John K. Whalen is an independent consultant based in Houston, and a member of the Turbomachinery Advisory Committee. He worked for Dresser-Rand in Wellsville, NY where he was involved in Large Turbine Engineering and Rotordynamics. John joined Centritech Corporation in 1988 and helped form Turbo Components & Engineering in 1991. John sold TCE to John Crane in 2011.
John first contributed to the Turbomachinery Symposium in 1986 as a co-author of “Improving Critical Speed Calculations Using Flexible Bearing Support FRF Compliance Data.”
Q: Can we talk about your fashion choices?
A: [Laughter] Sure. I figured we would after I saw what you all did to Ken.
Q: So, what were you thinking?
A: I think the suit and tie were OK, the glasses—I had just gotten glasses. I didn’t wear glasses up until about a year or two before that photo, so I was still experimenting. When I got my glasses I was working in Wellsville, NY for Dresser-Rand’s Steam Turbine division. I walked out of the doctor’s office on a beautiful fall day, and it was the first time I really appreciated the fall colors. It just took my breath away really. It was stunning. I never realized it before because my eyes were so bad.
Q: You said you were experimenting with glasses. You chose to opt out later?
A: Yeah. Yeah, I think it was the beginning of when they started doing these transition lenses. I think they just didn’t last as long as they do now. After a few months it never came back to fully clear. It looked like I was wearing sunglasses all the time. I was a young engineer, I couldn’t afford two pair of glasses.
Years later I developed cataracts in both eyes and the implants allowed me to see “good enough” without glasses.
Q: How did you get your start in this industry?
A: When I was in high school, the only class I really liked was mechanical drawing. I was terrible at it, but I did like it. When I told the counselor that she said, “Oh, you gotta go into engineering.” It was the right choice, but for the wrong reasons, so I wound up going to engineering school. I struggled a bit in the beginning—it was pretty hard. But I buckled down and did OK.
I went to Rochester Institute of Technology and got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1981. One of the senior courses I took was a graduate level course in turbomachinery. I really enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun. It was different—it wasn’t just regular heat exchangers or pumps or fluid dynamics. It was pretty interesting.
When I graduated, I had a job offer at Dresser-Rand, which is only an hour and half south of Rochester, and an hour and half from where I was born and raised in Buffalo, so it worked out really well. I took that job in 1981 and I started out in large turbine engineering and later transferred over to the rotordynamics group around ’84 or ’85. I learned a tremendous amount. That’s when I started working for Dr. John Nicholas, who was a legend in this business. It was a hellava opportunity for me to learn about bearing design, bearing analysis and rotordynamics. I learned it from one of the best.
Actually, he wrote most of that paper from 1986. I had done some of the leg work on it, but he wrote the entire thing and just added my name and Sean’s name as co-authors as a courtesy.
Thanks, in part, to Dr. Nicholas’s spirit of inclusion, John landed his second job.
Well as you know, those papers have the little bios next to your picture. Unfortunately they had pictures, but fortunately they had bios because Bernie Herbage—who was himself a legend in the bearing aftermarket in the 1980s—saw that and he gave John Nicholas a call and said, “Do you mind if I talk to John to see if he might be interested in a position I have down here in Houston?” And John, being the guy he was said, “I don’t really want to lose him but I don’t want to stand in the way of his progression either.” So he allowed Bernie to give me a call and I interviewed with him.
Bernie Herbage served on the Turbomachinery Advisory Committee and contributed a paper, “High Speed Journal and Thrust Bearing Design,” to the very first Turbomachinery Symposium in 1972.
Prior to John’s transition-lensed debut in the Turbomachinery Proceedings, John found himself flipping through several proceedings books, back in the days before USBs became the mode of delivery.
And I’ll tell you, at that time, John had about six or eight of the proceedings in his office. On my lunch break, or when I was caught up, I’d grab some of those turbomachinery proceedings and just plow through them. I was like a kid in a comic book store. The company that Bernie Herbage owned, Centritech, was doing a tremendous amount of work on rotating equipment in the 80s. I was just fascinated by it. They were using rotordynamic analysis to solve problems and implement solutions, whereas I was doing rotordynamics at the OEM level. I was fascinated with Centritech, so when he made me an offer I jumped at it. Luckily my wife was on board. She saw how passionate I was about it. She’s very strong herself—she’s an emergency room nurse, so it was something I had to talk to her about. She saw what was going on and she stood behind me. We had two small kids and she was pregnant with our third, and all of our families were still back in Buffalo. We just picked up and went to Houston in 1987.
John started with Centritech in January of 1988. Little did he know, more big changes were on the horizon. He would eventually invest 20 years in his own business.
Bernie was smart. He interviewed me in the winter, so I’m up there in New York where the winter is just terrible, brutal. So I come down to Houston and said “This is nice!” I came down in January of ’88 and he sold the company in March of ’88, and the company that bought it wanted to keep me on, but they started doing things that were contrary to what made that business a success. I put up with it for three years, and then a handful of us left and started our own business in January of 1991. That company was Turbo Components & Engineering, a business that I owned. I started out with only 12 percent of TCE, and once it became profitable, I used all of the money I was making off of it to buy out the other owners. So at the end, I owned 100 percent of the company. I sold it a couple of years after that to John Crane in September of 2011.
