LOUISVILLE DISTRICT

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Posted 10/6/2009

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By John Neville


ut of the 120-degree heat and dust.

On July 8, after a year in Iraq, Louisville District Project Manager Steve Farkus walked past airport security to a terminal full of friends and family at Louisville International Airport.

"It’s fantastic to be back," he said. "When you’re gone a year, it’s funny the things you don’t remember, the small details of your life that you have tucked away for a year. I forgot that I could set the car alarm by pressing a button on the door handle."

Corps employees deployed for 12 months can take up to three rest and relaxation breaks. Farkus decided to meet his wife at two neutral locations on different ends of the planet instead of making the trip all the way back home.

"We went to Cancún and Paris because I couldn’t see myself in my living room and having to leave that environment to go again," he said. "Psychologically, it would’ve been too tough."

Farkus joined the Corps in 1992 after spending nine years as an engineer officer in the Army. The Hazleton, Pa., native worked as a structural designer for several years, contributing his skills to the recently completed 1,200-foot lock and visitors center at the McAlpine Locks and Dam site, as well as the cofferdam at the Olmsted Locks and Dam site. Farkus also served 12 months in Afghanistan beginning in January 2005.

Farkus obtained his professional engineer license in 1995 which, he says, was a boost for his career and a stepping stone for him toward his vocation—managing projects for the Corps. But first, Farkus left the design side of the district’s engineering division to work in the architect-engineer management branch—the team of professionals who technically help administer and direct design firms under contract with the government.

"Leading the effort in getting a design or a request for a proposal to the project delivery team (PDT)" he said. "I really loved it…to this day that is a fantastic group," he said. "The responsibilities associated with leading the whole PDT as project manager and leading the whole team was a logical transition (from project engineer)."

The duties of project managers, Farkus explained, cut across the Corps’ diverse workforce. They are the advocates for the customer and work out all issues relating to schedule, scope and budget, and they work with every division within the agency. The project manager is the center of gravity for the project.

"I feel like I’m a resource to everyone," he said. "The project manager is the resource to fall back on. Do PDT members need more money, people, time? What do PDT members need to accomplish the task at hand? One person in the contracting division might have 12 projects competing for the time and resources. How does my project get done in the scheme of the whole district, because the customer wants them all done? We shouldn’t plan on meeting customer standards. We work to exceed expectations, and that’s not easy."

Sometimes, getting the job done involves confrontation, but, Farkus said, that’s not a bad thing, at least not for the former college basketball referee. It’s just part of the game.

"I don’t mind confrontation," he said. "It, in itself, is a good thing. Sometimes you have to look somebody in the eye and tell them something they might not want to hear. It was that way on the court and sometimes it’s that way in the PDT."

Refereeing has also helped Farkus communicate in a "high stress" environment, a skill he said helps in any business.

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"Unlike at the high school level, college coaches know the rules," he recalled. "When that coach is yelling to be heard over the crowd, I had to listen to them and still call the game. You can’t block them out. They might be telling me something I need to know, like their player is hurt or they want a time out."

The skills he has developed over the years working for the Corps, while a commissioned officer in the Army, as well as his time on the hardwood have paid off for Farkus. The Corps officially named him 2009 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager of the Year during a ceremony at the Senior Leader’s Summer Conference held in Orlando, Fla., recently.

Farkus managed more than $170 million in military construction (MILCON) projects while assigned to the Gulf Region South District, headquartered at Contingency Operating Base Adder near Nasiriyah, Iraq. Some of the projects included massive airfield parking, an air traffic control tower, waste-water treatment plants, and a 60,000-square foot dining facility.

Farkus said he wouldn’t have been successful if it weren’t for the work of his colleagues, as well as those who served in his slot before he arrived in Iraq.

"Greg Werncke, Larry Kelly and Greg Croon, (all from the Louisville District) those individuals came over and served in the GRS Construction Division working on MILCON projects in key positions over there," he said. "Those are the kinds of examples of the people that added to the huge success in our projects. I don’t look at this [award] as all about me. There are so many more people that are more experienced than I am throughout the Corps. There are project managers that have forgotten more than I’ll ever know. This award is very humbling."

Farkus worked for Joanne Milo—Louisville District’s current program manager supervisor and deputy chief for planning, programs and project management—for several months while he served in Iraq. Milo was part of the submission team that nominated Farkus for the award.

"Steve brought a combination of talents to the table—experience, self-reliance, confidence, customer-focus, and the expeditionary mindset and eagerness it takes to be effective," she said. "His enthusiasm, sense of humor, and high-energy would transcend the day to day struggles and challenges of executing work in a combat zone under much less than ideal circumstances. Whether he is located in a district office, on a military installation, or in a combat zone, he does what it takes to achieve outstanding success."

Farkus’ wife Marcella Denton who works in operations division, said she’s happy for her husband’s safe return.

"It was a challenging year for both of us," Denton said. "I am very grateful that Steve is safely back home. I have a great deal of respect for the spouses of deployees with young children—I just don’t see how they do it."