Posted: September 01, 2010
Executive edge: Gary Brierly
Littleton CEO has tunnel vision for infrastructure and transportation projectsLynn Bronikowski
When Gary Brierly was 8 years old, his father took him to see "The Mighty Hoosac" - a 4½-mile tunnel built in the 1850s through the Berkshire Mountains of Northwestern Massachusetts. It was a father-son day that would forever influence Brierly's life.
"As a kid you're standing there marveling at how it was possible to build such a giant black hole in what seemed like the center of the Earth," said Brierly, president of Brierly Associates, a geotechnical tunneling company based in Littleton.
His factory-worker father died of a heart attack when Brierly was 13, but years later while earning his Ph.D. in tunneling at the University of Illinois, Brierly would dedicate a paper on the history of the Hoosac Tunnel to the late Harry W. Brierly.
"I've always had a strong interest in geology and a fascination with how the world was formed, so when I went to college and realized I had a strong aptitude for engineering, I combined the two and came up with tunneling," said Brierly, who today heads a company with annual revenues of $8 million and eight offices across the United States.
He admits he's in an unusual business, with about 75 percent of the company's work involving water infrastructure projects and the rest transportation. Brierly has designed and engineered hundreds of projects over 40 years - everything from the DuPont Circle station of Washington, D.C.'s subway system to the company's current project, a water intake tunnel for Lake Mead to provide a water supply for Las Vegas.
"We're in the business of moving water or transportation. The tunnel business in the U.S. is doing extremely well," said Brierly, whose company continues to grow despite the nation's economic downturn. "People need us in good times and bad times because we're very specialized, well educated and we have something to offer. The more specialized you are the more valuable you are, so a lot of our growth and stability is associated with our specialization."
Brierly Associates in 2009 saw revenues of $6 million. This year, after acquiring Lyman Henn, a privately held Denver company, Brierly projects $8 million in revenues.
"Last January, we had 25 on staff; today we have 60, and we're still hiring," Brierly said. "There's never a bad time to hire a good person."
Brierly, who earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from Tufts University, is one of the few engineers in the country to have Ph.D. in tunneling. Years ago, a colleague gave him the moniker "Dr. Mole."
Not only did it immediately catch on, but his column, "Ask Dr. Mole," ran for several years in the trade magazine, Tunnel Business. When he lived in Massachusetts, his license plate read "DR MOLE."
"We have a strong geology component to the company," Brierly said. "Geology for a tunnel is similar to the location of a building. The geology is crucial to the success of a tunnel just as the location of a building is crucial to its success. I do a lot of lecturing and emphasize the importance of geology and the battle with Mother Earth."
Brierly hits the road at least once a week working on projects throughout 48 states and at 64 has no intention of retiring anytime soon.
"When you ask someone, ‘What's your definition of retirement?' they say, ‘You get to do what you want,'" Brierly said. "Well, I'm doing what I want. I've cut back on some of my project stuff, but there's no reason to retire. I'm having too much fun."
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.