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Fostering Longevity

It’s been said that children born today will hold 40 different jobs in 10 completely different career paths over their lifetime; and that up to 80 per cent of jobs that exist today will become obsolete within the next two decades due to automation, advancing technology and robotics. There’s no denying that times are changing fast and the days of holding the same job for years on end have passed. Unless, of course, you’re Phil Wright, business development manager and 25-year veteran at L.B. Foster.


A decade before

Wright is quick to acknowledge reality when it comes to longevity at L.B. Foster.

“Tommy Knox handles our rental piling; he’s in about year 42 or 43. John Knapp, who runs our yard in Petersburg, Va., [has worked at L.B. Foster] longer than that,” he said. “Gary Wheeler (former general manager) made it 47 years; he’s retired now. My former boss, Alan Sarapas, who’s also retired, was at almost 37 years. So, I’m not an anomaly being 25 years here.”

Having graduated from what is now the University of Louisiana, Monroe, with a construction degree, Wright was a general contractor in Southern Louisiana and ended up renting and buying sheet pile and renting piling equipment from L.B. Foster.

“I was a customer of theirs before I became an employee,” he said. “I got to know the salesmen and some of the guys there.”

Those initial tethers to the company turned into Wright’s line in when he was wrapping up work with another company in New Orleans.

“I was running a small construction firm but getting ready to shut it down,” said Wright. “So, L.B. Foster extended an offer to me and that’s how I was hired.”

Life at L.B. Foster

Wright’s initial role was as a salesmen, moving to Atlanta, Ga. and working a territory that covered his new home state plus Alabama and the panhandle of Florida. After about four years, Wright moved to the Boston office where he would cover Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York for the next six years. In late 2001, Wright moved back to New Orleans to reopen L.B. Foster’s office there, where he worked until mid-2004 when an opportunity arose that would morph into his current position.

“I moved back to Atlanta because I was going to take on a national role and needed to be near a major airport,” said Wright. “At first, they referred to me as the manager of engineered solutions, which evolved into the manager of business development.”

Wright’s work with L.B. Foster involves wearing a few different hats – but primarily pulling a suitcase.

“Much of my time is spent travelling with our sales team and doing Lunch n’ Learns; we meet with engineers, contractors and sometimes owners,” said Wright. “I’ll speak to them about our services and materials to assist on more of a technical level. Over the year, we’ll do upwards of 70 of these and might have touch points with 600 or 700 engineers/contractors/owners, etcetera, across the country.”

This role has Wright travelling extensively over the course of the year, something he enjoys but is happy to share with his colleague, director of engineering Richard Morales.

“I’m probably in a hotel anywhere from 70 to 80 nights a year,” he said. “It used to be over 100 but since Richard does some now, it’s dropped back a little for me.”

Wright enjoys the opportunity to impart his wisdom and help ensure a strong future for L.B. Foster.

“The thing I like best is working with our sales team, especially newer people, to help them develop working relationships with engineers and/or contractors, and assist them in learning the business and taking care of the customer,” said Wright. “To have the opportunity to shape the future of the piling group is something I take very seriously.”

Building relationships

Working with new colleagues gives Wright the opportunity to share advice like he was speaking to his younger self when he first started out.

“No one cares as much about your customer as you do,” he said. “Things seem a little less personal in business than they were when I was working my way up; they’re done over text message and email versus face to face. I try to stress to new hires that personal interaction with your customer – your engineers, your specifiers or your end users like contractors – are the key point in what you do. There are other companies out there who supply the same things that we do. So, what it comes down to is price, availability and relationships.”

The relationships Wright has forged over the years have led not only to great friendships but also to great projects.

“We got an opportunity to bid some work directly to the Panama Canal Authority, working with Gerdau Steel,” said Wright.  “During the last half of 2009 and first quarter of 2010, we shipped just shy of 17,000 tonnes of steel from the Houston, Texas area down into Panama.”

As with large projects like these, things are bound to get complicated.

“We also had to stack the steel adjacent to where it was going to be installed because there was no installation contractor selected. We had to not only bring it from the mill to the port, get it in ships, bring it in ships to Colon, Panama, offload it there, put it on trucks and drive it about 80 kilometers from port to the storage site, but also figure out how to maintain easy access without doublehandling material.”

Moving forward, looking back

As he considers all he’s accomplished, Wright is quick to mention the people who have supported and encouraged him throughout his years with L.B. Foster.

“Senior vice president Don Foster was certainly one of my biggest influences; he was my boss from 2005 to 2015. Gary Wheeler, who was our general manager of piling until he retired last January, was a mentor to me, having worked for the company for 40-plus years. Alan Sarapas was my boss when I worked in our Boston office before he became vice president. Until he retired recently, I had been working for him again. He was instrumental in shaping my thought process about how to sell sheet pile, handle customers and deal with engineering firms, and how to work with people day to day.”

As for the future, Wright has been thinking about retirement – just not yet.

“I’ve got some longevity in my genes; my mom is 83 and my dad is 87. So, I’m trying to save up enough money to give this thing up in a few years.”

In a world where jobs and careers come and go, it’s nice to celebrate the strong and steady relationship between Phil Wright and L.B. Foster. 


Pildriver Magazine ISSUE 6 2017

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