GE spinoff success story: ‘We just had a sense of adventure’

From left are Dag Reppen, Paul De Mello, Robert Ringlee, Dale Hedman and Lionel Barthold.
From left are Dag Reppen, Paul De Mello, Robert Ringlee, Dale Hedman and Lionel Barthold.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY – Lionel Barthold never felt comfortable keeping a secret. Engineering was his specialty, not intrigue.

However, in the summer of 1969, he pulled off a covert operation that included luring six of his fellow General Electric colleagues away from the parent company to form their own business, Power Technologies Inc. Fifty years later, Barthold’s brainchild, now known as Siemens/PTI, is celebrating its 50th year of offering high-tech consulting services to power companies around the world.

“If GE had retained all its spinoffs it would own the world,” said Barthold, who lives in Queensbury after spending much of his adult life raising a family in Burnt Hills. “I assume most of the departures were cordial and mutually convenient, but ours was not cordial. We just had a sense of adventure, and we realized that electric power companies would be better served by someone who didn’t sell them the equipment. What GE had was a conflict of interest, so with that in mind, we bailed out and started our own consulting firm.”

Barthold resigned as president of PTI in 1986 but has maintained close ties with the company, which was purchased by Siemens in 2005. Scott Hulett, who worked at Siemens/PTI in Schenectady from 2007 to 2011, was named general manager of the company in 2017. While Hulett is based in Houston, he routinely makes stops in Schenectady and other Siemens/PTI locations around the world.

More: PTI timeline

“Before we purchased PTI, Siemens had its own network planning division, but PTI was such a good brand we rebranded our own global network planning as Siemens/PTI,” said Hulett, who was in Schenectady last week. “Siemens purchased the company because there was a direct match between what PTI had built and continues to do today, and what Siemens was doing globally. So we kept the name. We’ve got offices all around the world, but the Schenectady office retains special importance due to the depth of experience and longevity of our senior staff, many of whom were hired by and worked under Lionel Barthold.”

According to Hulett, about 70 percent of the world’s power these days flows through systems analyzed with PTI software. But for Barthold back in 1969, the idea of leaving a good position with GE and starting something on his own was risky. Still, Barthold said he had to give it a try, and in the summer of 1968, when he was the manager of GE’s AC Transmission team dealing with the power system market, he confessed to his supervisor at GE that he wanted to manage a major business operation, either within or outside GE.

After spurning a lucrative job offer in Atlanta and declining a GE request that he attend general manager school in Crotonville, Barthold began sizing up some of his fellow engineers at GE. He invited Paul De Mello to his house at 7 Parkwood Drive in Burnt Hills and shared his idea of a consulting firm independent of GE. After some initial hesitation, De Mello agreed. The conspiracy was on.

“A venture like ours needed a critical mass,” explained Barthold, who began his career at GE in 1950. “We needed credibility as a system consultant. With that realization in mind, I made a list of prospective co-conspirators, each with a different technical specialization, each with a backup in case the first declined. I allowed myself just a few weeks to line up associates, fearing a leak could abort the venture. The sequence of invitations was important. The most likely to accede should be asked first to add weight to the argument made to prospectively more hesitant candidates.”

After securing De Mello, the two men went over a bunch of names and decided that Bob Ringlee should be the next one to join the ship. Ringlee was interested, but as was the case with Barthold and De Mello, he had to test the temperature on the home front.

More: PTI timeline

“Lionel proposed the idea to me and I told him I had to go talk it over with my wife,” said Ringlee, who retired from PTI in 1993 and lives in Rotterdam. “She said, ‘I think we should go for it.’ Working at a large corporation has its constraints, and I felt a little constrained at GE. I felt like most of the work I was doing was consulting with outside facilities, and I thought I’d be better able to convey any impartiality if we were working independently.”

