To this year’s recipient of the Pipeline Leadership Award, being a leader boils down to respect and speaking from the heart.
Having worked his way up through the pipeline business, Robert C. “Bob” Osborn has built a reputation based on hard work, trust among his colleagues and a passion for the safety of all pipeliners. An oft-repeated descriptor for Osborn is “always available” or “always accessible.”
Osborn’s leadership has led to the successful completion of numerous energy pipeline projects throughout his 40 years in the industry. It’s this reputation for safety and hard work that has earned Osborn the 2022 Pipeline Leadership Award. The annual award will be presented at the Pipeline Leadership Conference, Nov. 15-16, in Houston, organized by Benjamin Media Inc., publisher of North American Energy Pipelines, in cooperation with Continuum Capital.
As president of Michels Energy Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Michels Corporation, Osborn is responsible for all aspects of pipeline, natural gas distribution and electrical power construction operations across the United States.
“The reputation Bob has built for Michels pipeline construction services and the quality of the team he has assembled speaks for itself,” says Pat Michels, president and CEO of Michels Corporation. “Beyond that, Bob is respectful of the pipeline industry’s past at the same time he is leading it into the future to support energy transition needs.”
He joined Michels in 2001 as vice president of pipeline construction operations. In ensuing years, Osborn helped to grow Michels into one of the largest full‐service pipeline contractors in North America. He was promoted to senior group president of energy in 2019 before taking the helm at Michels Energy Group.
Outside of his duties at Michels, Osborn is an active participant in the industry, having been elected president of the Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA) in 2017 and serving on the PLCA board of directors, PLCA Labor Negotiating Committee, International Labors Training Steering Committee and Teamsters Pension Fund.
“Bob Osborn embodies the work ethic, safety commitment and dedication prevalent in the hard-working folks who build a critical part of America’s energy infrastructure,” said Mike Prior, P.Eng., senior strategic advisor, Michels Canada. “Bob’s experience and personal integrity make him an effective, energizing leader regardless of whether he is visiting with crews in the field, asking hundreds of workers on a spread to focus on safety, or interacting with executives and political leaders.”
Osborn was born into a pipeliner family, as his father worked for a pipeline contractor. His brothers are involved in the industry as well. He started right out of high school as a laborer for Donaldson Construction, a pipeline contractor based in Dodge Center, Minnesota, and he worked his way up to welder helper, teamster operator and continued climbing the rungs until he was given a chance at a management role.
After Donaldson Construction shut down, it was Mueller Pipelines that gave Osborn his first shot at management at age 26, running the Kansas City area operations. Seven years later, at age
33, he was promoted to president of the company.
Mueller was eventually sold and later became part of Quanta Services. Osborn decided to pursue a new opportunity that more aligned with his values.
“I was always coming from family companies,” Osborn says, regarding his motivation to join Michels Corporation in 2001.
When Osborn made the decision to return to a family-owned pipeline company, he joined an organization led by second-generation president and CEO Pat Michels, whose father, Dale Michels, founded the company in 1959. As vice president of the company’s pipeline division, Osborn reported to another industry legend in Bob Westphal. Osborn eventually succeeded Westphal.
“I was fortunate that when Bob was going to slow down, but not retire, he was a great resource for me,” Osborn says of his relationship with Westphal. “Pat asked if I was OK with Bob staying involved. I was more than OK, because I could bounce ideas off Bob, and Pat said I should use Bob in that way.”
What attracted Osborn to Michels was the company’s reputation in the pipeline industry.
“If one thing resonated with me about Michels prior to working with the company, it’s that they always had such a strong reputation of doing tough jobs and always finishing the job,” Osborn says. “It was their reputation and being a family-owned business.”
Osborn also respected the company’s culture of a strong work ethic.
“It’s just a great story in the way the company grew,” Osborn says. “They have such a strong work ethic, and after having been here awhile, I see where that came from. It came from Dale Michels, and he passed that down to his family.”
Pat and his brother Kevin Michels continue that hardworking legacy, Osborn says, while adding that they also provide strong support and leeway for their employees.
“Everyone sees that model every day, and it gets bred through the whole company,” Osborn says. “You’re expected to work hard because they work hard. That’s what brought me to Michels.”
Having worked his way up through the pipeline industry, Osborn has earned the respect of his peers and those who work for him.
“Bob literally grew up in the pipeline industry, starting as a laborer and advancing into the highest levels of leadership,” Pat Michels says. “He brings a unique perspective as a pipeliner and a businessperson, which allows him to focus on the sustainability of the industry, as well as the importance of the invaluable people who perform the work. In the industry and at Michels, Bob is unflinchingly committed to safety, quality and environmental performance, making him an important steward of the pipeline industry.”
With his father as an example, Osborn advanced through hard work and learning the business from the inside.
“As a young man, I was working with guys my father’s age,” Osborn says. “The way I got respect was because I knew so much about the business.”
However, Osborn also stresses the importance of being respectful of others.
“If you want to be respected,” he says, “you have to be respectful.”
Richard Prior, president of liquids pipelines for TC Energy, calls Osborn a “stalwart leader” in the industry.
“(Osborn) leads with safety, integrity and looks for common ground solutions with his clients and has strong enthusiasm for our industry,” Prior says. “Bob has assembled excellent construction teams throughout the years with a partnership approach executing our pipeline and facilities construction projects.”
Prior witnessed Osborn’s leadership firsthand while developing one of the biggest pipeline projects in history.
“Bob showed tremendous leadership while we were developing the Keystone XL project,” Prior says. “He helped coordinate vocal support for the project throughout the pipeline industry, including with the contractor community, the building trade unions, and various local and state politicians.”
