Monday, December 27, 2010
One-on-One with Farok Sharif
By Autumn Gray
Assistant Business Editor
Farok Sharif was number eight.
It was a lucky number because there were nine children in the family, and those born latest had a much easier time of things. By then, his parents had not only been broken in by his siblings, but the couple had also just about made it through their young-family financial struggles when Farok came along.
He grew up in a house with five bedrooms on top of a hill in the relatively small town of Johor Bahru, at the southern tip of Malaysia next to Singapore. An expansive backyard allowed for a private badminton court. It was used extensively by Sharif and two of his brothers, all of whom played competitively. Badminton in Malaysia is apparently what football is to West Texas.
"I spent more time in sports than anything," Sharif says of those days.
When he came to the U.S., where badminton's popularity ranks with cricket and curling, Sharif switched to tennis.
"Growing up in Malaysia, it's kind of a great thing to go abroad and get an education abroad," Sharif said. So I actually had options, whether I go to Canada, Australia or the U.S. ... I was fortunate enough that my family had enough money to send me off, so I chose the United States — of course."
He first attended College of the Ozarks in Arkansas before transferring to New Mexico State University upon meeting his wife, who was from Carlsbad.
But coming to America was not just about the honor associated with education here. Sharif also wanted to be successful in the way his father had been. At the age of 15, his dad moved to Malaysia from India and started his own butcher shop. "It started very, very small, very modest, to something that was quite profitable.
"So when this opportunity came, (I thought) my dad left India and started fresh with whatever he could carry and did really, really well. And maybe I could do the same thing — go to a different country and start something. It worked out very well, too."
When Sharif graduated, he got a job in Idaho working in the phosphate-based fertilizer business dealing with hazardous materials. He soon got promoted and moved to Florida, where he worked in the mining industry. When an opportunity arose at the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, he took it, starting out in the packaging and transportation group and working his way up.
"I was not shy in jumping in the middle of everything. Even with the jobs and projects people didn't want, I took it," he said.
Sharif is now president and general manager of Washington TRU Solutions, which manges and operates WIPP. He has been in nuclear waste management for 21 years.
Q: Most people don't grow up saying they want to have a career in nuclear waste. What did you think you wanted to do?
A: I wanted to be a cop.
Q: Did you ever pursue that?
A: I was a lieutenant in the (Police) Reserves (in Carlsbad). ...You are a volunteer, you don't get paid, but you wear the uniform, and you ride with the certified officers. And once you are with the certified officers you actually have the same exact authority as a police officer. So I did that for 11 years. ... Now that I've taken this job, I travel quite a bit and I just don't have the time to do that.
Q: Why do you like what you do at WIPP?
A: If you look at WIPP, it's the only one in the world actually, and we are the pioneer. So working at the only one in the world that's operating and licensed and, by the way, us solving a major problem — to me that just fascinated me. We are actually leading the way for everybody else in the world. They all want one; they don't have one. So ours is a model. We are the trendsetter.
Q: That's got to be a lot of pressure.
A: If I sit and think about it, it overwhelms you. I take it one step at a time. ... Because this job here, a small mistake can cost and cause a lot of problems. ... You have to think strategically, you have to see the future and you just have to pull it all together. It's kind of hard to comprehend that I've gone from a simple life in Malaysia now to I'm doing this.
Q: You are obviously passionate about your job. Is there anything outside of that you are equally passionate about?
A: I love cars. My baby's sitting right out there (pointing to a BMW M3).
Q: You were chosen to be part of the international performing group Up With People in college. Is performing something you've always done?
A: I liked to sing even when I was a little kid. ... I can do either first or second tenor, and I actually traveled with the chorale group out of the college. When I moved to Carlsbad, they have a Community Chorale, so I joined them. (He has also been in two community musicals — "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." "I played the pharoah who also, of course, was Elvis. I was wearing a skirt with this headgear and singing and dancing Elvis.")
Q: Malaysia is not a poor or lacking country. Why move, and why America when you could have gone anywhere?
A: It is the opportunity. America is, it's an awesome country. We take it for granted here. ... Malaysia's very, very modern. They have some of the most advanced highways, buildings, shopping malls, communications, manufacturing, you name it, they have it all. If you look at the hotels, our hotels don't even compare to some of the stuff that they have. ... Everything is just overwhelmingly good. People are wealthy, people make money, there's all kinds of opportunities in businesses and on and on and on. Really the difference is the freedom to speak out, the freedom to do whatever you want and the transparency of everything. I don't have that freedom in any of the other countries, and people value your individualistic talents and so on here more than there. So I'm here. I pick the U.S. I'd still do it. Malaysia's a great place to visit, but this is home.
The Basics: Born Mohammad Farok Sharif in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, on March 7, 1962, attended College of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Ark., for two years before transferring to New Mexico State University where he obtained his bachelor's degree in production operations management and a master's degree in business administration; married to Cindy since Jan. 26, 1985; daughter Ari, 21, and son Troy, 18; cat named Tigger.
Position: President and general manager of Washington TRU Solutions, which manages and operates the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. He is also a judge and on the board of directors for Quality New Mexico, a 2007 graduate of Leadership New Mexico, and a board member of the Carlsbad Department of Development.
What You Didn't Know: "In college while I was in Arkansas, I auditioned with Up With People. ... I sang a Commodore's song. It was the '80s. ... I got selected, I chickened out and did not go. My family sent me (to the U.S.) to go to the university, and I'd have to take a whole year off to go sing and dance with a bunch of other young people wherever they sent us. ... I don't know whether it was just a feeling of responsibility (to stay in school) or what."