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Albert Dorman, MSCE '62

Albert Dorman
Albert A. Dorman may be one of the most illustrious and intriguing civil engineers in America. The rapidly ascending trajectory of his half-century career spans work as an engineering consultant; CEO of one of the first multidisciplinary architecture/engineering firms to practice worldwide; and chair of one of the 200 largest private companies in America. Along the way, he has worked on all seven continents, including Antarctica, and has been registered as a professional engineer in eight states and as an architect in both California and Oregon.

His honors are equally exceptional. Dorman has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and is an Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), as well as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) — the only individual ever to have simultaneously achieved this dual distinction. He has served as president of the Consulting Engineers Association of California and the Los Angeles Section of ASCE, and has authored dozens of papers on an impressive range of subjects. In 2000, Dorman received the ASCE’s inaugural OPAL Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Leadership.

Yet his many accomplishments and accolades hide an even more remarkable story of a strikingly modest man who has always encouraged others to stand in the spotlight, while he worked to make the world a better place.

“I grew up in a small Eastern town, which taught me about ethics and morality, and gave me a strong love of nature,” Dorman explains. “My father owned a country store where I helped behind the counter. I learned that everybody you meet — from the president of the bank to the man who pumps your gas — has something to teach you, if you’re willing to listen.”

Dorman was a good listener — and a good student, too. He served as student body president and yearbook editor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, graduating first in his class with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering. “While I’ve also always loved the ‘liberal arts,’ I chose to pursue engineering because I wanted to make use of my mathematical, analytical and scientific abilities,” Dorman says.

After graduation, he served in the Army Corps of Engineers at the end of World War II. He soon realized that mechanical and industrial engineering wasn’t a good fit for him. “It was all “things” related, and I needed to deal with society and interact with people,” Dorman says. “Plus, I wanted to work outdoors. I knew that if I switched to civil engineering, I’d be working on highways, dams, structures and other outdoor projects.”

Dorman saw California as an enticing new frontier, and moved after completing his military service. He worked for the California State Division of Highways (Caltrans) on the Santa Ana Freeway, and then for the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. “The latter in particular was a marvelous place to work after the war,” he says. “Construction was booming, and I had an opportunity to plan-check the work of the best architects and structural engineers on some of the more important buildings in Los Angeles, and to learn from their calculations, designs and details.Many of Southern California’s top structural engineers went through the department at that time.”

Al Dorman carried the Olympic torch on
its journey through Los Angeles for the
1984 Olympic Games. "In retrospect, it
was symbolic of my effort to pass the
torch to the next generation," he says.
Dorman also took the opportunity to enroll in USC’s civil engineering program. He retains particularly fond memories of Professor David Wilson: “Professor Wilson was revered by the people who studied structures. He was influential and warm and I made a point of taking his courses. I later became a member of the David Wilson Associates at USC and still stay in touch with former students I met there.” It should be noted that Dorman maintained a perfect 4.0 average throughout his engineering studies at USC.

The USC engineering school honored Dorman with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1976. He has stayed involved with the University by serving on the boards of councilors for Performing Arts and the School of Policy, Planning and Development (formerly Urban & Regional Planning). He just recently accepted Dean Nikias’ invitation to serve on the Viterbi School’s board of councilors and will make an impressive addition.

“I should have graduated from USC in 1951,” Dorman recalls, “but I was one course short of my [master’s] degree when I moved to the San Joaquin Valley with my wife, whom I met when she was a graduate student at UCLA. It wasn’t until a decade later that I finally decided to commute to Los Angeles for one semester, to complete my degree.”

Joan and Albert Dorman raised their three children, Laura, Kenneth and Richard, in Hanford, a town of then 10,000 residents in Central California. There, Dorman founded a one-man civil engineering firm and was later joined by USC architecture alumnus Lawrence Alexander, to form an additional firm, Alexander & Dorman, Architect/Engineer.