Prior sees Osborn’s impact in the pipeline industry as enduring.
“An area that stands out is that he consistently demonstrates how to bring groups together to find solutions to our challenges,” Prior says. “Bob finds common ground with labor, construction contractors, owners and construction management to solve issues.”
Osborn is proud of the path his career has taken.
“I’m proud of my roots and my background in pipeline work, but I’m also proud to have the opportunity to work next to great leaders in the industry. I’ve always had good leaders who pushed me to do better. You have to be willing to be pushed and accept the challenges. I’ve also been fortunate to be surrounded by the Michels team I work with day to day.”
Speaking from the Heart
There is a sign that hangs on the wall in Osborn’s office. It reads: “Authority is a very dangerous thing and ruins more men than it makes. No man amounts to anything by himself and can only rise by the friendship and loyalty of those around him, which can only be secured by thoughtfulness, courtesy and fairness.”
The quote comes from Robby Gilliand, who was president of Midland Constructors, an overhead powerline company in Minnesota. Osborn never worked for Gilliand, but he describes him as a quiet man and a family friend, who tragically died in an auto accident. Osborn encountered this bit of wisdom at a friend’s house.
“When I saw it, it just made so much sense to me,” Osborn says. “When people get in higher positions of power, they can lose their respect for others. To me, this is how to grow into a leader. I’ve kept it with me for years, and I try to live by it.”
Because of those words of wisdom, Osborn believes in taking pride in what you do and being respectful of other people. It’s this heartfelt belief that drives Osborn as a leader.
“The biggest thing for me is that you should always lead with your heart,” he says. “Your heart will lead the way. I don’t always make the most conventional decision, but I try to think in that way.”
One of the decisions Osborn takes pride in is furthering Michels’ commitment to safety.
“Safety has always been a big part of what we do here. One of the things I’m proud of in my career is helping Michels build one of biggest and best safety cultures in the industry.”
As part of that effort, Osborn was instrumental in the hiring of Sean Nicholson as vice president of health, safety and environment (HSE) for Michels, who joined the company in 2007. Nicholson highlights Osborn’s passion for looking after the people who work for him.
“Bob is always engaged in driving the culture at Michels,” Nicholson says. “He relentlessly cares about making sure the women and men who work for the company go home safe. He rarely balked at any HSE initiatives we wanted to put in place. He was always heavily involved, and the people who worked for him knew his passion for safety.”
Nicholson sees Osborn’s impact on the pipeline industry as “profound.”
“He is very well regarded because he’s not pretentious,” Nicholson says. “He wants to do right thing globally, not just competitively. He pours his heart and soul into projects, and he’s willing to roll his sleeves up, and not brag about who he is. He’s willing to put his blood, sweat and tears into the industry. From my experience, and I’ve been in the industry now for 20 years, I’ve never seen someone who is built the way he is.”
One of attributes that distinguishes Osborn as a leader, according to his colleagues, is his accessibility.
“Bob has set a very high standard of expectations and then assembled a nationwide team to enact his vision,” Michels says. “He is always accessible and available when needed, yet trusts his team to perform work and to act in accordance with Michels standards. In addition, Bob is also a visible leader, frequently visiting jobsites and meeting with crews. He is as comfortable meeting with crews in the field as he is with executives in a boardroom. He exemplifies Michels Core Values at every step along the way.”
Nicholson says it’s Osborn’s accessibility that helps build trust.
“He’s always available, always a leader, but he has the ability to put a personal touch on that aspect,” Nicholson says. “He’s able to lean into that personal side, and hold himself up personally. That builds trust and lets the barrier come down. That’s why he’s so successful. The name Bob Osborn resonates throughout industry.”
Although Osborn has had innumerable role models in the pipeline industry, including Michels and Westphal, it was Osborn’s parents, Richard “Dick” Osborn Jr. and Norma Osborn, who set him on his path.
“How do you develop good work ethic, good morals and standards? Really, I developed that through my parents,” Osborn says. “There were seven of us kids, with eight years between the oldest and youngest. Dad traveled all the time, so Mom managed us all. Thinking back how they dealt with crises and challenges, I learned about that through them.”
Osborn also credits his wife, Londa, for providing support and guidance throughout his career.
“My wife knew when we met how committed I was to the industry,” he says. “It’s not easy to do, but she raised our five kids. Next year will be our 40th anniversary. Her understanding and patience has given me the opportunity to do what I do.”
Role of a Leader
One of the most important aspects of being a leader, Osborn says, is listening to other people.
“I think one of biggest things with leadership is that good leaders have to know how to listen,” he says. “You have to lead with your ears. Also, as a leader, you have to be cognizant of what you say when you speak, and you have to speak from the heart.”
Osborn believes that it’s through listening that leaders solve problems.
“That’s how I learn, by hearing what other people say and finding solutions for them,” he says.
It’s also important to listen to other leaders, Osborn says.
“Good leaders have to be willing to listen and seek advice,” he says. “Sometimes you have to make tough decisions, but you also have to make swift decisions, especially in the field.”
Being visible is another attribute that Osborn believes is essential for a leader.
“Leaders should lead by example, because people watch what you do,” he says. “If you work hard, they’ll want to work hard. I never think of myself as a leader, even though I know I’m a leader, but I don’t look at it in those terms. You have to be visible and put the time in. But you have to be willing to listen to people’s problems and help find solutions.”
Tags: Michels Corporation, Pipeline Leadership Award, Robert Osborn, September October 2022 Print Issue