Friday, May 3, 2013

Bill Purnell

All things come to an end. An engineering geologist associate of mine, Bill Purnell, died early this week. If not for Bill, my life would have taken a decidedly different path. I worked for Bill for 4 years in the 1990s.

Bill grew up in rural Jefferson County and even lived for a time on Protection Island at the opening to Discovery Bay. He had a mammoth tusk that he and is brother had pulled out of the shoreline bluff on display in the office. The shoreline bluffs of Jefferson County were the inspiration for Bill to study geology. Bill worked for a period of time with a large geotech firm out of Seattle, but upon doing some work in Bellingham figured out how to stay in Bellingham by starting his own firm.

He ran a one or two man show for a long period of time and was the primary small scale geotech company in Bellingham. Over the years he hired many students out of Western Washington University. The company was always too small to hang onto anyone for any length of time until the mid 1990s. At that time his company started to take off and expand via a construction boom and some steady geotech work and environmental work and a few big clients. It was at that time Bill hired me.

At the time I was managing a Superfund cleanup in Tacoma and had drifted into becoming a field project guy in a large corporation. It was a big change to come into a small company where we were all in it together one way or another.

Bill had tremendous confidence in me. He assigned me all sorts of projects in which I had absolutely no previous experience. Hence, I learned a lot in a short period of time. I also learned a lot about business form Bill. Good lessons and bad. I worked at W.D. Purnell Associates for 4 years. I liked everyone I worked with very much and was very fond of Bill. It was tough to leave, but the hard calculations of business and risk determined that I was much better off going on my own versus staying on with a new ownership structure. I could never had made that calculation without the experience I had gained working with Bill.

There is a rather large group of former Bill employees scattered about northwest Washington. We still often team up on projects. I sometimes wonder what the company could have looked like if the business calculation for the employees was just tweaked a bit so that more of us would have stayed on.

After I had worked for Bill for about a year, he and I attended a forestry talk. I introduced him to a couple of folks as my boss. Bill interrupted me and said no we were associates. And it was true. His behaving as the boss never extended much beyond having signed to front of the pay check. He was the last boss I have had and I appreciated being his associate. 

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