A quiet and rather small-town modesty surrounds Dorman’s life and professional career. In 1954, he was invited to work on a new theme park that was to be built in Anaheim.Walt Disney had hired electrical engineer J. S. Hamel, “the best lighting engineer in America,” as consulting engineer on the groundbreaking Disneyland project. Hamel told Disney that he would need to work with a civil engineer in order to design the park’s grading railroad, streets and other infrastructure. Hamel recommended Dorman, but cautioned Disney that “he’s only 28.” To which Disney reportedly replied, “I was 26 when I introduced Mickey Mouse.” And so Hamel & Dorman was formed.

“It was an immense undertaking,” Dorman recalls. “The project was scheduled to be completed in 14 months, including land clearing, design and construction. Nothing like it had been attempted before. Rivers had to be created, a railway built. For example, it was the first time a paddle wheel steamboat had been mounted on a rail; no one had ever had to park that many cars before; and on and on. Everything was new and innovative. And the burden of professional responsibility was almost overwhelming — my seal and signature were on the plans!”

“My final inspection was one week before the park’s official opening in July, 1955,” Dorman recalls. “We made it — but it took ten years before I could bring myself to set foot there again, this time with my family.”

Disneyland opened to enormous fanfare, and Dorman returned home. But he made the decision not to talk about his involvement with the project. “I just wanted to raise my kids in a small town,” he explains. “I didn’t want potential clients in the Central Valley to think their projects would be too small for me. As importantly, I wanted to be fully identified with the community and my neighbors.” So he quietly resumed his private practice. He also served as city engineer for two of the three cities in Kings County, and designed projects that ranged from schools to subdivisions. In his spare time, he was a partner in farming 800 acres and was deeply involved in community activities.

“I’ve been a student of one sort or another all my life,” Dorman says. “As an engineer working with architects, it appeared to me that they were the ones making the major design decisions, which the engineers then implemented. So I decided to train myself to be an architect, and became licensed in that field also. I then found out it was the owner who was making what I thought were the ultimate decisions, and I decided to learn what owners faced. I became involved as an owner in residential, commercial and industrial properties.

“After all that, I discovered that it was the lenders who made the decisions: the kinds of projects they would finance, and how much they would lend. I helped found a savings and loan association in Hanford and served as its chairman so I could learn about lenders’ criteria. Incidentally, that S&L was acquired by one of the largest institutions in the U.S., and I was privileged to serve on its board of directors.”

Dorman’s professional career as an engineer has been equally astute. In 1965, Dorman’s Hanford civil engineering firm, by then good-sized, was acquired by the architecture/engineering firm Daniel,Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall of Los Angeles, two of whose principals — Phil Daniel and Ken Johnson — were also USC alumni. Dorman was asked to serve as an engineering project director of DMJM, and within ten years he became chief operating officer, then president/CEO and finally chairman/CEO.

Dorman continued to run DMJM after it was acquired by Ashland Oil in 1984, and managed the resulting Ashland subsidiary, which soon acquired other engineering and architectural firms. Six years later, all these companies were bought back from Ashland, creating AECOM Technology Corporation, which went on to become the parent company of many of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished engineering, architecture and program management firms.

Dorman’s vision for AECOM was to create an almost invisible parent company, where each operating company would excel in its own field, under its own name, with independent staff that was given credit for their company’s success. “I had never met a Marine who said, ‘I’m a DOD guy,’” Dorman explains. “They were always a Marine. You can’t truly identify with too large an entity.”

It’s a principle that has worked well: AECOM now ranks among the top five in the world in its fields. Its numerous major consulting firms, 100 subsidiaries and 18,000 employees currently generate more than $1.8 billion in revenue annually for its employeeowners. “I’m pleased that AECOM has been able to create some financially secure people,” Dorman says with typical modesty.

