens. It is the sense of helping others that Walker particularly likes about his work.
"On one of my trips to Afghanistan," he said, "I was visiting one of our road projects when I saw a health clinic we had built three years previously. I went inside and spoke with the Afghan doctor, who told me that around five women per month were now giving birth in a clean facility rather than in their village homes. The likelihood of infant survival in the area had increased as a result. Moments like that make you feel good about your job."
A liberal arts education
As a student, Walker never thought that he would one day be head of a multinational company. Modest in tone and manner, he even now says jokingly that he became president of The Louis Berger Group when "the board, in a weak moment, offered the position to me. And in a weaker moment I accepted." Obviously, not a true statement, but Walker offers little other explanation.
Even if unwilling to elaborate on his own personal skills as a manager, Walker gladly says that his education at Gettysburg College prepared him thoroughly for what he does. A passionate advocate of the liberal arts, Walker advises today's students to take "as broad a reach as possible in course selections." He also strongly recommends English courses, noting the importance of communication skills. "You can't survive in the world with tweets," he said.
Walker himself majored in sociology and anthropology as an undergraduate. In 1974 he also spent a semester in Mysore, India, where his interest in the developing world began. He remembers with great fondness Prof. Wade Hook, whom he called "a towering intellectual. He very much influenced me to stay in sociology." Following his own advice of today, Walker also took numerous courses in English. In particular, he remembers Prof. James Myers, who let him take a Shakespeare course open only to English majors. "He was one of my favorite professors," Walker said.
Walker also recalled an amusing incident with Myers, who would often smoke in class - "something you can't do today," Walker said. "But he lit this match and got into his thoughts, and we're watching this match burning closer and closer to his fingers. And he kept talking until the flame hit his fingers. He screamed out and tossed the match in the air. He was leaning back and almost fell. It was especially funny since Prof. Myers is a such a serious guy."
Domestic & international work
Following graduation from Gettysburg, Walker went on to earn a master's in urban affairs at Virginia Tech. "Then in 1979," he said, "the job market wasn't so good, so I packed up my car and moved to Denver, Colorado - a place I had been to several times." There, after a few months, he found a job as an environmental planner with URS Corporation, a large international engineering and construction company. For the most part, he worked on transportation projects in the West.
In Colorado, Walker and his former wife Karen, had three children, Ryan, Adam, and Lauren, and after ten years - seven with URS and three as a consultant - the family was looking to return East to be near grandparents in Baltimore. "I thought the move would be for just three years," Walker said, "but I'm still here after 21 years."
Walker came to Washington, D.C. to join The Louis Berger Group, having consulted with the company on a major project that involved environmental work for the deployment of the so-called Peacekeeper Missile in the 1980s - "a very controversial project at the time," Walker said. "Any federal action requires environmental documentation, and we were responsible for all of the environmental work associated with it. For example, there was a rare and endangered species on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, where they were going to do some building. So we had to do some mitigation work.
"I ran the socio-economic portion of the study, looking into construction worker migration into the area. If a small town experiences a large population increase too quickly, pressures in the community increase. There are impacts on schools, incidents of domestic violence, alcohol abuse, etc. So, my job was to direct the analysis of that and come up with mitigations."
In Washington, D.C., Walker initially headed domestic operations for Louis Berger. Clients ranged from the Washington, D.C. city government to the Department of Defense to the State Department. Through the latter, he was involved in the planning and design of consulates and embassies worldwide. "That gave me an exposure into the international work," he said. "In 2003, about 18 months after the company won the major contract for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the company formed a new group called Global Infrastructure, and that's what I ran."
Walker's international experience with Louis Berger would eventually play a role in his promotion to president of the company. Admitting to more than a "weak moment" on the part of the board members, he said that his "exposure to both the domestic and international sides" of the company's operations undoubtedly influenced the decision to name him president.
Why we do what we do
For Walker, there is no typical work day as president of a large, diverse company. Much of his time is spent on administrative detail. "As a growing company, you always have to make sure that the internal controls you have - in the accounting department, for example - are constantly being improved," he said. "You're obviously also looking at where the company is going, how the projects are doing, and the quality of work produced. We're in the process now of developing our strategic plan that will launch us toward our next platform for growth."
The detail in such planning is enormous, as the Louis Berger Group is involved in so many projects around the world. In the Americas alone, they have worked on interstate highway construction in Nevada, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia. They have designed highway interchanges in British Columbia in Canada and have linked principal Mexican cities. They have rehabilitated roads in Peru and constructed the Corentyne Highway in Guyana.
The Louis Berger Group has also assisted the National Park Service in developing plans to address potential conflicts between resource protection and visitor use. This past spring they designed the reconstruction of the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They rank fifth in the world in environmental management, and work worldwide on projects that range from finding productive uses for closed landfills to building large environmental databases and testing national policy initiatives. And they manage and facilitate a variety of large construction projects, from the Barwas financial district in Doha, Qatar to restoration of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a water treatment facility in the Congo.
With such far-flung operations, it is not surprising that Walker travels often and extensively. "I travel around a fair amount," he said. "I'm usually on the road once a month, somewhere in the world - from Panama to Afghanistan. Most trips are for seven to ten days. Or occasionally two weeks, if I go to Asia."
In his off-time, Walker likes to play golf. He also enjoys visiting sites in the countries he travels to. And sometimes he is able to take an extended personal trip. "The highlight of my off-work activities took place a little over two years ago," he said with obvious pleasure. "My son Adam and I did a Mt. Everest base-camp trip. That was a lot of fun, but it was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. Had to do a lot of training to get in shape for that. It was ten days of walking at a steep angle. From the base camp we climbed a mountain called Kala Patthar, which has an elevation higher than 18,000 feet."
Despite long hours and considerable travel, Walker greatly enjoys and is deeply satisfied by what he does. "The work that we are doing really has an impact on people's lives," he said. "That's my favorite part of what I do. Our chlorination treatment project in the Sudan, for example, eliminated deaths from cholera. We tell those who work for us, people won't remember who we are. But there are people whose lives change as a result of what we did. That's why we do what we do."
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,700 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Posted: Mon, 17 Jan 2011
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