Rafael Ortega: Going deeper

September 2014 » Features » CE PROFILE
This expert in large-diameter pipelines is a well-rounded engineer who focuses on more than just the technical aspects of the job.
Maureen Foody

Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc.

Established: 1935

Headquarters: Houston

Size: More than 250 employees in 20 offices

Ownership: Private

Website: www.lan-inc.com

Primary Service: Planning, engineering, and program management

It was partially by chance that Rafael Ortega, P.E., realized engineering was a career path that suited his talents. He ranked well in high school, with strong interests in math and science. He also worked at a local Sears store where he helped his boss with some managerial tasks. When it was time to fill out the SAT information sheet, Ortega could only think of business as a possible college major, but the proctor wouldn’t accept the test with only one of the two potential majors filled out.

“I went back and asked my friend, who sat next to me, what he had, which was biology and engineering. I knew biology, but I wasn’t really sure exactly what engineering meant,” laughed Ortega. “I had no idea what it really was or involved, but I couldn’t think of anything else, so I put it down.”

Soon, colleges were reaching out to Ortega to explain engineering’s many facets and how much it utilizes math and science. Although he still didn’t know what type of engineer he wanted to become once he enrolled in college, he began leaning toward civil engineering because he enjoyed the outdoors.

It was another chance occurrence that led Ortega to attend the University of Houston. Like many graduating seniors, he originally was looking to spread his wings further from Houston, the city that he had called home since the age of three. “I was fortunate that my boss during high school, when I was working at Sears, advised me to look at the University of Houston,” Ortega said. “I was worrying about costs, so once I saw that I could keep working at Sears and going to classes, then it seemed like a clear answer.”

The University of Houston was a great fit for Ortega. He earned his Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering in 1981 and began working at Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam Inc. (LAN) shortly after. “I wasn’t certain I wanted to stay in engineering because when I first started I was involved in tasks that just weren’t interesting to me,” he said. “I noticed a lot of the engineers I worked under and with weren’t good at managerial tasks like scheduling and personnel issues, whereas I’d already had some experience with those tasks. Seeing someone not being able to execute those while you knew you easily could [do it] was frustrating.”

Ortega has been responsible for the design and oversight of more than 300 miles of large-diameter water transmission mains and 75 miles of tunnels for the City of Houston’s Surface Water Transmission Program. Photo: LAN

Realizing this deficiency, Ortega began to take more advanced courses in engineering and business. After taking a graduate-level geotechnical course, it became evident that his true passion required striking a balance between his enjoyment of technical projects and his years of management experience, so he worked to earn his MBA from the University of Houston in 1985.

At LAN, he has been able to balance both his passions as a group leader.

“I’ve developed an expertise in large-diameter pipelines. The bigger the better, really. Right now, I’m working on a 108-inch-diameter water pipeline, which brings great challenges of constructing within an existing urban environment,” said Ortega, who has become a key team member at LAN during the last 33 years. “I lead our pipeline group. Since we have worked on so many sizes and types of projects, now people reach out to us about our expertise. It’s a great reward for our hard work.

“We had a 96-inch water main [project] when I first started working [when] I was still a young engineer,” Ortega said. “The main consultant for the project did not take many of our recommendations for cost-saving techniques that we had suggested after the owner enlisted us for our help. The project ended up getting bids for $6 million over budget. The director of public works came to us, asking what happened, and asked us to redesign. I was tasked with taking a look at the project to analyze what could be done better, even though I was relatively new into my career.”

Ortega, a nationally recognized leader in large-diameter pipeline and trenchless installation design, evaluates an 84-inch steel water main for the City of Houston. Photo: LAN

But thanks to quick thinking and taking a long hard look at the project, Ortega discovered quite a few design approaches the consultant missed that would bring project bids closer to the original budget. The consultant thought the project would fail if these findings were implemented, but the director turned to LAN to confirm their confidence in the work, Ortega said.

The director ended up taking the assignment away from the original consultant and re-awarded it to LAN, with Ortega taking the helm at finishing the work and bringing it in under budget. “That task, and the trust from LAN, certainly gave me the confidence to compete with the engineers who maybe went to schools that had more prestige or were bigger; it gave me the confidence in my own education and abilities,” he said.

Ortega has worked on a number of momentous projects, including the City of Houston’s Northside Sewer Relief Tunnels, Surface Water Transmission Program, and 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. With more than 300 miles of large-diameter pipelines designed by Ortega, it’s easy to see why he is considered an expert. But he also extends his knowledge to others in the industry through involvement evaluating standards for the American Water Works Association and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Pipeline Division. Ortega also regularly writes papers that bring him to local and national conferences to meet and discuss the field with other engineers. Ortega served as chair for the Water Works portion of the Underground Construction Technology International Conference two years in a row (2007-2008). Ortega also was named “Most Valuable Professional in the Private Sector” by the Gulf Coast Trenchless Association.

Ortega, a vice president at LAN and director of its Infrastructure Large Diameter Business Group, discusses a project with engineer Tuoc B. Chu, P.E. (left), at LAN’s headquarters in Houston. Photo: LAN

Ortega is quick to credit his success to both hard work and LAN’s support. “You definitely have to learn that you aren’t going to get paid for everything that you do in this industry; you have to take initiative,” Ortega said. He cited his own action of continually taking home the standards when he first started working to study them every night in his downtime.

“That’s the best advice I can offer to anyone: Never stop learning,” Ortega said. “There are so many new fields and discoveries to make; the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is left to learn.

“Anyone today can be an engineer with enough money and time,” he said. “It takes dedication though, and the key is to perform whatever tasks you’re slated, with efficiency and cost-effectiveness. We pride ourselves at LAN at always finding that potential in the numbers — to do the most with the least.”

As he reflected on more than 30 years with LAN, it’s easy to see that Ortega has enjoyed his profession.

Ortega meets with a client at a groundbreaking event for the Briar Branch detention basin. LAN‘s design services provided flood relief for the Spring Branch area in Houston. Photo: LAN

“Engineers are the ones who make the day-to-day what it is,” Ortega said. “Civil engineering especially — we’re not the highest paid, but we impact the lives of everyone all the time — water, roads, buildings, rail. It’s a gratifying field to work in because you have the scope of touching so many people with what you do.”

Ortega also prioritizes giving back to the community. He served on the Industrial Economic Development Board for the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority after being appointed by Governor George W. Bush. He also served as Harris County’s representative for the Metropolitan Transit Authority from 2005 to 2007. Ortega remains active at the school that taught him so much, helping to found the University of Houston Engineering Alumni Association and later serving as its president. Earlier in 2014, Ortega was selected as one of the year’s Distinguished Alumni Award honorees.

“Texas is certainly a wonderful place,” Ortega said. “I’ve loved that my job has given me the opportunity to work from Miami to Puerto Rico to the Bay Area, but Texas is my home. I’m beyond grateful that my expertise can transport me to so many places, but there’s nowhere like Texas and I’m glad to live and work here.”

When not working, Ortega loves to spend time with his three children — Rafael “Andy” II, Sara, and Austin. He also still loves working with his hands by tackling a number of home projects, such as gardening, woodworking, and anything else that comes up while fixing up his home.

“I’ve been very blessed, looking at my life,” he said. “And while hard work played a role, there are some things that just happened without explanation, so I’m very happy to be known for my abilities and talent in a place where I can utilize them both.”

Maureen Foody is a freelance writer and editor who lives and works in Chicago. She can be reached at maureen.t.f@gmail.com.


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