He notes with pleasure that the late James H. Zumberge, USC’s ninth president, served as a special consultant to one of the AECOM companies, which held a ten-year contract to support all U.S. scientific research facilities in Antarctica. “Jim was an internationally acclaimed geologist, and had important geologic features in Antarctica named after him,” Doman explains. “A wonderful man, and we were glad to have him helping us.” Dorman is also pleased that USC’s current president is an engineer, adding that “Dr. [Steven] Sample and I were classmates in the National Academy of Engineering. He has done a simply outstanding job at USC.”

Dorman voluntarily retired as chair and CEO of AECOM in 1992, after he turned 65. “I would have enjoyed being there forever,” he muses. “But I don’t believe that young, dynamic people in any organization should be left wondering what their future could be. I reminded myself what it would be like if I were a young Al Dorman, 40 or 50 years old, and the top person gave no indication of retiring. You have to create an upward draft, with opportunities for lots of people to grow, if you’re going to be fair to your people and the company.”

“My successor — Richard G. Newman, a colleague for 14 years — has done wonderfully carrying the company forward,” Dorman adds. “I believe he is largely responsible for AECOM’s growth and success.” The company continues to provide Dorman an office and support, in his role as founding chairman.

Dorman reflects thoughtfully on his long career. “I’ve practiced in California for onethird of the state’s history,” he notes. “It’s been an exciting time. The population has tripled — from less than 10 million to more than 30 million — and civil engineers created much of California’s infrastructure, building freeways, water supplies, airports and much else we take for granted. I think California owes a great deal to its civil engineers. Parenthetically, about half the state’s civil engineers are in public employment. That’s very significant for our profession, and for society, and I’d like to see civil engineers be recognized more widely for their contributions.”

Dorman believes firmly that engineers should participate at all levels in a variety of activities, to make their particular expertise available not just within the profession, but throughout society. In his case, he has accepted leadership roles with numerous civic and non-profit institutions that range from the California Chamber of Commerce to the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts, and he has also served on the board of directors of three publicly traded companies.

Making a difference has always been a driving force for Dorman.“My family has a tradition of giving back to the community and sharing,” he says. “Some environmentalists say we should ‘leave no footprint behind.’ I fully concur for wilderness areas. But I’d like to think that my life has been devoted to the opposite: creating ‘footprints’ that improve the quality of life through such tangibles as safe drinking water, waste disposal, better health care, economic development, education and safer transportation for us and our children.”

Future generations are indeed very much on Dorman’s mind. He endowed the Albert Dorman Honors College at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to enable bright but disadvantaged students primarily from northern New Jersey’s industrial neighborhoods to pursue rigorous yet nurturing engineering programs. “I talk to the students every year,” Dorman says. “They share their dreams, and I share my experience. It always renews my faith in the future.”

Dorman also serves as a longtime trustee of the J. David Gladstone Institutes, which for three decades has underwritten groundbreaking, life-saving biomedical research in affiliation with the University of California-San Francisco.

He recently completed what may become his most lasting legacy for all Americans. From 2001 to 2003, Dorman served as chair of a National Research Council Committee charged with reviewing policies and practices relating to all Federal Government facilities — 3.3 billion square feet of space worldwide, valued at more than $300 billion. Each year the government spends more than $25 billion in tax dollars maintaining, renovating and acquiring these facilities, many of which have become under-utilized or obsolete. Dorman’s committee identified principles that best-practice organizations use to manage facilities. Their report, Investments in Federal Facilities: Asset Management Strategies for the 21st Century, offers what the U.S. Government Accountability Office calls “a comprehensive, integrated transformation strategy” for investing in and managing all federal facilities — a strategy that could potentially save billions of future tax dollars.

“It was intellectually perhaps the most complex program I’ve ever addressed,” Dorman admits. “Although I have no illusions about the difficulties of reaching consensus and then implementing change in the political process, we have received some encouraging feedback. Perhaps unrelatedly, the President has issued an Executive Order that will advance some of our recommendations. If only a 5% improvement occurs, I will consider the committee’s efforts to have been worthwhile.”

Al Dorman’s efforts throughout his career have not only been worthwhile, but they are worth praise, and they will no doubt leave their footprints on this world.