The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System winds its way 800 miles south from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. Construction on the project began in 1974, and the first barrel of crude oil started flowing through the pipeline in 1977. It was during this time that J. Patrick Tielborg got his start in the industry he would serve for the next 42 years.
At the urging of his wife, Julia, Tielborg worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System — or TAPS as it’s often called — during the summers of 1975, 1976 and 1977, while attending law school at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, during the spring and fall.
After he earned his law degree in 1978, the pipeline industry called to him again. He answered an ad for the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) to serve as executive secretary, and he was hired in September of that year by the PLCA and two years later became a member of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, the law firm that represents the association. Tielborg would go on to serve the PLCA and its more than 200 members for the next 39 years, becoming managing director and general counsel for the association in 1995, the same year he became a partner at Akin Gump.
Throughout his career, Tielborg has negotiated dozens of national and project-specific labor contracts with the four major craft unions — the Teamsters, the Pipe Fitters, the Laborers and the Operators — to maintain labor peace in the industry. During his tenure, PLCA members have successfully built hundreds-of-thousands of miles of domestic pipeline. He also oversaw the establishment of the PLCA Safety Committee to promote safe working practices and the association’s scholarship program, which has benefited more than 225 recipients. It is for these accomplishments that Tielborg has been named the winner of 2017 Pipeline Leadership Award.
North American Oil & Gas Pipelines, Benjamin Media Inc. and Continuum Capital announced the award at the third annual Pipeline Leadership Conference on Nov. 8, in Dallas. The award was created 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.
In a letter written on behalf of the PLCA board of directors, PLCA president Robert Osborn explained how Tielborg’s leadership in achieving labor agreements has benefited the pipeline industry.
“Pat has never sought personal recognition. Only Pat knows the innumerable grievances that he has resolved or the looming industry disputes that he has helped prevent,” Osborn wrote. “However, it is widely understood that under Pat’s leadership the industry has largely maintained labor peace — even through challenging times — providing an essential component to continued growth and job creation.
“After more than 40 years in the pipeline industry, Pat stands as one of the industry’s most respected leaders,” Osborn concluded.
Tielborg’s impact on the pipeline industry was apparent during the award ceremony in Dallas. In addition to Osborn, several other industry veterans took turns lauding his contributions, reputation and leadership, including longtime PLCA leaders Don Thorn, formerly of Welded Construction and now founder of DJT Consulting, and Frank Welch of Rockford Corp., as well as Tom Gross, director of pipeline and gas distribution at the United Association.
When it was Tielborg’s turn to speak, he was visibly moved by the presentation, but the person he wanted to thank most was his wife. If it wasn’t for Julia, he may not have become a pipeline lifer.
Meeting His Wife
Tielborg gives a lot of credit to his wife Julia. She urged him to take the job on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and has supported him throughout his career.
“My wife always says, ‘you’re the luckiest man I’ve ever met.’ My wife has been a catalyst for everything I’ve done,” he says.
They met in 1972 on the second day after she arrived in Fairbanks to teach Spanish. She would joke that it was like a flag went up anytime a new girl arrived in town. They married the next year on Nov. 2.
Tielborg had gone to Fairbanks after serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1962 to 1966. One of the guys he was stationed with in Washington state had a brother who was the basketball coach at the University of Alaska. Tielborg had played basketball in the Air Force and was promised a tryout, along with some financial assistance to attend school in Alaska.
Tielborg graduated in 1970. After marrying Julia in 1973, she said it was time he got “a real job,” so he took the law school exam and applied to schools in California, where he grew up, as well as Oregon and Washington. On a whim, he says he also applied to St. Mary’s because he was stationed in San Antonio while he was in the Air Force and liked the city. In the meantime, Julia had also applied to graduate school and was accepted to Stanford University. In May 1975, Tielborg learned he had been accepted to two schools, one of which was St. Mary’s. His father-in-law, an Iowa lawyer and a World War II bomber pilot, gave him some no-nonsense advice.
“He said, ‘if you want a job, go to law school in Texas,’” Tielborg remembers. Before heading back to school, he still needed a job.
Becoming a Pipeliner
Working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System helped lay the foundation of Tielborg’s later career with the PLCA. He worked on and witnessed numerous aspects of the pipeline’s construction, learning about different technologies, labor practices and contracting companies.
After being accepted to law school at St. Mary’s and dropping off his wife Julia at the Fairbanks airport to attend Stanford, Tielborg needed to find work, so he walked the two blocks from his apartment to the Laborers Union Local 942 in Fairbanks.
After filling out the appropriate paperwork, he asked the dispatcher how long it would be before he had a job. The dispatcher tore a slip out of his book and said, “You’re hired.”
Tielborg’s first pipeline job was with Quick Foam in Fairbanks. He went through a week of orientation about Alaska wildlife, weather, proper clothing and physical requirements. At the end of the week, he picked up his first paycheck. It exceeded $600, which was more than what Julia made in month for teaching. He called her at Stanford to brag.
“She said, ‘how long can you stay there?’” Tielborg says with a laugh.
That first summer on TAPS, Tielborg worked on pipe coating application, using a paint roller to smooth out the layers of fiberglass sprayed on the 48-in. pipe. During his time, he got to experience nearly every aspect of pipeline construction. He went from Fairbanks to Isabell Pass in July.
