Celebrating Ken Salo’s Legacy
The Legacy Series highlights long-term employee-owners who have dedicated a significant portion of their careers to Morrison-Maierle. These veterans have a wealth of stories, experiences, and wisdom and have helped shape Morrison-Maierle into the company it is today.
Ken Salo’s Legacy
For our first Legacy Series spotlight, we interviewed Ken Salo, an employee-owner with more than 45 years experience with Morrison-Maierle.
Name: Ken Salo
Former Positions: Natural Resources Engineer, Helena Operations Manager, Chief Technical Services Manager, Board Member
Education: Agricultural Engineering, 1975, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly)
Years with Morrison-Maierle: 45 years
Current Role: Watching from the sidelines and happy to discuss experiences
Tell us about when you first started at Morrison-Maierle and your time with the company.
As a recent grad working for the State of Montana, Ken Salo was looking for a challenge and an opportunity to practice engineering and business. After hearing good things around town about Morrison-Maierle—a company of around 100 people—he began calling the Helena office once a month to check in and see if they were hiring.
One day in August 1978, Rodger Foster called him up with an opportunity to work on floodplain projects. Ken replied, “I’ll be there tomorrow…on one condition.” He needed time off for his upcoming wedding to marry the love of his life, Eileen. She was and continues to be tremendously supportive of his career.
As a water resources engineer, Ken found meaning in his work mapping floodplains across Montana. He reflects on his days at 12 years old, helping clean up the damage left by the Sun River flood of 1964 at the family ranch and two homes in Great Falls.
During his first year on the job, north-central Montana received a year’s worth of rain in two days. This flood put Gibson Dam to the test, with three feet of water overtopping the 200-foot-high dam not designed to be overtopped. Getting in the field, surveying floodplains, and talking to the people affected was the most memorable part of Ken’s work as a new engineer.
After spending 10 years developing a solid technical background in floodplains, water resources, and dam safety, Ken was promoted to Helena Operations Manager. Morrison-Maierle was on the brink of integrating computer network systems, and because of his experience with computers in floodplain work, he felt comfortable guiding the office into this new technology.
Ken was the operations manager (OM) in Helena for 13 years, and he thoroughly enjoyed his time building connections both in the office and companywide. When the opportunity to become Chief Technical Services Officer arose, he was unsure about leaving the OM position but took the job anyway. Ken’s new position involved developing contracts, managing claims, and risk management.
He helped spearhead the initiative to rebrand “departments” within the company to the now familiar market groups. This transition in Morrison-Maierle’s structure enforced the one-company mindset now engrained in our culture.
What did getting your PE license look like?
Obtaining your PE license looked different back then. During the test, applicants had to go through questions in different disciplines and select eight problems to solve (four in the morning and four in the afternoon). Answers usually took 1 – 3 pages to complete.
He explained, “Because the tests were hand-graded, the examinee had to produce a structured work product and present it in a way that could be reviewed. One good thing about this was that you could get partial credit on problems that were worked out correctly but had small mistakes like transposed numbers.”
What was your most memorable project and why?
There are two projects that stick out to Ken as the “most memorable” throughout his career.
First, the Mini Wiconi Rural Water project made a lasting impact. This project included water treatment and distribution for over 50,000 tribal members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He found working for tribal clients to be rewarding because of the chance to really help people and work with tribal representatives who are passionate and dedicated to the betterment of their tribe.
The second was a collaborative effort with one of Ken’s mentors. John Morrison Sr. was an avid golfer and member of the Helena Country Club golf course. At the time, the course was split by the main line railroad tracks, and golfers would have to carefully cross the tracks to get to the back nine.
In 1993, John, Sr. was very concerned about this potential safety issue and came up with a solution that would put a golf cart path under either side of the railroad bridge on Ten Mile Creek. This concept required floodplain hydraulics and permitting, which is where Ken came in. The underpass can be used up to the 10-year flood (so it’s rarely out of service) and has been a huge success. It is another legacy to the work of John, Sr.
What is your favorite piece of advice you’ve received?
Ken immediately prefaced his response with, “My answer is not going to be simple because I feel like I benefitted from so many mentors during my career… and that starts with, you know, John Morrison Sr. and Joe Maierle.”
Reflecting on his time as the Helena Operations Manager, Ken told stories about the advice he received during John and Joe’s weekly office drop-ins. He described the men, in their 90s at the time, as incredibly sharp, with absolute integrity and total dedication to the company.
“Another name that should go down in the history book,” he said, “is Harold Eagle.” Ken talked about all the skills he learned from Harold, who was Morrison-Maierle’s first Chief Engineer.
Ken had a lot of amazing things to say about his other mentors and felt it was important to identify them as well. He called out from a list of names he jotted down: Willis Wetstein, Bill Keith, Dave Carlson, Walt Scott, Jim Maierle, John Morrison, Jr., Bob Morrison, Jack Schunke, Rodger Foster, and Larry Bickel. “…and then, of course, Scott Murphy came along, and he is an outstanding leader, and the current team underneath him is amazing.”
Overall, Ken recognized that his mentors were a large part of his career, and he is grateful for all of the support from those folks and the company at large.
What has been your most impactful “lesson-learned” moment?
Back when he was just 12 years old, Ken started working summers on his grandfather’s feedlot. The first year, Ken worked alongside three high-school boys doing everything they would do. The high school students were getting paid $300 a month, plus room and board, for their work on the ranch.
Assuming he was also on the payroll, Ken approached his grandad at the end of the summer and asked for his payout after working all summer. His grandad replied, “I don’t owe you anything. We didn’t have an agreement.”
Ken’s grandfather taught him a lesson he wouldn’t forget. Throughout his career, he never considered doing work without a contract in place.
Years after his granddad’s lesson, he became Morrison-Maierle’s Chief Technical Services Officer and refined the contracts that are so critical to our business and risk management—proof that he carried that lesson throughout his life.
If money didn’t matter, what type of career would you have pursued?
It wasn’t always his dream to be an engineer; right out of high school, he wanted to work at the family feedlot and eventually manage it. But after the sudden passing of his grandfather, that opportunity ended.
He vividly remembers the day in December when he made a life-changing decision while talking to a longtime family friend after dinner.
“You know how one person can impact your life?” Ken said, “That was Big John Palo.” John ranched at the foot of Square Butte and was a true cowboy with hands the size of baseball mitts. John framed college in a way that inspired Ken to not only go but to do his best.
At the end of the day, he loves being in the world of business and engineering, and he wouldn’t change a thing. His father was an engineer, land surveyor, and college professor who was bound and determined to have one of his kids follow in his footsteps.
Congratulations to Ken Salo on a wonderful life and career with Morrison-Maierle. We are so grateful you took the time to share your story with us!