Q: That must’ve been a little dismaying to uproot your life and move the whole family, only to have things change within the first couple of years. What was it like for you to set out on your own with these colleagues and build this new company?
A: It was a lot of stress. And again, I must say that my wife was amazingly supportive of me doing that. I had pretty much convinced her that if the business failed, I would probably be able to get another job. And she believed in me, so that turned out well. It was really hard. For the first three years, we struggled. But after the third year, we became profitable, and we were profitable for every year after that, before I sold it.
Q: What’s the recipe of success for venturing out on your own and start a new business?
A: I think the biggest recipe is to locate, acquire, and reward a team that can take the company to the next level. I ended up with a great group of people working with me, to the point where at the start of the business, I was working 60-70 hours per week, and when I sold the business, I was only working 35 hours per week. That’s how much I trusted them to run the business properly. I just had a great team.
When TCE started in 1991, we exhibited at the Turbomachinery Symposium because we felt that it was the most important sales and marketing thing we could do. When we first attended, we had only been in business for nine months. We exhibited every year after that.
Q: And now you’re kicked back and retired?
A: Yeah, I just finished eighteen holes of golf, went and relaxed in the pool a little bit, then realized I had a phone call coming [for this interview. Poor guy]. It’s good, but I think I might have sun-burned a little.
Q: Your first paper, you said you didn’t have a whole lot to do with it, that John Nicholas basically just added your name to it. How did that progress to you contributing to the Symposium in a larger technical sense than that first paper?
A: When I was running TCE, I got to a point where I was writing a paper every two or three years. Contributing to the symposium allowed us to get the technical exposure to our customer base, and we used those papers a lot, even as sales tools. One of the earlier papers I wrote was on thrust bearings. We would turn around and get the reprint of those papers, and give them to customers when they had questions on thrust bearings. They were teaching tools for our customers.
After writing about eight lectures and a handful of tutorials, John realized that some of the topics he was addressing could be taught with more fundamental detail.
When I saw how successful the sessions were, I got with some of my friends who were working for competitor companies, Waukesha Bearings and Kingsbury Bearings, and asked them to join me in offering a short course. We’ve done several short courses over the last couple of years together. And then, even before I was on the advisory committee, I managed to convince somebody to invite me to be a discussion group participant for the bearing and seal discussion group. It’s been my baby since then.
John has contributed to just about every technical aspect of the symposium.
There was a young engineer working for me, and I asked her to write some case studies. She’s written about three or four now. I think being involved in all of that has contributed to my professional success.
Q: How did you wind up getting involved on the committee?
A: I was approached by Johnny Dugas [a symposium contributor] who said, “We have an opening, and we’re going to have an election, are you interested in running?” I was flattered. As you can tell, I have always been very proud of my association with the symposium, and to be able to be on the advisory committee would just huge. So I said yes, I was very interested.
Well they had a vote, and I didn’t get called up [chuckles]. But meanwhile, I had written a couple more papers, I was involved with the discussion group, and I had written one of the tutorials at that time. They approached me again and I said “yes, certainly.” So I was voted on the second time. I’ve been stuck on there ever since. Actually, Dara kicked me off one year, so I did miss a year. When John Crane bought TCE, I had to leave the committee because of the change in employer. So I was actually off the committee, but then I came up for reelection and was elected back on.
When I retired I was offered a position on the TAC as an Emeritus member, I was again flattered and happy to accept.
Q: What’s the best part of being involved in the Symposia for you?
A: I think that the Symposia is the perfect event for practicing engineers to contribute. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I can still write papers that are published and presented, and used by other practicing engineers. I couldn’t do that through more scholarly avenues like the ASME Turbo Expo. This is all people who are actually working out on the equipment. Other conferences might have manufacturers and academics, but they don’t get the users. That’s why I was into John Nicholas’s proceedings back in the early 80s. That’s what got me. These are people who are the actual end-users who are solving problems out in the field and writing about them, and helping other people with their problems. They’re sharing what they know.
Q: What can we find you doing in your spare time when you’re not hard at work reviewing papers?
Q: The last meal you ever get to eat: what are your choices from appetizer to dessert?
A: I’m not a big appetizer person. The meal would be Buffalo wings from Duff’s on Sheridan Drive in Buffalo, New York. And I’d get them hot. I don’t get them hot now because then I pay for it the next day, but if it’s my last meal it won’t matter. With that, I would have a Saint Arnold’s Amber beer. Which is funny because the wings are from Buffalo and the beer is from Houston. For dessert, just because it’s sort of a running joke in my family, I’d probably do a cherries jubilee. It’s cool because it’s flaming. Ever since I was a kid, I used to sort of joke about wanting cherries jubilee and I didn’t even know what it was, and it just became a running joke. My kids heard about it and they think it’s a joke. I’ve only had it probably once.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: I would like to say, as an emeritus advisory committee member and somebody who is retired and living in Houston, I’m glad I am able to contribute in a little higher level than in the past. I’ve been able to chair three Turbo meetings and one PAC meeting. And the fact that I am retired and live close by allows me to do that.
After Dr. Childs retired as chair of the turbo and pump committees, John began serving as interim chair.