Inventing his way

2020-04-19 | Lewiston Morning Tribune

April 19-- Apr. 19--Dave Whitehead rose through the ranks of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman to become one of its top executives by excelling at what the company's founder believes is the business's most important purpose -- inventing.

Or to put it a little differently, creating technology that improves electrical transmission and distribution.

SEL's CEO, Whitehead has 79 patents to his name, roughly three for every year he's been with the business.

He still remembers his first, an upgrade for SEL's digital relays, which were the company's original product. The devices monitor power lines and, if needed, trip circuit breakers in a fraction of a second to prevent damaging the system.

"It's when I realized I was an inventor," he said.

He made a suggestion when he was meeting with engineers who were discussing ways to detect when a circuit breaker was open and current in a power line had stopped flowing.

"They looked at me and said, 'Hey that might work,' " Whitehead said. "I went to the lab and had the fun of actually making my idea work in a relay."

That innovation was one of many he conceived as he earned promotions that led him to his present role.

Business Profile spoke with Whitehead, via email to abide by COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, about what SEL does, how it's continuing operations during the coronavirus pandemic and his new role.

Business Profile: What are the biggest-selling products SEL manufactures, and what roles do they play in maintaining safe, uninterrupted transmission of electricity?

Dave Whitehead: SEL invents, designs, manufactures, sells and supports many types of equipment for the monitoring, control and protection of power systems ranging from protective devices and special purpose computers to network equipment. Many utilities are (upgrading) their distribution networks -- the power lines that provide electricity to homes and businesses. One of our very popular products, the SEL-651R recloser control (a type of digital relay) ... improves the reliability of distribution systems. The SEL-651R detects faults on the power system and then selectively isolates the faulted power system section while leaving the unfaulted sections serving loads, like (homes). We manufacture the (SEL-651R) in Pullman, Lewiston and (at) our new facility in West Lafayette, Ind.

BP: Many of SEL's customers are utilities, but over the years, that has broadened to include others. What can you share about the ways some of those industries use SEL's products?

DW: We have a broad customer base, including industrial plants (Clearwater Paper), automotive plants (Ford, Mercedes), hospitals (Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Pullman Regional Hospital), data centers (some located in the middle of Washington state), universities (WSU, Montclair State University, Stanford), wind farms (Palouse Wind).

BP: SEL is continuing to serve its customers during the coronavirus pandemic. What kind of work is the company doing?

DW: SEL is keeping the lights on in homes, grocery stores, police and fire stations, hospitals and government institutions around the world. Even during the pandemic, there are many ongoing projects that need SEL's relays, automation and communication products, along with our engineering services expertise to configure power systems equipment to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of electricity. Without our products and solutions, these projects would be delayed, resulting in a less reliable power system.

BP: What preparations did SEL make for the coronavirus, and how are those helping the company operate now?

DW: As part of our normal business operations, we continually monitor technical, political, economic and health events around the world. We have a global supply chain and understand how regional and global disruptions can affect our ability to receive parts that go into our products. As we saw the coronavirus begin to emerge in China, we developed plans to ensure we could continue to support our customers. And, because of our ongoing planning, we haven't missed a product shipment.

BP: SEL announced in late March that the first official COVID-19 case reported in Nez Perce County was an employee at your Lewiston facility. What are some of the most important measures SEL is taking to continue to operate?

DW: We are able to operate because of our great employees. For the folks who need to be on-site to do their jobs, we are closely following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and local, county and state health agencies.

We are staggering shifts, lunches and breaks. We're limiting in-person meetings and are getting creative with how we share information, like decentralizing our (companywide) weekly Friday lunch so employees can stream the program from their home, desk or in conference rooms where social distancing rules can be followed. We're reducing touch points and preventing the spread of germs by leaving all interior doors open and providing gloves and masks. We have redirected folks to join our ... facilities team to clean and sanitize workspaces around the clock. You can't walk through our manufacturing facilities without seeing people cleaning, including members of our leadership team.

Our (information technology) team has done a fantastic job ensuring that our global information infrastructure can support the large number of our employees who are now working from home. We've also scaled our collaboration tools to support our remote workers and their ability to remain connected, productive and secure.

Our executive team is meeting daily, seven days a week, to evaluate and respond to COVID-19 developments.

BP: You have been CEO since November. What changes, if any, have you made to make SEL even stronger and why?

DW: The move from COO to CEO hasn't changed my day-to-day activities very much; rather, it is a continuation of the plans the board of directors and executive team have developed over the last few years. The biggest difference in my role is that I am spending more time thinking strategically about the future of SEL and how we can create innovative products and solutions that continue to delight customers.

BP: Who is on the executive team of SEL besides you?

DW: President and Chief Technology Officer Edmund O. Schweitzer III, Chief Finance Officer Joey Nestegard, Chief Sales and Services Officer David Costello, Senior Vice President of Research and Development Ryan Bradetich, Vice President of Human Resources Stacey Doty, Senior Vice President of Manufacturing Leith Sorenson and Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Stephanie Schweitzer.

BP: What roles do each of you play?

DW: Each of our team members runs a global vertical organization within SEL: research and development, marketing, sales and services, human resources, manufacturing, quality and business. With direction from our board of directors and (Edmund Schweitzer), my job is to define strategies and direct our vertical organization activities to achieve those objectives.

BP: What can you share about where SEL is headed in the future, especially as it relates to Pullman and Lewiston?

DW: There are a lot of opportunities to create innovative products and solutions for monitoring, control and protection of electric power.

And Pullman and Lewiston are great places to do it in. We'll continue to expand our staff and facilities to do this, including our new event center, coming in 2021.

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

Dave Whitehead

Job title: Chief Executive Officer

Company: Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Washington State University in 1989, master's in electrical engineering in 1994 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Brief career history: From 1989-94, worked for General Dynamics, in the electric boat division, as a combat systems engineer developing weapon systems for U.S. Navy submarines. Whitehead joined SEL in 1994. He served in a variety of roles within the company, including hardware engineer, research engineer, chief engineer of the government services division and vice president of research and development. In 2017, he was named chief operating officer. In 2019, he took on the role of CEO.

An expert in utility and industrial control system cybersecurity, he has testified before the U.S. Senate and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the importance of innovation and protecting against cyberattacks. He has been awarded more than 73 patents around the world.

Family: Married to Nicole, for 31 years. They have three daughters Tayler, 24, Kelsey, 22, and Brooke 19.

Civic involvement: Enjoys helping students pursuing higher education, particularly engineering degrees. Volunteers for university programs like University of Idaho's Design Exposition and WSU's Crimson Code, an annual, 24-hour computer hackathon.

Hobbies: Golf, running, biking, ham radio and boating.

History of SEL

The company was founded by Edmund O. Schweitzer III at his Pullman home in 1984 with the invention of a shoebox-sized digital relay that monitors power lines and trips circuit breakers to avoid damaging the system. It has since expanded into other products, such as meters and computers. Initially, SEL's customers were utility companies in the United States, but it now sells to any operation that uses large amounts of power, like mines, factories that make chemicals or paper and institutions such as hospitals or universities.

In 2011, SEL displaced Clearwater Paper in Lewiston as the largest private employer in the region. The company employs about 2,600 in Pullman and 580 in Lewiston. It has another 2,000 in the rest of the United States and worldwide, mostly doing engineering and sales.