When Ron Unnerstall was designing the course he will teach this spring as the Brenton S. Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professor in Chemical Engineering at UVA, he had a straightforward goal: Give his students a jumpstart on the insights gleaned during his 34-year career in the petroleum industry.

“I led global organizations, worked in different countries and dealt with very serious risk management issues,” Unnerstall said. “The lessons I learned along the way need to be passed on.”

That is the critical value of the Halsey Professorship: allowing the next generation to benefit from hard-won wisdom. The James River Corporation endowed the position more than two decades ago in honor of one of its founders. It was established to bring to Grounds industry leaders in chemical engineering and related fields whose broad practical experience can influence the education, scholarship and professional development of undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Ron Unnerstall headshot

Ron Unnerstall is the 2019 Brenton S. Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professor in Chemical Engineering.

The Halsey Professor has principal responsibility for a limited-enrollment, School-wide, senior-level course focusing on themes of human values and practices in technical business and industry. It is meant to complement current educational programs and personal growth experiences of engineering students.

Halsey Professors have come from the executive ranks of Exxon, Merck, Babcock and Wilcox, Duke Power, the American Chemical Society and other prominent companies and organizations. All are men and women who rose to the pinnacles of their professions, learning the complexities of modern technological leadership along the way.

“The Halsey course is so unique for our students,” said Bill Epling, chair of Chemical Engineering. “To learn about engineering business and leadership from recognized leaders in our field, who are using their personal case studies, is just an awesome experience for the students.”

Collaborating and Communicating Effectively

Unnerstall spent much of his career in petroleum refining and marketing at Amoco and then BP, where his tenure included turning around the company’s troubled Toledo (Ohio) Refinery in 2006. In addition to four U.S. refineries, assignments took him to Chicago, London and Shanghai. He was named CEO of a newly formed joint venture with Husky Energy before being appointed CEO of BP’s Global Acetyls business in China. He returned to the U.S. in 2012 to be vice president of Refining Technology and Engineering, also assuming the role group chief engineer in 2015.

Unnerstall holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Purdue University, where he was named Outstanding Chemical Engineer in 2013 and the Purdue Distinguished Alumnus by the School of Engineering in 2016. He completed an M.S. in management from Stanford University while at BP.

By the time he retired in 2017, he’d spent 24 of his 34 years in direct operations of oil refineries. Working in a high-hazard environment, he earned a reputation for strong safety leadership and for building organizations that support operational excellence, learning and continuous improvement.

“Ron’s professional career experience is a perfect match for the Halsey Professorship,” said Michael King, a former Merck vice president who held the post twice before being appointed a ChE professor of practice in 2013.

“In addition to his success in general engineering and management, he also addressed significant and complex challenges in leading a global, multicultural organization. This included providing leadership to change the organizational culture to assure business success. That is an extremely challenging task. Students will have the opportunity to learn from Ron’s real-world experience how effective business leaders can leverage their technical engineering skills for maximum impact.”

Headshot of Mike King

"Students will have the opportunity to learn from Ron’s real-world experience how effective business leaders can leverage their technical engineering skills for maximum impact."

Mike King, Professor of Practice

The key lessons Unnerstall hopes to deliver through his course, Business and Technical Leadership in Engineering, focus on human factors in keeping with the spirit of the Halsey Professorship. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is the need for companies to continuously improve their processes, he said. Otherwise, complex systems like those found in an oil refinery — and associated safeguards — will inevitably start to decay.

“The feedback loops are very long. You can do the wrong things for a long time without being penalized. Organizations can become complacent,” Unnerstall said, adding that effecting change can be the toughest hurdle.

He speaks from experience. As refinery manager in Toledo, and later as CEO of the BP-Husky Energy joint venture, he led a five-year transformation of the business’s safety and operating performance from the bottom to top quartile.

“Cultural and organizational challenges can be a lot more messy than technical ones,” Unnerstall said. “One of the lessons I’ve learned is that successful engineering leaders must have the skills and perspectives needed to exercise technical knowledge in an organization that may not be receptive to what they have to say.”

As Unnerstall sees it, two of these skills — the ability to mobilize teams and to communicate in a compelling way — are critical to this success. As a result, he places a lot of emphasis in the course material on teamwork, leadership and communications to help students learn, practice and sharpen their skills in these crucial areas.

“A challenge that runs through this course is getting your point across with impact in the shortest amount of time,” he said. “This is essential, whether to get a project funded or to make the case for a promotion.”

Understanding the True Value of Your Work

Another lesson that Unnerstall wants to convey is the value for engineers of seeing their careers in the larger context — to appreciate not just the engineering side of their contributions, but also their impact on society. “When I started out in oil and gas, I was enthralled by the engineering challenges that you find in this industry,” he said. “It is an engineer’s playground.” Over time, however, he began to understand that the energy industry doesn’t just deliver oil and gas products; it helps people have a better quality of life.

When he went to China in 2010, he witnessed this firsthand. “In the United States, people don’t often grasp that most things we take for granted — the lighting in a room, our air conditioning and heating and our transportation system — are available because of the engineering challenges that we in the energy industry have taken on,” he said. “In China, you could see in real time how access to energy was improving people’s lives. I found that realization intrinsically motivating.”

Preparing Students for the Challenge of Leadership

The Halsey Professorship comes at a good time for Unnerstall, whose wife, Allison, is a Virginia native. They split their time between the Charlottesville area and their home in Ohio. Knowing this, the chair of the chemical engineering department at Purdue suggested he inquire about the post.

Unnerstall leapt at the opportunity, especially because his desire to help student leaders jumpstart their careers coincides with the University’s mission.

“Jefferson saw the University as a means to equip young people for a life of leadership,” he said. “If I can in some small way better prepare engineering students for leadership in the face of the challenges they will face as the century progresses, it will be very gratifying.”