Next on the list were Dale Hedman and Del Wilson, two experts at transient analysis, according to Barthold. Once they were on the team, Barthold and De Mello also secured the services of Dag Reppen (transmission line design studies and a programmer) and Wayne B’Rells (computer and software expert). Al Wood, who Barthold needed for his economic acumen, was the final piece of the puzzle.

Well, almost.

“Once all of our technical bases were covered, I spoke to Pat Emmer, the best secretary in our GE unit, inviting her to lunch at Jumpin’ Jack’s in Scotia,” remembered Barthold. “She was shocked, frightened and afraid to agree. But after talking it over with her husband Frank, she showed up at GE’s Building Five the next  morning sporting a broad smile and a thumbs-up. I can’t imagine how we would have survived without her.”

Hedman, an electrical engineer out of the University of Nebraska, had been at GE for 10 years when Barthold approached him about forming a new company.

“He came over and talked to me about his idea and told me the plan, and then I told him I had to talk to my wife,” remembered Hedman. “I talked to her and she said, ‘Well, I guess you’re gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’ I didn’t really think about how successful we might be. I just thought we had a job to do and things will work out. And they did.”

Barthold informed GE of what was happening on a Friday in July 1969. He and his six colleagues were told to assign their work to others and leave the plant within hours. There were conversations with GE attorneys, a few friendly goodbyes and some not-so-friendly ones. A fellow engineer was particularly upset with Barthold for not asking him to join the group.

Things started slowly at PTI, but then some work for the Tennessee Valley Authority showed up, and Barthold quickly discovered that many companies were interested in courses similar to those offered by GE’s Power System Engineering Course. When the American Electric Power Company called to inquire about training sessions, Barthold and his colleagues quickly put together a course syllabus and schedule for classes within two weeks.

Then in 1970, PTI got a phone call from Brazil, and the subsequent job secured by Barthold put PTI’s business on very firm ground.

“They wanted us to submit a bid on a very big project on one of Brazil’s largest government-owned facilities,” said Barthold, who flew down to Rio de Janiero in person to land the deal. “I was feeling a little guilty about the expense, so I booked a small room at the YMCA without any air conditioning. We were bidding against countries, but on the second day of the meeting I found myself sitting behind their chief engineer and he turned to me and smiled and said, ‘Congratulations, Barthold.’ I immediately checked out of the YMCA and took a large ocean-view room at the Copacabana Palace, where I sat for an hour looking at the ocean, indifferent to the extraordinary room cost, realizing that PTI had entered the world market.”

From that point on, lack of business was never a problem, but PTI did have some issues. In 1999, the board sold PTI to Stone & Webster, a Boston firm, and when that company went bankrupt the following year, PTI was purchased by the Shaw Group, Inc., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In January of 2005, Siemens entered the picture, buying out the Shaw Group while keeping the PTI name intact. In 2009, PTI moved into its current home above the Bow Tie Cinema on State Street. PTI presence in Schenectady had started by renting small office space in downtown before moving into an old American Locomotive Company building on Erie Boulevard in 1972. In 1991-1992, it constructed its own building on the other side of Erie Boulevard and erected the walkway over the street connecting the two buildings. The software created by Barthold and PTI remains the world standard.

It’s quite a success story, begun by a man who never graduated high school.

More: PTI timeline

“I quit high school to join the Merchant Marines and see the world,” said Barthold, who grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, just outside Chicago. “I was a radio operator during the war and was thinking about doing it as a career. My brother, who was going to Northwestern, kept telling me that I should take this entrance exam that Northwestern had and that I could get in there that way.”

Barthold took the exam, earned a four-year degree in physics, and went to work for GE.

“I’m a physicist, and my career plan was to go back and get my doctorate and teach when I retire,” said Barthold, who continues to consult on his own. “I started taking some grad programs at RPI, but I was married and raising two kids, spending a lot of time on airplanes traveling, so I just didn’t have the time and I quit. PTI was growing. I was very busy.”

Five of PTI’s original founders still live in the Schenectady area, while B’Rells recently relocated to North Carolina. Wood died in 2011 and Emmer died in 1991.

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