Satisfied as an Engineer, but a Yearning to Help Society Opens Other Doors

Karun Sreerama with wife Lakshmi, son Abhijit and daughter Vijetha.

Karun Sreerama with wife Lakshmi, son Abhijit and daughter Vijetha.

By Manu Shah

HOUSTON: Karun Sreerama’s father joined law school after he retired from the Indian Railways and his mother has eight post graduate degrees to her credit.  So, it should come as no surprise that Sreerama is a gold medalist from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, one of India’s premier engineering colleges; has two Masters in Engineering, a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, an MBA, and a Professional Engineering license and was one of 12 students selected for the prestigious Cambridge Nehru Scholarship program in the UK. But his highest qualification is that he still doesn’t take himself too seriously: he has a perennial twinkle in his eye, a ready laugh and a quick wit.

According to Sreerama, going to Cambridge was a “childhood dream” come true and an indelible memory today.  He got to work on a centrifuge, the only one in the free world at that time, saw the desk in the science lab where James Watson and Francis Crick worked on the ground breaking DNA double helix discovery, met Nobel laureates like Subrahmanyan Chandrashekar and literally did a double take when he passed Stephen Hawking in the corridor!

However, Britain’s limping economy and tepid job prospects spurred Sreerama to move to Missouri in the US in 1986 where he started work on his Ph.D.  As part of his assistantship, he taught some Continuing Education courses and during one such course, a man in the audience invited him out for dinner.  The prospect of a good meal persuaded Sreerama to agree and by the end of dinner, he had also agreed to the man who happened to be with from Law Engineering, an Atlanta based firm, to a three month summer job with the company’s South Carolina office analyzing paper machine foundations. The experience proved to be invaluable and boosted his confidence and also turned out to be providential as Sreerama took a job with the company in its Houston office after finishing his Ph.D.

In the late eighties, computer technology was making great inroads and the general assumption was that the world was on its way to becoming paperless. Paper production reduced drastically but a paperless world didn’t quite materialize, as personal computers pushed up printing and paper usage. To keep up with demand, for the next 5 years Sreerama travelled all over the country designing and building paper machine foundations for several companies.  He also helped design over 600 towers for cell phone companies – there’s a good chance that one of his designs is in the Greater Houston area.

Career wise, Sreerama felt he was plateauing out as Chief Engineer at Law Engineering, and PSI (an Illinois based firm) the companies he was working for, and the itch to start something on his own was getting stronger.  The opportunity came in the form of ESPA CORP – an engineering and architectural firm in Houston started in 1981 by among others, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, that was up for sale.  Sreerama bought the firm, revamped the business with a focus on quality and client satisfaction and went on to double the revenues.  Over the past five years, ESPA racked up construction projects – such as the second phase of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Bush International Airport expansion and the additional Houston Metro Light Rail lines – worth a staggering 2 billion construction dollars!

However it’s the latest project that has Sreerama positively animated – the restoration of the historic 100-year old San Jacinto High School, now called the Houston Community College’s  San Jacinto Memorial Building, on the Central Campus on San Jacinto and Holman. The original drawings of the building were not preserved so the team had to do their own surveys and go back to their computers and recreate the drawings. The end design created a state-of-the-art renovated interior while maintaining the historical character of the exterior facade. Sreerama is totally enthused about the 100-year old beautifully etched copper panels that were found, a fountain on the second floor and an antiquated music organ embedded in the walls of the auditorium.

Last year, Sreerama sold his company to KCI Technologies, a Baltimore based company which for years was looking to break into the intensely competitive Houston market. The offer was irresistible!  KCI retained Sreerama as President of its subsidiary, ESPA, and other than a piece of paper exchanging hands, not much changed.  In fact, Sreerama looks at it positively as with more manpower at their disposal, the Company can now go after bigger projects.

A strong give-back philosophy led Sreerama to get involved with, and on, the Board of several organizations such as the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, the HCC Foundation which helps to raise scholarships for deserving students and more recently the Indo American Political Action Committee of which he is President-Elect.  In this role, Sreerama and other key members of the organization have been talking to several Congressmen to remove the US cap on LNG exports to India which would help India save billions of foreign exchange dollars. The response has been extremely positive and Sreerama hopes that the cap will be lifted next year.

To cap it off, two weeks ago, Sreerama became the first non-Anglo President of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Houston (ACEC-Houston) – an organization that is the voice of and protects the interests of Houston’s engineering community.  In this one-year term position, he hopes to continue the work of providing engineering solutions to the community, while at the same time tackling the issues and concerns of local people, to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.  He also hopes to incorporate more Green designs to engineering projects as well as increase the community outreach of the organization.