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Posted On: Apr. 13, 1997 12:00 AM CST

For William R. Powell, running in a team triathalon shares similarities with running a risk management department: Both require long-range goals and the endurance to see them through.

"Not everybody has to be a genius or expert insurance analyst," he said. "A lot of it has to do with your willingness to stick to it and keep forging ahead."

Mr. Powell's stick-to-it attitude earned him two recent achievements: He was named to the 1997 Business Insurance Risk Management Honor Roll, representing government entities; and along with two other SRP employees he was part of a three-man team that placed first in his class in a Mountain Man Triathalon held in Flagstaff, Ariz.

In addition to his determination, he also has plenty of expertise and the demeanor to deftly tackle contentious issues, staff and supervisors say.

"He's smart, a good practitioner, and he knows insurance, safety and health," said Richard M. Hayslip, SRP's manager of environmental, land and risk management and Mr. Powell's immediate supervisor. "He works real well with operations people. They don't always love Bill because sometimes he has to be assertive with them. But I think he has earned their respect."

Mr. Powell, 44, became manager of SRP's risk management department in 1991, a promotion from his position as safety and loss control manager. He started with the utility company in 1978 as a field safety coordinator.

His rise through safety ranks, rather than insurance, has helped shape the company's culture and its commitment to controlling risks rather than transferring them, his colleagues say.

On one shelf in his office sit a pair of steel-toe boots, a relic from Mr. Powell's industrial home-town background. He grew up just outside Pittsburgh, where his father and grandfather worked for companies associated with the steel industry.

Mr. Powell spent his college summers working in the steel mills.

"It's like walking into Dante's Inferno," he recalls of the mills. "There is flame, there is molten metal, there are minor pops and explosions. It's an environment that when you step into it your senses tell you 'I need to be concerned about my safety.' "

Mr. Powell graduated from West Virginia University in Morgantown with a political science degree in 1974, a time of growing employer concern about compliance with federal safety regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was created by a 1970 law.

He earned a master of science degree in occupational safety and health management from West Virginia University. After graduation, he joined Union Carbide Corp. and his career in safety began.

Mr. Powell recalls one of his early assignments, when at 23 Union Carbide sent him to audit workplace safety at a plant in Alabama. His report resulted in a scathing letter from the plant's senior manager.

"The guy was probably 50-some-years old, goes to meetings at Carbide's Park Avenue headquarters in New York and he's writing me a letter," recalls Mr. Powell. "I can remember reading it. I thought, 'Man, this is the end of my career.'*"

Instead it was a lesson in people skills, he said, which is something he looks for in his staff at SRP.

With more responsibility "than any one risk manager could ever carry on," Mr. Powell relies on his staff at SRP to meet the department's goals by gaining the cooperation of others within the company.

"They are competent, technically well trained and well educated," he says of his team. "They have terrific people skills. I think that is evident in our results."

As a testament to the competence of Mr. Powell's department, SRP won two loss control awards in 1995. The American Public Power Assn. presented SRP with a fist place award for safety and the National Safety Council presented SRP an award of honor for reducing occupational injuries and illnesses.

The awards represent a turnaround from the late 1970s, when Mr. Powell first joined SRP. Back then, he said, the company was experiencing about one employee death per year and had one of the worst safety records among utilities in 17 Western states. One of his first tasks was to investigate an explosion at a damn that resulted in the death of a worker and the hospitalization of others.

It was an experience that taught him SRP cared greatly about its employees, but lacked the technical knowledge to improve safety.

In addition to his job with SRP, Mr. Powell is involved with several professional and community organization. Along with other area risk managers, he advises the local YMCA on insurance issues. He also raises funds for Homeward Bound, a non-profit Arizona organization that helps homeless families with children find housing and reduce their dependence on welfare.

Mr. Powell and his wife Karen are parents to three boys, Jameson, 5, Christopher, 9, and Benjamin, 11.