2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Gary Krellenstein

// Engineering Physics

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photo of Gary Krellenstein

Gary Krellenstein

Consultant; BSNE ’79 (MBA ’81, Cornell University; post-master’s degree, computer applications ’84, New York University),

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


How did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

I wanted to go to college outside of the Northeast to experience other parts of the nation. I was looking at schools on the West Coast but my parents were concerned it was too far from home (New York). The Midwest was about the max distance they were comfortable with and UW-Madison was very highly recommended by my school’s guidance department—Roslyn High School (believe we sent over a dozen people from my High School class of 300). I was also told it was one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation and at the forefront of “activists” school communities like Berkeley and Columbia, which was an important consideration for me at that time. So I ended up only applying to schools in New York State and to Madison. After visiting the different schools, I knew I wanted to go to Madison.


Why did you choose engineering as your major?

This story is a bit bizarre, but true. The day I got my driver’s license in late 1973, I spent the next two hours in a line to get gasoline (this was during the first OPEC embargo), and they would only give me half a tank. The whole energy fiasco in the 1970s was just insane. Since I was a science geek, on a whim, I looked at schools with energy-related programs. Madison’s nuclear engineering program was very highly ranked and I had already decided to apply to UW. I never expected to stay in engineering, but I was surprised how much I liked it. In my first semester I took a survey course on nuclear engineering. It got me hooked.

Prior to that gas line experience, I had planned on applying to college as a film and/or physic major. As a teen I loved Stanley Kubrick’s movies like 2001, Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, and thought that incorporating real science into films would make for great storytelling. (James Cameron, whose movies included Avatar, Terminator and Titanic, actually was a physics’ major and made that combination work.)


Who was your favorite engineering professor?

I had three favorites and regret I didn’t keep in better touch with them. One was Max Carbon, who was the head of the nuclear engineering program. Another favorite was Greg Moses, who was still there when I invited him a few years back to a J.P.Morgan energy conference I was running. And I really liked John Wiley, who later became dean of the school. John taught a course on electronic devices and semiconductors, which was something that was completely unknown to me, and he made it into a fascinating topic (IC chips were still kind of new back in the 70s). He was a great teacher, and I actually switched to a double EE/NE major after that course, but there were just too many requirements and ended up just getting my degree in nuclear engineering.


What was your favorite engineering class?

Thermodynamics and electronic devices were my two favorite classes. I found thermodynamics very difficult but very insightful into how the universe works.  Another course I will never forget was nuclear reactor design, but it was a crazy course—only 5 credits, but it was like doing a thesis, and occupied 90 percent of my time. It was very challenging and a real learning experience; it was way too much work for the credits they gave, but you needed it to graduate in NE.


When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat (or hang out) on campus?

The Plaza on Main Street—home of the greasy “Plaza Burger,”pool tables and pinball machines (and early video machines) was one of my favorite places to hang out. The Ovens of Brittany, was my favorite places to eat. I also loved going to the the back of the Memorial Union by the water.


What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

One of my favorite memories was the first toga party in Madison after the movie Animal House came out. Animal House had become an instant cult movie on campus. The party probably had a couple of thousand people and was a memorable experience. Another favorite memory was the building of the Statue of Liberty on the ice on Lake Mendota. It looked like it came from the set of the original Planet of the Apes movie; it was the Statue of Liberty from the head up. It was really a surreal thing to see out on the lake.


What lesson did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?

The engineering program taught me a systematic approach to problem solving—much more so than I think most other disciplines did. At that time, teaching people how to approach and solve problems was the exception, not the norm, for most college curriculums. It’s an incredibly valuable tool in life.


What is your current title and company?

I am currently semi-retired and working part-time as an energy-finance consultant. I was a senior investment banker and managing director in J.P. Morgan’s energy group on Wall Street, working almost exclusively on financing energy projects—many of them costing several billion dollars and taking years to build.  J.P. Morgan recruited me back in 1983 when they were running into financial problems with several nuclear plants they had financed that had gone way over budget. I also worked at Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, but went back to J.P. Morgan. Right now I’m doing part-time consulting—just finished an assignment for the Department of Energy on barriers to financing a “cleaner and more resilient” electric grid to meet the needs of the 21st century.


What of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

I was lucky and had several accomplishments that I was proud of. I was voted as one of the top financial analysts in the nation for 11 consecutive years in the polls conducted by Institutional Investor magazine. I was also invited to testify before Congress on U.S. Energy Policy and to speak before the New York Academy of Science on the future viability of nuclear power. Over the course of my career I probably gave 200 to 300 presentations to energy, academic and financial institutions including speaking/guest lecturing at Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, the National Governors Association, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the American Public Power Association.

Few people on Wall Street had a technical background in 1980s and it gave me a big edge working on energy finance. It’s completely flip-flopped since then. Now it’s common for scientists and engineers to work on Wall Street, but it wasn’t 35 years ago.


Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

My wife Catharine; she convinced me to take a chance on leaving my comfort zone working as an engineer and try the hyper-competitive financial industry. She also helped me market myself as a financier that actually understood the technology, which differentiated me from most of my co-workers and led to rapid advances.  We had met while working for the DOE in Washington. She later took a job working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and was very successful (tough for a women back then) and understood how the “Street” worked and thought I would fit in.


What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

For engineering students, I’d tell them to keep going back to school and/or stay active in their field outside of their specific job. Keep current with what’s going on. Don’t think that what you learned to get your BS will be sufficient. I went straight to business school at Cornell after graduating Madison, and after I started working, I went to NYU at night to get a degree in computer science. I also got involved with a large number of universities and industry groups and that led to me being invited to give presentations on different types of energy technologies and how to finance them.

One thing I can tell engineering students in general is that they should try to beef up their writing and public speaking skills. Economics, finance, art, music, history, and psychology: These should all be requirements, although I know how difficult it is to cram them in with the multiple engineering-related requirements. I think the curricula at most engineering schools has evolved; I was one of the J.P. Morgan’s recruiters at MIT and Princeton, and all the engineering students I met wanted to work on Wall Street. They were also all taking courses in financial engineering and market psychology.


If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

I still wonder if I could have made it in the movie industry, and sometimes wish I had tried. I do love working in the energy-finance field, and it was very rewarding for me although the hours and stress involved in being an investment banker is not for everyone (investment banking is ridiculously stressful with 70 to 90 hours weeks and tons of travel being typical).


What are your hobbies/interests?

I’m a movie geek and an audiophile. I’m probably on my 15th stereo/home theater system. I also like to travel; ski and scuba dive, and I love fast convertibles. I’ve gone multiple times to the Caribbean and Pacific coast of Mexico to scuba dive and do deep-water fishing with a bunch of friends. I may need to stop skiing this year. I’m in my 60s now. I thought I was invincible when I was in my 30s going down Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek—if I couldn’t make it down in five minutes, I was doing something wrong. For years I skied double blacks; now I’m only doing blues and taking my time going down the mountain.


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

I was one of the few extrovert engineers and one of only a handful of engineering students who loved theater, the arts and public speaking. Maybe that was because of the exposure I got growing up outside New York City. In many ways I lucked out because the engineering program at Madison (and most other engineering schools) doesn’t provide enough exposure to the arts. It was great at teaching you math, science and problem-solving, but that’s only half of what you need to know to be a successful engineer. Communications and people skills are just as important.


Author: Engineering External Relations