GRAND RAPIDS — It’s probably fair to write that there haven’t been too many civil engineers who have made a decision to redirect a career while traveling on the Upper Volga River. But Steve Williams did just that. And it’s also probably fair to write that if you asked him he’d tell you that decision was one of the best he has ever made.
Williams, a principal with the professional engineering firm Williams and Works Inc., made that unusual trek up the Volga in 1994 as a team leader with Earth Tech, a large engineering and environmental consulting company with international contracts. The firm sent him to Moscow on a trip that took him to the upper reaches of the Volga to establish a system of wastewater-treatment environmental controls for cities along the river.
“It was different, to say the least,” said Williams of that memorable trip. “It was four or five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Williams was there to assist local government officials who weren’t sure what to do. They found themselves with a strange water dilemma, one that is unbelievable by this country’s standards, and a set of new and equally strange responsibilities that came from the fairly recent decentralization of the Soviet Union.
“Their history up to that point had been that the central government controlled everything. Water was ‘free’ then and they had no way to meter it. No way for people to pay for the service directly in proportion to their use,” said Williams.
“We went to one town, Rabinsk. When we got there in the morning, about nine or so, the water system had been drained. People just opened their faucets and left them open because it didn’t matter how much water they used. They never knew when the water was going to be on, so everybody just opened their faucets and let them run. Within an hour or two, they’d drain the system. So they’d have to shut it down and start over again.”
That daily routine made it impossible not only to control the supply, but also to ensure the quality of the city’s water.
“So the next day, they’d have an hour or so of water. Of course, you can imagine the public health implications of draining the water system.”
As for the Williams family, they have a long, civil engineering bloodline, one that stretches over 75 years. Steve’s great-grandfather started the business, and Steve was personally inspired by the engineering work done by his father and grandfather.
“I saw what they did. I though that it looked like something that was good and interesting and had a lot of positive attributes to it,” he said. “My great-grandfather started Williams and Works and incorporated it in 1924. Both my grandfather and father worked for Williams & Works.”
The original Williams & Works became WWW Engineering & Science, which was later purchased by the Summit Environmental Group of Ohio in 1989. Five years later, Earth Tech bought Summit, and the local office of what was Williams & Works became an arm of Earth Tech. In 1995, Williams and five others from Earth Tech banded together to revive Williams & Works as an independent engineering firm with a regional emphasis.
“We felt we wanted a change in the way we lived and the way we did our business. Earth Tech was more focused on national and international contracts. We wanted to work more for local municipalities and developers, which is what we had done up to that point and felt we most enjoyed,” he said.
Williams added that he doesn’t miss all the travel he had to do while with Earth Tech. His last trip was the one he made to Russia, which led him to his life-changing voyage on the Upper Volga.
“That last trip was helpful in convincing me,” he said.
What Williams enjoys most about his work are the creative solutions that can emerge from successful engineering jobs. He said he gets special satisfaction in using his knowledge to help a community create a wastewater system or a developer build a road when a project is initially thought to be either nearly impossible or clearly impossible.
“To do that and see it work out well is really satisfying,” he said.
His favorite project underscores that comment. It was one he did about 20 years ago in Detroit. At that time, the city was unable to meet its wastewater treatment standards and was discharging large amounts of phosphorus into the Detroit River, which eventually flowed into Lake Erie.
“We came up with a very innovative solution that cost the city just a couple of million dollars to implement. They previously had estimated that it might cost them $30 million or $40 million to solve the problem. That project won the highest award in a juried competition for that year from the American Consulting Engineers Council,” said Williams, who managed the project the ACEC honored with the Grand Conceptor Award in 1980.
Williams earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Michigan Tech.
“My first year there was Tony Esposito’s last year,” he said of the school’s Hall-of-Fame goaltender, who went on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks. “He’s probably our most famous hockey alumni, although we had quite a few good hockey players.”
His daughter, Perry, is also a Huskie. But the sophomore is studying biology and math at Tech, instead of engineering. Alex, Williams’ son, is a senior at East Grand Rapids High School, while Linda, his wife, is owner and executive director of Michigan Epic, a nonprofit organization that develops Internet-based K-12 educational materials, mainly for social science and history courses. Her firm is under contract to the Department of Education, and also works with the National Heritage Academy.
In his free time, Williams plays tennis, bicycles and skis. He also plays golf, but not very often.
“I golf occasionally. But my office mate here will attest to the fact that even though I don’t golf very much, I’m pretty damn good at it,” he said with tongue in cheek. “We went out last Saturday and I think he may have had a laugh or two.”
Williams hopes the immediate future brings more financial success and recognition to the company and more personal gratification to its partners and employees. For that latter group, especially the younger ones, he holds a special hope: That they find the industry as rewarding as it has been for him.
“I’d like to see us, as a business, continue to thrive,” he said, “and provide opportunities for younger folks coming up, so they can have some of the fun that I’ve had so far. You become invested in them and you want to see them succeed.”