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Business and science

Barry McNamara
07/11/2011
Sherm Smith ’72, President and CEO of the Chambers Group, Inc
Sherm Smith ’72 has long believed that science holds the key to solving the world’s largest problems. But the president and CEO of the Chambers Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm, also realizes that business can’t be overlooked in the equation.

“The most important problems, such as issues related to rebuilding Japan’s nuclear energy program or obtaining energy independence in the U.S., will be solved by scientists,” he said. “However, there is one big caveat: unless the scientists obtain grounding in project management and a sense of the balance between risk and reward, they cannot be successful.”

For example, Smith said, what if a cure for AIDS or cancer was discovered, but the antidote costs $700,000 per dose?

“Where is my market for that? The same thing occurs in energy. I can refine petroleum from slate or rock, but at what cost? Scientists who make an impact learn the skills of project management, scarcity and risk/reward. So, combining science with business is the ideal marriage. The fact that Monmouth College is investing in the best facilities and forums for the interaction is the best educational investment I can imagine.”

When choosing a college to attend, Smith said he was drawn to Monmouth, in part, by the national acclaim it had received in the sciences.

“Monmouth had a great reputation for turning out scientists,” he said. “I had heard that not too long before I attended, Monmouth produced more science graduates that eventually became Ph.D.’s than any other small college in the Midwest. I was convinced that future problems would be solved by scientists and engineers.”

He recalls being “traditionally trained” during that heyday for the sciences.

“Scientists at Monmouth were trained to be logical and speak the language of the discipline,” he said. “I learned statistics and the value of analysis there. The scientific process came to life for me at Monmouth. I learned about what was controllable and predictable and how to work with variables to maximize the impact of my experiments. Those skills are timeless.”

After graduating, Smith furthered his studies at the University of Iowa. Prior to his current consulting work, he was at Fluor Corporation, an internationally recognized company and environmental science pioneer.

“My career there was successful because of my science preparation and Fluor’s excellent training program,” he said. “My timing could not have been better. I started just after the first environmental legislation was passed and the Environmental Protection Agency was established.”

Smith became the company expert at Fluor, helping clients do such things as obtaining government approval for new power plants, establishing acceptable emission levels and regulating the sulfur release from the burning of coal and liquefied coal.

“All of this stuff was regulated for the first time,” he said. “It was a great time to join the industry, and I loved what I did at Fluor. My competitive spirit leads me to want to do whatever it took to be the dominant player in the markets we served. I took advantage of every opportunity I had to learn more science, engineering and business.”

As an example of how the scientific discipline comes together with business, Smith recalled working as the lead environmental engineer on the design of a new coal-fired power generation plant that Louisville Gas & Electric built in an environmentally sensitive area.

“We came to an impasse with the EPA and they refused to give us a permit,” he said. “The issue was the analysis and projections we provided for the air pollution dispersion and heat from the plant running at 100 percent of capacity. I was asked by our client, ‘How do we get around this regulatory impasse?’”

Smith provided three alternatives, but the more he studied his own work, looking at the project holistically, the more he was drawn to his third option, which consisted of design changes, but which could still potentially cost several million dollars to implement.

Ultimately, as Smith’s company worked with designers, they were able to increase the height of the release stacks by 15 feet, eliminating the need to reheat the stack itself.

“We found a solution that could be implemented for less than $100,000,” he said. “The solution combined good science with business acumen. The result was that we saved the client millions of dollars.”

Smith, who hired hundreds of scientists in his career and employs 250 with the Chambers Group, has advice for students who hope to go into that field. Part of their success, he said, will come from lessons learned outside the laboratory.

“At Monmouth, I was more than a science major. I was a leader in student government and in my fraternity (Tau Kappa Epsilon). I recruited volunteers and tried to make things happen. If you can learn how to lead volunteers in a fraternity or student government, you can hone skills for scheduling events, sequencing and motivational change. Those life skills were invaluable.”

Understanding the business behind science is also a key part of achieving success.

“Young scientists must understand the business model they are operating in,” he said. “The No. 1 reason we are in business is to make money, not do good science. We need to make a profit to be able to do good science. Good science alone doesn’t pay all the bills. Many scientists just want to conduct experiments as they did in graduate school. They do not want to deal with any of the project management demands or client mandatories, so they are worth less money.”

His other advice is for scientists to be well-rounded, and be realistic in their expectations.

“No client will pay a field biologist a $100,000 annualized rate for generic fieldwork,” Smith said. “The reality is that the U.S. market values those skills at a $35,000 annualized rate. Both the client and I are willing to pay more for someone who can do the science and manage the project. Putting to use what they have learned in the field is essential, but applying that knowledge for the benefit of the client gets my attention.“

Obtaining that high level of skills doesn’t happen overnight.

“It is worth more money to my company when scientists take a natural career path — a path that normally includes project management within the first five to six years after joining the firm. From there they can lead programs or write proposals. The scientists who are paid the most learn how to combine what they need to know with what it takes to get things done in a variety of situations.”