Most college students would be happy to find one career after they graduate. Wilson “Lee” Presley (CE ’79) figures he found four.
“I’ve been in operations, sales, management, and, lately, I’ve been working in our nuclear division,” says the Forest Park native, the nuclear operations manager for Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I). “And I’ve been to more than 40 countries visiting jobsites, meeting clients. It’s been fabulous.”
If Presley sounds like he’s on top of the world, that’s pretty accurate. The smile on his face is real and the laughter is heart-felt. But he’ll be the first to tell you that the foundation of it all is hard work. Lots of it.
“In my first calculus class at Tech, the professor said “We’re going to skip the first 10 chapters in the book because you all probably did that in high school’,” Presley recalls with a choking laugh. “I was sitting there thinking ‘I can’t even spell calculus. I’d better get to work’.”
Luckily, Presley had learned the value of hard work when he was a teenager, working construction jobs with his uncle, a self-taught tradesman named Marvin Shannon.
“My uncle was smarter than many engineers I’ve met since,” says Presley. “During World War II, he helped build the Alaskan Highway. He also worked on the old Fulton County Stadium, and he helped put the gold leaf on the Georgia Dome.”
Presley shared his uncle’s appreciation for a job well-done. He enjoyed driving by finished projects with him, knowing they had helped build something strong and useful.
“But after hauling one too many wheelbarrows full of cement, I decided there had to be a better way to get there,” says Presley. “I knew I didn’t want to be doing manual labor for the rest of my life.”
That decision ultimately pushed him to Georgia Tech.
“I did well in high school, and I even took some college courses at Clayton State,” he said. “But when I got to Georgia Tech my freshman year, I realized I wasn’t the smartest. And that was at a time when they would tell you: ‘Look to your left, and look to your right. Next year, one of you will not be here,’ which really made me work hard.”
The first-year jitters subsided completely when Presley started taking civil engineering courses.
“The civil engineering classes were smaller, the professors were incredibly welcoming, and the subject was really interesting,” he said.
“I got into a rhythm, learning to study the way I had never studied before. I liked what I learned, too. In the last two years, I made the Dean’s list.”
During the summers, Presley continued to work construction jobs, where his buddies sometimes called him ‘Joe College.’ Everyone enjoyed the joke, but no one laughed at his ambition.
“Everyone knew that Georgia Tech wasn’t a diploma mill,” he said. “They knew I was working hard.”
Days after he graduated from Georgia Tech, Presley joined Chicago Bridge & Iron, where his combination of hard work and passion gave him opportunities he’d never considered.
“I was trained as an engineer, so I was surprised when, a few years in, when someone at CB&I approached me to do sales. The only thing I’d ever sold was Krispy Kremes for school fund raisers,” he said, laughing.
“But then I thought about it: you can either teach a salesman about engineering or teach an engineer how to sell. I knew a lot about engineering and about our services. And I wasn’t shy about talking.”
An in-house sales training program launched Presley on his next job, where he developed proposals for CB&I clients that would meet their engineering needs. The company no longer builds bridges or works in iron, he said, but it is a world leader in creating storage tanks steel plate structures for various purposes, from water and liquid natural gas storage to nuclear waste containment vessels.
“Everything we do is engineered – nothing is off the shelf,” he said. “I had to bring all of the elements together – legal, operational, engineering - to make each project work. It was an engineering challenge but also a great management education.”
A renaissance in the nuclear power industry over the last 10 years prompted Presley to take on his latest role, as CB&I’s manager of nuclear operations. The job comes with new challenges and new opportunities. Presley relishes both.
“When you graduate from college, you have a head full of knowledge. The only thing you don’t know is what you’ll do for the rest of your life,” he says. “What Tech taught me was to work hard and persevere. And that’s given me a career that I love.”