Leader of Consequence: Going Global with Energy Services
January 30, 2012
By Debbie Selinsky — This article was originally published in the Team Fuqua alumni magazine.
Rob Tullman likens his childhood fascination with the operation of water treatment and power plants to that of “a little boy watching the space shuttle take off.” More than three decades later, the chemical engineer-turned-energy executive is leveraging that passion at the helm of Granite Services, a successful global energy company and General Electric subsidiary.
“In our world, energy is enormously important. The issues are global, from global warming to international politics. We focus on the nuts and bolts of how all that works, from Angola to Siberia, from Houston to Tierra Del Fuego,” says Tullman (Global Executive MBA ’02) who is a member of the American Committees on Foreign Relations and the Fuqua Alumni Council.
Leading an organization as complex as Granite Services takes a range of experience and knowledge, which Tullman began acquiring with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware in 1985. He worked in semiconductor research at the university before going into sales for NALCO Chemical Company. There, he secured a General Electric facility as the company’s largest cogeneration account. He went on to work as a field engineer commissioning power generation equipment in the United States, Middle East, and Asia.
In 1992, Tullman became a partner in Penpower, which GE acquired in 1997 as an independent division of Granite Services. Based in Tampa, FL, Granite Services specializes in heavy rotating equipment—turbines, generators, compressors and related systems in fossil, gas, nuclear, wind, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and petrochemical applications. With 7,000 employees in 100 countries, Tullman strongly believes in education and training, from which he has personally benefited.
He says he gives thanks every day for Fuqua’s macroeconomics and finance classes. He was named president and CEO of Granite Services in 2002, the same year he graduated from Fuqua. Tongue-in-cheek, he describes his ascent as an “upward stumble,” but his accomplishments are no joke. For starters, he restructured the company’s five divisions to two, diversified its offerings, and took the company global, growing sales from $200 million to $680 million—55 percent derived outside the U.S.
Tullman, who works with several Duke and Fuqua graduates, describes his greatest leadership challenge in a simple phrase: “The devil’s in the details, or as my wife likes to remind me, God’s in the details.”
“At the end of the day, what makes us successful and different and better is in the excruciating details of doing our jobs right,” he explains. “I’m paying attention to the mechanic from Angola with the wrench in his hand who, if he doesn’t get his job right, could get hurt or cause damage in the millions of dollars, impacting businesses and economies.”
That focus is why Granite Services built a world-class training center in Houston, TX. “We invest in people’s skills, and if they do well, we all do well. My job is to help them get better every day,” Tullman says.
“What we do is common to every culture and society. We’re in the thick of it, which means we have to deal with things like wild swings in demand, changing technology and political uncertainty,” he adds. “We work on oil development in Brazil, LNG plants in Australia, Russia and the Middle East, and the world’s largest generation system in the U.S. The good news in all of this is that our strength working across multiple technologies is like no other in the world.”
Granite Services is a stand-alone business but also part of a complex global supply chain for the energy industry.
“Planning maintenance work is remarkably like planning a sailing race,” says the avid sailor and competitive swimmer. “We don’t know how hard or from where the wind will blow—there’s lots of uncertainty. So we plan for multiple scenarios weeks in advance. We make sure our equipment is ready, the crew is trained and we communicate openly. Most of the ‘win’ is determined before we board the boat. We can only win as a team; it’s impossible to do alone.”