Circling around the perimeter of a foyer filled with oil and gas pipeline professionals, the camera lens finds Patrick Michels. He is encircled by his family and surrounded by colleagues in the industry at the Pipeline Leadership Conference in Denver. Just as the shutter is about to click, he looks up and gives a broad smile. This is his element.
Moments later the Michels Corporation president, CEO and treasurer stands before that same crowd, his eyes closed and head bowed between his broad shoulders. His imposing figure is offset by an easygoing voice that embodies a humble spirit, even after Continuum Capital principal Mark Bridgers and Benjamin Media president Rob Krzys have showered him with accolades. Pat Michels quickly calls his family to join him before the crowd. His mother Ruth, his wife Marysue, his son Phillip and his son’s fiancée, Emma, have all traveled with him, from the company headquarters in Brownsville, Wisconsin, to witness him receiving the second annual Pipeline Leadership Award.
North American Oil & Gas Pipelines created the Pipeline Leadership Award in 2015 to honor leadership initiatives and advances in the construction, operation and maintenance of oil and gas pipelines. This includes innovations in the construction process, design, procurement, contract administration, management, labor relations, training and safety that improve the global pipeline industry. The award is presented each year at the Pipeline Leadership Conference, which is organized by North American Oil & Gas Pipelines and its publishing company Benjamin Media Inc., in partnership with Continuum Capital.
Since succeeding his father in 1998, Pat Michels has helped grow the family business into a multi-faceted, multi-million-dollar construction company that operates in all 50 states and Canada with more than 6,000 employees companywide during peak building season. He has guided the company’s expansion from seven operational divisions to 17. In the past decade, Michels has climbed from the 93rd to 34th largest contractor in the United States, according to the Engineering News-Record‘s 2016 Top 400 Contractors list.
The company has been an innovator in such areas as horizontal directional drilling, as well as a pioneer in the new Direct Pipe installation method.
Pat took over as head of Michels 18 years ago, after the unexpected death of his father, Dale Michels, who founded the contracting company. Until that point, Pat had been working his way up the ladder, says Robert Westphal, senior vice president of construction operations and 51-year veteran at Michels.
“Think about it,” Westphal says. “You are working hard with your head down in your family’s business. You’ve never been given the silver spoon and had to earn your own respect and build your own character. Then at 39 years old, your dad, the patriarch of the family and icon of business and industry, dies unexpectedly. You are now the first of the second generation, thrust into leadership. And did anyone give him a plan? Pat stepped up and would not accept failure. He built a solid team and with their help this company grew profitably. Through his continued leadership, he saw that the family continually reinvested in the business to support that growth. Today we are much bigger, much stronger and looking forward to the next generation of Michels being part of the company. Likely with a much more comprehensive training program. I think that speaks volumes of his success as a leader.”
Dale Michels founded his company in 1959 as a gas pipeline contractor, the same year Pat was born. While he didn’t officially join the family business until 1981, Pat actually started working in the Michels yard as a child and has been known to tell stories about how his dad treated foremen as Pat’s babysitters.
Westphal started at Michels in 1965 and has known Pat since the late 1970s.
“My working relationship with Pat is one of mutual respect, openness and honesty,” Westphal says. “I’ve known Pat since he was a kid and we literally started working together back in 1978 working on various projects when Pat actually was working for me. Both before that time and into the present I have always been able to provide Pat feedback, sometimes tough feedback which he has always welcomed with an open mind.”
Westphal says Pat learned “critical aspects of leadership” as he climbed the ranks from laborer to superintendent, project manager, operations manager and division manager. By 1989, Pat was leading the company’s telecommunications construction business. Then in 1998, he was suddenly the head of
“That’s when Pat’s natural intuition to lead was put into motion as Pat was thrust into being president of this multi-million-dollar family-owned company,” Westphal says. “Being held accountable under Pat’s direction and outstanding leadership, the company has not only grown tenfold but has developed into a much more diversified business.”
Taking on the Mantle
One of the biggest obstacles Pat Michels says he faced in his career was managing the company in the aftermath of his father’s death.
“I took over at a relatively young age,” he says. “I had just lost my father. It was hard on the family. We had a business that was thriving. People were looking at us to see if the business would be the same, what changes would come and what would happen. To get through that was a challenge. Once we were able to get past that, we were able to grow the business.”
Continuing the legacy his father started and building Michels into the company it is today is what Pat is most proud of in his tenure.
“My dad’s initial plan was to last about five years, and that was going to be it,” Pat says. “Here we are almost 60 years later thriving in the pipeline and utility construction markets we’re in. We’ve grown from a small regional company to an international one.”
