Obituary: Douglas Price 1927-2014

Douglas John Price.

Douglas John Price.

DOUGLAS John Price, former CEO of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) from 1972 to 1988, passed away at the age of 87 years, on July 10 2014.

Doug died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 87 on 10 July 2014, in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. Doug possessed the skills of a seasoned diplomat, the patience of a saint and the keen nose of an entrepreneurial businessman who built an organisation that still prospers today. Doug Price will be remembered as an inspirational leader, a brilliant engineer and a devoted servant of the public good.

Doug served as Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of SMEC from 1972 until his retirement in 1988. Doug was fondly regarded by all those who worked under him with deep affection, and was often referred to as the 'Father of SMEC'. This was an accurate description of the nature of the role he adopted. Doug's kind-hearted, yet firm and highly professional leadership style shaped SMEC to become the highly successful multinational, multidisciplinary consultancy it is today.

Doug was born in Campbelltown, NSW in 1927. His father was a soldier settler who had served in the Australian Light Horse during the First World War, and his mother the daughter of the local bank manager. Following a public school education in his home town, Doug won a bursary to Sydney Boys High School at Moore Park in Sydney, which he attended from 1939 to 1943. Upon leaving school in 1944, he worked as a copyboy at the Daily Telegraph under Frank Packer, and then applied for a job as a cadet journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, which he was granted. At the same moment, however, he received call up papers for the RAAF in early 1945, although he never got to fight in the war and was given his discharge papers later that year.

In 1946 Doug commenced a traineeship in civil engineering at the University of Sydney under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme for ex-servicemen, graduating in 1950. It was at this point that the young engineer came to the attention of Sir William 'Bill' Hudson, inaugural commissioner of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SMHEA), and was invited to join the recently-established organisation. Initially, Doug worked in the Sydney office of the Authority, and in mid-1950 married Eileen Boardman, also from Campbelltown and a grazier's daughter. Doug was transferred to Cooma in 1951, with Eileen joining him in 1952.

Working at the Cooma office on hydrology studies Doug was then appointed Liaison Officer in Sydney for the geology and diamond drilling group under Dan Moye, another brilliant engineer who later served as the first director of SMEC in 1970. In 1953 Doug was transferred to the Field Construction Division to take part in day labour construction works from the Adaminaby base, and in late 1954 Doug was sent to the USA for about 10 months as a trainee with the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). Doug's brief was to learn as much as possible about materials control, contract documentation, and construction supervision. Working from USBR headquarters in Denver, Colorado, Doug always believed the time he spent in the USA proved to be an important fork in the road, exposing him to involvement in vital dam projects, especially the Monticello Dam in California, the sister dam of Tumut Pond Dam on the Snowy Scheme. In late 1955, Doug returned to Cooma and worked on the contract supervision of the Tumut Pond Dam (which was still in the early planning stages). This was a tremendous advantage and a great confidence builder for Doug, who continued to learn by working alongside American contractors who were involved in the Boulder and Hoover dams.

Until the mid 1960s Doug worked mostly on the earth and rockfill, Tooma Dam, where he supervised work that had been contracted to Thiess Brothers, and their first major contract on the Snowy Scheme. Thiess went on to construct the biggest contract on the Snowy Scheme, the Talbingo Dam, and the Tumut 3 Power Station. Returning to Cooma as an Office Engineer in mid-1960, Doug was subsequently asked to join the first of several Australian overseas aid projects by the Snowy Mountains Authority, which represented the Department of Foreign Affairs. This involved site investigations for big dams on different parts of the Mekong River. Further overseas assignments followed in 1963 with road building at Khon Kaen in north-east Thailand, which was completed in 1966. This enormous exercise in training local people and employing day labour on regional road schemes successfully applied the expertise from the Snowy road building works. Before being appointed Assistant Commissioner of the SMHEA in 1966, Doug was also involved in other projects, including roads from Tak to Mae Sot, Lampang to Den Chai, and Lom Sak to Chumpae.

Following the creation of SMEC in 1970, the success of the organisation was almost immediate. Building on its earlier SMHEA experience, water, power and road engineering became SMEC's stock-in-trade. In quick succession, doors opened across the Asia Pacific region and throughout north Asia to what became a very wide and long pipeline of successful commercial projects. The early 1970s was a formative time, where the name SMEC became synonymous with goodwill - that of the Australian Government, the Australian people and the SMEC employees and their families. Stationed overseas, very often in remote areas, the extensive 'SMEC Family' of engineers, plant operators, and support people became ambassadors for both SMEC and Australia. Doug nurtured a genuine family spirit, he was fully aware that isolation from home and family could derail a project, unless support structures were not only in place but made integral to the working of the organisation in overseas locations.

In 1984, Doug was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal Career Achievement Award in Engineering. The award is Engineers Australia's most prestigious medal, and is presented annually to an Honorary Fellow of the Institution who has made a notable contribution to the science or practice of engineering in Australia. Doug received the award in recognition of his lifetime commitment to engineering, outstanding achievements in the field, high standards of technical and professional engineering services, and contribution to the prosperity of the Australian people.

In 1985 the Australian Government amended the arrangements governing SMEC's legal status, installing a Board of Directors. From being the sole Director, answerable only to the relevant Minister of the Crown, Doug became Managing Director (of SMEC) who was now answerable to a Board, initially under the chairmanship of Jack Liebelt, with whom Doug forged a strong working relationship. This move presaged corporatisation and the eventual successful privatisation in 1993.

Doug retired from SMEC in 1988, but continued a close involvement with the organisation through the establishment of the SMEC Foundation in 2001, an important initiative that is still operational today and provides small-scale grant assistance to communities in need.

In all his work, his influence on the careers of young men and women, his attention to detail, his brilliance as an engineer and leader, Doug Price will be long remembered for the good man that he was.

Doug's beloved Eileen passed away less than two years before his own passing. Doug is survived by his four children; Cathy, Geoff, Rose and Lesley.

Article by: Ron Ringer, Author of The Spirit of SMEC.

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