“If you ever wanted to see how imaginative pipeliners could be, this was the job,” Tielborg says. “I didn’t know a single thing about pipelines, but I learned by watching every crew.”
At the end of the summer of 1975, Tielborg left the jobsite to go pick up Julia at Stanford and then to San Antonio to start law school. The next spring, his wife went back to Stanford and Pat went back to Alaska.
“When I left San Antonio, it was 90 degrees,” Tielborg says. “When I got to, Galbraith Lake, Alaska, it was 6 degrees.”
He and Julia did the same rotation in 1976 and 1977. After he graduated in May 1978, Tielborg took the bar exam. It was the first summer in three years that he wasn’t headed to Alaska to work on the pipeline. Instead, he saw a bulletin for a job with the PLCA.
“The posting said you must have knowledge of unions, have a legal background and have knowledge of pipelines,” he remembers. “I thought, damn, I just got done with all three.”
Serving the Industry
In September 1978, Tielborg was hired by Richard “Dick” Gump, cofounder of what is now known as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Gump had started the law firm in 1945 with Robert Strauss, who would become chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 1970s and served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. Akin Gump has become a leading international law firm with more than 900 lawyers in offices throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
When he interviewed, Gump told Tielborg that this would be “the best job you will ever get.” It was the beginning of his career with the PLCA and at the law firm, where he started to be involved with basic labor and employment law.
“The contractors get work done with the four unions they worked with,” Tielborg explains. “We always took the position that it was our job not to go to court, to keep the contractors out of court and keep good relations with unions. Mr. Gump knew all four general presidents of all the unions, going back many years. He said, if you can’t get along with people, you’re not in the right business.”
The most important lesson Tielborg learned from Gump was to always speak the truth.
“Mr. Gump said when he hired me to always be honest with the people you deal with, don’t ever lie,” Tielborg says. “No matter how bad it seems, be fair. There will be good times and bad times, but don’t ever deviate. Never make a deal on one side that you know is not fair. It may sound hackneyed, but I don’t think there is any room for not being honest with people you deal with.”
Tielborg has tried to embody that lesson, which has led him to developing strong relationships with the contractors, union representatives and workers — something he is most proud of in his career. He believes that the three most important attributes of leadership are respect, loyalty and — what else — honesty. Tielborg said these were traits he learned from Gump and Hailey Roberts, who was managing director of the PLCA when Tielborg was hired.
“Hailey and Dick had the reputation of honesty, which set a standard in the industry,” he says.
Tielborg has earned that same reputation in the industry, according to the Gross, who has worked with Tielborg since 1993, working out issues related to the National Pipeline Agreement and putting together Project Labor Agreements for the United Association.
“Pat has always been honest and fair with everyone,” Gross says. “You may not always get the answer you want, but Pat would give you the correct answer to the best of his ability.”
A Fitting Finale
Tielborg is in the process of transitioning to retirement. He will hand over his current duties at the end of 2017, and serve the PLCA as a consultant afterward. His long service to the pipeline industry made him an ideal candidate for the Pipeline Leadership Award.
Robert Osborn has worked with Tielborg for more than 10 years through his participation in the PLCA and through his role at Michels Corp. He says he was happy to see Tielborg win the award.
“There are always a lot of good memories working with someone like Pat, but the one I remember the most is how touched he was to win the Pipeline Leadership Award,” Osborn says. “His words to me were, ‘I’ve been in this industry for over 40 years, and I never considered myself in a position to win such an award.’ My response was, ‘you don’t spend your whole career in the position that you have without being a good leader.’ The recognition is well deserved.”
Thoughts on Pat Tielborg from Pipeline Industry Leaders
Bob Osborn: Osborn is the current president of PLCA and has served on the board of directors for 10 years. He is also senior vice president for the pipeline division at Michels.
“With Michels being a major player in the pipeline construction industry, in both mainline pipeline and facilities construction, I’ve have leaned on Pat over the years to help work out any labor issues according to the National Pipeline Agreement, and as with most agreements there are interpretation issues and his knowledge of the agreements, along with his long-standing relationships in the industry and his leadership was always there to find a solution.”
Don Thorn: Thorn represented Welded Construction at the PLCA from 1998 to 2016, serving as a board member from 2000 to 2015 and PLCA president in 2009. He has known Tielborg since the 1970s and considers him a friend.
“In all these roles, Pat provided guidance and advice that was very helpful in my understanding what he saw as best for the industry. There was no bias shown to my fellow contractors and fairness was presented to our respective labor organizations.”
“From my view, he was deserving of this award because he always had the best advancement of the industry in mind, and he treated all parties fairly.”
Ronnie Wise: Wise is president of Price Gregory and a member of the PLCA board of directors.
“Pat’s leadership is defined by his ability to teach, his negotiating skills and his lack of ego.”
“I would not be where I am in this industry if it were not for Pat Tielborg. I started asking Pat questions regarding our field labor problems in the late 1980s. Pat would take the time to answer the question and then explain to me the basis for his answer.”
“Pat’s lack of ego allowed him to fairly evaluate conflicts in the field and he understood as well as anybody that the work came first.”
“I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with many great leaders in the pipeline industry, and I rank Pat Tielborg as one of the best. His wife Julia was a big help to my wife Melissa when we first got on the board. She made Melissa feel welcomed and helped her navigate her way around the politics at the first couple of board meetings.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.