Gebre is a Senior Project Manager and mentor at Binnie whose passion for highway design landed him in British Columbia. Before arriving here, he studied in Italy, fled from the government in Ethiopia, and changed the ways of engineering in Swaziland.
Gebre’s path to Binnie
By the time Gebre Libsekal arrived at Binnie in 2002, he had spent decades as an engineer in Ethiopia, Italy, France, and Swaziland.
When Gebre was an engineering student in Ethiopia, the country lacked infrastructure. He was determined to help improve Ethiopia’s underdeveloped transportation network. It was this passion that eventually took Gebre to Italy in pursuit of his Ph.D.
After achieving his doctoral degree in Transportation Engineering, Gebre returned to Ethiopia. He wanted to get his hands dirty and work in the field, so he took on the role of a material engineer with a contractor. Eventually, this allowed him the opportunity to go to France where he trained as a future manager for the Entreprise Razel Freres. Gebre felt “very blessed with the opportunity” since he had a strong urge to work in highway design.
His next adventure was working for an Italian consulting firm. During this time, he established his engineering consultancy and married his wife, Bea, a public relations and marketing officer with Ethiopian Airlines.
Four years into running his consulting firm, people in Ethiopia revolted against the government of Emperor Haile Sellassie. He had been deposed and a military government took over. At the time, Gebre was working day and night on Regional Branch building projects for the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. While he was working on a confidential project for the National Bank of Ethiopia, an opportunity arose for Gebre to interview as a project engineer involved in evaluations for loan qualifications with the African Development Bank in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. However, the government denied him permission to leave Ethiopia as they were resistant to allowing educated citizens to exit. Forced to make a hard decision, he was eventually given a limited duration visa and got his passport, left the country, and found work with the United Nations.
In 1977, Gebre took a job as the UN’s Chief Engineer in Swaziland. He was responsible for 16 sectors, including roads, highways, airlines, shipping lines, railways, and waterways.
One of Gebre’s most rewarding jobs with the UN was being involved in the Swaziland component of a tripartite (involving three parties) committee on water sources. Gebre was the chairman of the Swaziland component of the Tripartite Party. At the time, South Africa was building dams right at the border with Swaziland to pump water 400 km away. This water was being used to cool the coal-fired thermal plants which negatively impacted the development downstream, particularly during the dry season. The governments agreed to disregard the existence of the border and to work together to optimize and control the water resources of one of the major catchment areas of the Komati River. Gebre and other government staff worked on the study for eight years. They came up with a total of seven dams that were to be operated jointly, where the needs of each development were provided from an optimal dam not necessarily situated within the respective country. This mode of operating the dams completely resolved issues that had normally caused disputes between the neighbouring countries. (There is no international law that addresses disputes that can arise when dams are built on rivers that traverse international borders.)
The Komati system that Gebre helped set up resulted in two specific advantages: avoiding disputes and optimizing the volume of the water controlled. This solution had rarely been attempted before. Today, the system is now recognized as exemplary by UNESCO.
Coming to British Columbia
In 1985, a cyclone destroyed 1300 km of roads in Swaziland. The UN assigned Gebre to manage the rehabilitation program. He and his team of six experts began restructuring and reorganizing the Roads Branch of the Government of Swaziland. They completed the project three years later, and shortly after, he moved his family to Canada.
In a country with so many good places to raise a family, Gebre and Bea chose British Columbia for the people. Ever the protective parents, ensuring that their daughters received a good education at safe schools was paramount to them. Schools in British Columbia were able to offer this. Upon arrival, they immediately felt welcomed. They found a church to join, and they still attend to this day.
For the next eleven years, Gebre worked for the South Coast Region of the Ministry of Transportation of British Columbia as a Senior Design Engineer in Highway and Traffic Engineering. Then, in 2002, he got the opportunity to start a Transportation Division at Binnie. He accepted, and immediately recruited Ministry Highway Designers, Keith Tompkins and the late Bill Wong. Soon after, more of his Ministry co-workers joined the team at Binnie. One of them was a sharp engineer named Maurizio Ponzini, who Gebre briefly mentored, and is now Binnie’s Transportation Group Manager and a member of Binnie’s Board of Directors.
When Gebre joined Binnie, we were a company of just 39 employees. Today, we number over 300. Gebre recalls fondly how everyone had the same dedicated spirit and desire to prove Binnie’s capabilities. At that time, we had everything to prove to the Ministry.
Still hard at work in Binnie’s Transportation Group, and now a shareholder in the company, Gebre continues to mentor and motivate young Binnie highway engineers daily.
Most memorable project
Gebre’s most memorable project at Binnie was along the Sea to Sky Highway, which connects Vancouver to Whistler, BC. The 100 km improvement project began during his very first month at Binnie. The consortium of SNC Lavalin, Binnie, and Associated Engineering was appointed the Owner’s Engineer Team for the Sea to Sky Project, and Gebre was nominated as the Design Manager of the consortium. Among other things, his team was responsible for reviewing the highway designs from 2002 – 2009. They faced numerous engineering challenges on this project that kept things interesting for him, including blasting through rock and diverting traffic on a temporary road along a railway corridor.
Work hard, be honest, and act as a good manager. You have to understand the needs of your staff and fulfill them before they even ask.
Activities outside of work
Gebre and his wife Bea run a charity, Victory Community Development Society (VCDS), which provides sponsorship for orphans and at-risk children in Northern Ethiopia. The charity hires local workers and helps Ethiopian kids and teens complete their high school and university education. Today, they support over 60 students whose studies range from engineering and teaching to computer science and hotel management, to agriculture and biology.
Katie Sweeney, Staff Writer