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Employee Spotlight: Tom Chan

#FutureInYourHands

 Tom Chan

    Principal, natural hazards at TÜV SÜD grc

    #FutureInYourHands – This motto properly describes how TÜV SÜD empowers its employees. It’s best to hear from     TÜV SÜD executives and staff members what their personal experiences are working for TÜV SÜD.


    Can you describe your role within the company?
    I am currently the Principal in charge of TÜV SÜD GRC’s Natural Hazards group. I stepped into this role in 2015,     when TÜV SÜD GRC acquired the remaining 50% of the JV, Global Risk Miyamoto. My first engineering job was with     the Army Corps of Engineers, as a flood control engineer.  Afterwards, I got my Master’s degree in Structural Engineering from UC Berkeley and started work with URS/John A Blume. In 1982, I joined a startup, EQE International, that was a pioneer in the Nat Haz industry. We provided Natural Hazards risk assessment and mitigation services to insurance companies, corporations and governments worldwide. We also developed EQECAT, one of the first Natural Hazards software programs for the insurance industry. In the two decades, my responsibilities grew and included managing EQE’s Design and Analysis, and Information Services divisions. I wore many hats at EQE and helped grow that company to 750 engineers, and then sold it in 2001. Afterwards, I joined Miyamoto as a board member/consultant. In 2007, I got Miyamoto and TÜV SÜD GRC together to start a joint venture focusing on Nat Haz work. In 2015 TÜV SÜD GRC bought out the company and this service is now part of TÜV SÜD GRC.

How did you choose this career path?
When I was growing up, I always wanted to build and fix things, so I naturally gravitated to civil and structural engineering. I enjoy solving problems and coming up with creative solutions. I also admire old buildings and their craftsmanship and construction. Protecting them and the people in them against natural hazards became an area of focus for me.

What are some memorable challenges you've experienced in your career?
One of the challenges in this job is that solutions don’t always involve structural engineering. If you have too much of an engineering focus you may miss the best solution or provide no solution at all. Risk assessment and mitigation is such a challenge because it’s not always about engineering options - the optimum solution may include engineering, preparation, planning, insurance and/or even changing occupancy. A good solution is one that gets implemented so people are protected. Too many engineering reports just sit on shelves and do nothing. I’m happiest when we help make buildings safer and facilities more resilient so that when disasters do happen companies don’t go out of business and people aren’t harmed.

Another challenge can be the mental toll that comes from investigating and helping clients recover from natural disasters. In the first days, you’re running off adrenaline. But after a couple of days, the death and devastation start to get to you. Focusing on structural damage and repairs helps.  That’s why I never watch dramas on TV, because my work at times can be quite stressful.

What about successes?
One of the proudest moments in my career was helping the UN manage the disaster after the January 12, 2010 M7.0 Haiti earthquake that collapsed thousands of buildings and killed 200,000 people.  Everyone had a family member killed by collapsing buildings; they were afraid to reenter buildings and were all living in tents and other temporary shelters on the streets. Hurricane season starts in June every year, so we needed to get people back into safe buildings to prevent another disaster.  The UN was challenged with inspecting over 300,000 buildings in the epicentral area quickly and asked us to help.

Before 2010, Haiti had not experienced a large earthquake in over 300 years, so earthquake engineering was not practiced there. Funds were limited so we could not just bring in 500 international structural engineers to do the damage inspections. We developed a low-cost inspection program by training 500 Haitian structural engineers. And together, with six of our US engineers leading the team, we inspected all 300,000 buildings by years end, and got many of the people off the streets by June.

The success of this project was not just saving people from the upcoming hurricane season but building local capacity (one of the key missions of NGO’s like the UN and World Bank) so Haitians can build safer buildings after we leave. In addition to training local structural engineers, our team stayed in Haiti for years to train citizens and contractors on improved construction methods to build earthquake safe buildings. That’s capacity building! That’s the best part of that job - educating others and seeing that your work saves lives.

How has the natural hazards analysis industry changed in the last 20 years?
The industry is growing, and the internet is really helping people learn about risk. 20 years ago, before the internet, a lot of our clients buried their heads in the sand and pretended that natural hazard risks didn’t exist. Now, with the internet, there’s widespread, fast access to news and education. Clients (and the population in general) can’t bury their heads anymore. Natural Hazards risks must be managed. As risks are better understood, the needs for risk engineering and management grows.

Are there lessons you've learned from work that you apply to your daily life?
I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on projects worldwide.  I’ve been to many countries and have seen extreme poverty and extreme wealth. I’ve worked with CEO’s and factory floor workers who are incredibly honest, respectful, proud and hard working. All traits that I admire, practice and teach to my children and students.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that you need to take care of the planet and leave it better than when you entered it. The pollution and waste in some of the cities I’ve worked in are awful and harming its citizens.  I’ve become a huge proponent of recycling and renewable energy.

When not working, how do you enjoy your spare time?
I play tennis, I read a lot and I enjoy construction, so I’m always tinkering. I also love surfing the web and learning.

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