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One-on-one with Brian Burnett

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Some have said that Brian Burnett had this all figured out, that his life proceeded according to carefully laid plans.

And it may kind of look that way, given that Burnett made a series of major decisions around 1983 that have all played out beautifully.

That’s when he married Celia, now his wife of more than 30 years. She became pregnant months later, starting a family that now includes two kids and two grandchildren.

It was also 1983 when Burnett left a job with the city of Albuquerque drainage system in favor of a design position with Bohannan Huston, an engineering/mapping/surveying firm that has been involved in projects as diverse as the Very Large Array near Socorro and the San Juan-Chama drinking water project.

Within a matter of months, his role evolved into a management position, laying the foundation for his eventual promotion to Bohannan Houston president (1998) and CEO (2002).

But Burnett says he didn’t map it out this way when he was growing up in Los Alamos. It just kind of happened.

“This is a story of responding and trying new things, and certain things happening that created the opportunity,” Burnett says from his clutter-free office at Bohannan Huston’s Journal Center headquarters, where he oversees a 175-employee, three-office operation that’s recent high-profile work has included the new Paseo del Norte overpass. “I’ve had that conversation with a lot with people – that I didn’t sit back in school and say I was going to be a president of a company. Some people do that, some people know exactly what they want to do. My path is much more organic and adaptive.”

But it’s not entirely random.

Though he may not have recognized it immediately, Burnett likes to be at the controls, just like his father and his grandfather before him. Grandpa – who lived to 103, by the way – ran a series of businesses, including a feed store and painting company. Dad, meanwhile, left a chemistry job with Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid-1970s to buy – and run – what was then the community’s only bookstore.

“I guess (I have) the business gene, the interest,” Burnett says. “I just am fascinated by the private sector and creating your own opportunities.”

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: I was active. I grew up in Los Alamos and there was always something going on. … I was focused on school and I guess, from an activities standpoint, it was sports-oriented: baseball, tennis. We did a lot of that during the summers. We would set up our own tournaments; we’d bike to the tennis courts. … I played tennis and basketball (for Los Alamos High School). Not great, but I played. (laughs) I actually grew several inches after I got out of high school and gained the weight. I wasn’t very strong (in school) and so that impacted how much I played basketball, (but) I was on the team all three years of high school and then on the junior high team. … I played the trombone poorly, and the band was always conflicting with the sports and finally I got booted out, I think. I had to make a choice. The story there is, one Christmas, I left my trombone in my locker, and the music director went around and had a key to all the locks and he saw who wasn’t practicing, and then he kind of called us all in. I think that was the winter of the last semester I played the instrument, the beginning of the end.

Q: Aside from sports, what were your interests back then?

A: That was probably it. (laughs) … There was a time where I was trying to expand my artistic skills and I took one of these two- or three-year programs to help you get better in that. My parents invested in that and I got through it, but realized … it was kind of like the trombone – it didn’t motivate me to excel. Not (that) that was the only reason why I did it – to get good and, if I didn’t get good, I quit. It just wasn’t a passion, although I do think that that led to my interest in mechanical drawing. I took every class I could in high school. They had a mechanical drafting program. … I went through the classes and then I was (the student aide) for the teacher (and) did that all four years. I came across some of those drawings (in the garage recently). I designed a house when I was in high school for one of the teachers who was thinking about building a house. Of course, it wasn’t good enough to ever be built, the quality of the plans, but I came across that set (in the garage). I (had) folded it up and saved it.

Q: How did you wind up here at Bohannan Huston?

A: I (worked in the city’s hydrology department) for a little over two years and then realized I didn’t want to be in the public sector. It was a great place to start a career, but I wanted to create. I was sitting there looking at the all the work people were creating and I was having to review it. I said, “No, I’d rather create it.” … There were four or five firms that I would’ve gone to work for and it’s an accurate story that (former Bohannan Huston president) Mike Emery asked me first. He heard I was interested in leaving and took me to lunch, and offered me a job right there.

Q: You do very little in the way of engineering work in your own day-to-day life. Do you miss it?

A: I stay in touch with the issues to where I feel like I’m involved with the projects. But I’m not designing them, I’m not managing them, I’m not seeing them completed onto construction. But I know about our work. I’m involved, of course, with the strategy of how we get the work, and I think I stay in tune with what we’re doing to where I don’t see that. … I’m around engineering all the time. I guess the question is “Do I miss designing anything?” There are times I catch myself saying I’d really like to work on that project, but those are fleeting. I try not to dwell on them.

Q: Bohannan Huston has worked on so many major projects in the area. Do you drive around Albuquerque and say, “We were part of that?” A: Sure. For many years, I’ve taken new employees on a tour of the city and you can talk about a lot of things in a couple hours. The stuff we do is very visible.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: Well, I think in general it’s that people feel encouraged by my leadership, that they enjoy working here, that they feel supported in how we do our work, how we treat each other. It’s the fact that we’ve had many long careers here, and I think people have had an opportunity to do a lot of different things and grow their careers, as well.

Q: You like yoga. How did you get into Bikram yoga?

A: My daughter, one of her best friends became an instructor and she, in 2010, gave us a Christmas gift of a certificate for some classes. (We) took our first class on Dec. 31, 2010, so we’re in our fifth year. … It’s been so helpful for me (for) my knees, my back.

Q: Do you have any hidden talents?

A: Well, maybe the fact that I’m pretty good at drawing hands.

Q: What was your last splurge?

A: We took a 30th anniversary trip a year ago to a really nice resort in California. That was a big deal. We had a great time.

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: Life-long learner.

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