Launch Slideshow

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Top Leaders

Top Leaders

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    Steven Hansen's greatest challenge is maintaining aging infrastructure. Incorporated in 1829, Liberty, Mo., juggles the need to meet demands of a growing population with system components that date back 100 years or more. Photo: Sara Cooke

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    Morton, Ill., superintendent of public works Bob Wraight credits his organization's efficiency to its horizontal structure. “The more levels there are between the top and the bottom, the more communication breakdowns there are,” he says. Photo: Marc Nix

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    Kurt Corey poses with Lily the Pacific Green Tree Frog, the mascot for SPLASH (Stormwater Pollution: Learn and Share), an educational outreach program in Eugene, Ore. Photo: Kurt Corey

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    As former commissioner of transportation and works for the Regional Municipality of York, Ontario, Kees Schipper served a community that grew by an average of 40,000 people per year. Photo: Gail Lemieux

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    In 2005, Larry Lux visited Australia to compare the country's emergency management programs to American programs. He attended Australian football games, and got up close and personal with kangaroos, dingos, wombats, and fairy penguins. Photo: Larry Lux

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The long haul

Larry Nelson gives Madison his all.

Having worked in Madison, Wis., for his entire career, Larry Nelson knows the city like the back of his hand. He easily identifies problems and, more importantly, recognizes resources and strengths within his department.

His extensive knowledge was an advantage when the city was experiencing more than 400 sewer main backups a year. Nelson knew the dilemma needed to be tackled to avoid a crisis and minimize public alarm. “The issue allowed us to try new concepts,” says Nelson. “Our employees had the chance to take on leadership roles.”

The employee selection process can make or break a public works department. Nelson's insight and thoroughness help him appoint the cream of the crop. “When we hire new employees, we look for three things: intelligence, industry, and good people skills,” he says.

Each year, the city employs University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students who work as surveyors and construction inspectors. “I'm impressed with how productive they are with so little training,” says Nelson. “Their computer skills are especially exceptional.” While Nelson has many professional accomplishments under his belt, he is most proud of being a father. Two of his children have followed in his footsteps: a son who's a mechanical engineer and a daughter who's a biomedical engineer. “I'm extremely proud of their work.”

Larry Nelson, city engineer, Madison, Wis.
  • Years in public works: 40
  • City stats: Madison is the state's capital and has 205,000 residents. The city, which is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is situated on a hill above surrounding lakes. The public works and transportation departments have 11,000 employees and an annual budget of $170 million; the engineering division has 101 permanent employees and an annual budget of $9.6 million.
  • Previous jobs: Nelson's first job was mowing lawns in eighth grade. His worst job: stacking hay bales at his uncle's dairy farm.
  • Challenges: Increases in material costs; Madison's asphalt prices have shot up 30% so far this year.