Pat credits the core values his father set in place for the company’s success over the years.
“Our core values as a company are the basis of what we do,” he says. “Those values are spelled out as safety, teamwork, dedication, integrity and sustainability. Those are the principles we use every day to make decisions. It lays out how we do business and what we expect of our people.”
However, Westphal also credits Pat’s development as a leader for the company’s growth.
“With the industry changing drastically over the years, I have watched Pat grow into a great leader who has foresight, the ability to listen, to focus and react accordingly to run a highly successful company,” Westphal says.
“As with all good leaders, Pat has surrounded himself with great people drawing from their strengths and abilities to inspire the same vision of success as his first mentor, his father, to lead this wonderful family-owned company.”
Pat points to his father as the biggest influence on his leadership style.
“My father was my greatest role model,” he says. “He always demonstrated great leadership, in my younger years and also when I joined the company. His leadership and the way he did things, that is what I have tried to replicate and follow. I’m fortunate to have had him teach me those qualities.”
Dale Michels provided his son with great insight into the pipeline industry and what it takes to run a business.
“The things I learned from dad, he had an incredible work ethic, and his expectation was that everyone had to work as hard as he did,” Pat says. “Dad was also a risk taker. He would take on projects nobody else wanted. He’d say, ‘Let’s figure how we’re going to get it done.’ That mindset allows us today to take those calculated risks and take advantage of opportunities. One more thing, from growing up in industry, literally being a part of it for 50 years, I’ve seen all the trends and ups and downs and cycles it goes through.”
Importance of Leadership
Strong leadership serves as a great recruiting tool because, as Pat Michels says, people “want to be on a winning team.”
“If you don’t have a good leadership structure, you’re not going to draw good talent,” he says. “We can’t build projects without people. To draw the best people, we need to have good leadership.”
Finding strong leadership has allowed the company to carry on Dale Michels’ legacy and maintain its strong reputation as a premier contractor, says Robert Osborn, senior vice president of pipeline operations for Michels Pipeline Construction, a division of Michels Corp.
“Pat has surrounded himself with great leaders and cultivates an environment for us to grow in the industry,” Osborn says. “He challenges our team to find the top talent and efficient technologies. He manages our team with a dedicated passion and knows when our individual expertise should prevail. Pat is the type of leader who isn’t afraid to take risks and try new things that keep us in the forefront.”
Osborn adds that Pat’s leadership style is what makes him deserving of winning the Pipeline Leadership Award.
“Under Pat’s leadership, he has provided me the support to make Michels the leader in the industry when it comes to safety, quality and environmental stewardship,” Osborn says. “He recognizes the value and how important these values are to our employees and our customers. He leads by example and backs it up with his commitment to our team and the industry.”
Pat has also fostered an environment at Michels where experience and knowledge is passed down to the younger generation at the company, says Mike Prior, senior strategic advisor at Michels Canada. In his role, Prior provides “guidance and insight” to these younger team members.
“Pat’s idea of fostering this mentoring by former senior staff is, I believe, a testament to his vision and leadership,” Prior says.
In addition, he says Pat’s investment in new processes and technology allow the company to remain on the cutting edge.
“Pat provides a working environment that allows people to succeed at a high level,” Prior says. “Pat provides the investment in systems, tools and equipment needed to perform our construction work and also provides the encouragement to make things happen. At the same time Pat is on top of most jobs the company is building while at the same time letting the project management get on with it. Pat also sets an example to us all with his community involvement and ‘giving back’ without seeking personal attention.”
As such, Pat and his family support the communities where Michels operates and the industries it serves. This includes the Dale R. and Ruth L. Michels Family Foundation, the Dale Michels Center for Heart Care and Michels Scholarship Fund.
A Vibrant Industry
Despite a slowdown in the oil and gas pipeline sector, Pat Michels believes the industry is improving and that there are a number of big projects that will need to be built in the coming years. While low oil prices have made major headlines in the last two years, he says the real culprit of the downturn lies elsewhere.
“Most of the slowdown is due to the difficulty in getting permits to build or rebuild oil and gas pipelines,”
he says. While regulatory agencies have thrown up roadblocks, he adds that there is “plenty of opportunity out there.”
Pat is optimistic that the next several years will be “vibrant” for the industry.
“The country can’t ignore its dependence on fossil fuels,” he says. “It’s the basis of the economy, for energy, and we’re not going to change that overnight. We have to be conscious of building safe and quality pipelines so the country can continue to grow.”