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Photo of John Gugel
October 25, 2018

Gugel’s drive takes him to top of energy-tech leader

Written By: Tom Ziemer

John Gugel (BS ’90, MS ’92) grew up a few doors down from St. Mary’s Hospital on Madison’s near south side, a little over a mile from Engineering Hall.

His grade school (St. James Catholic School) and high school (Madison West) were both short jaunts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. When it came time for college, he earned his degree in civil engineering from his hometown university.

But, while he had loved learning from the likes of professors Chuck Salmon and C.K. Wang, he was fairly certain of one thing as he started to consider graduate school.

“I had no intention of going to Wisconsin,” he says.

Yet that’s exactly where he wound up—an about-face that accelerated a career that has seen him climb the ranks at oil and gas technology firm Honeywell UOP over a more than 25-year tenure. UOP, which has been part of Fortune 100 giant Honeywell since 2005, named Gugel its president in June 2018.

Honeywell UOP, founded as UOP in 1914 and based in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, develops and licenses technology, processes and equipment for petroleum refineries as well as natural gas processors and petrochemical manufacturers around the world.

The company’s list of innovations includes the introduction of catalysis to refining and the inventions of high-octane aviation gasoline used in Allied planes in World War II, unleaded gasoline, the catalytic converter, biodegradable detergents and renewable fuels.

“Honestly, I think it could possibly win an argument to be one of the most impactful companies on people’s everyday lives that they’ve never heard of,” says Gugel. “When I talk about what we really do, to try to put it in terms people can relate to, I use an analogy to think of us as the Microsoft of the oil industry. We invent technology that our customers use to convert natural resources like oil and gas into products that consumers actually purchase: things like gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and chemicals.”

As a structural engineer, Gugel would seem to be an unlikely candidate to lead a major player in the global energy industry. But after graduating from UW-Madison with his bachelor’s degree, he took a job in Amoco Chemical Company’s capital projects group.

“I was really intrigued by the industry,” he says, “but I was a civil engineer working at a chemical company, so I decided I needed to reinforce my skills.”

He sent out applications to schools such as Michigan, Cornell and Stanford—until an answering machine message and a subsequent Saturday morning meeting on campus with a young assistant professor, Jeff Russell, convinced Gugel to reconsider his undergraduate alma mater.

Russell, who had arrived at UW-Madison two summers earlier, was in the early stages of building the nascent Construction Engineering and Management Program. He told Gugel about a project he had just landed through the Construction Industry Institute, a research center based at the University of Texas at Austin.

“He was persuasive and energetic,” recalls Gugel, who calls Russell a model of what any graduate student would want in an advisor. “I went back, and I am so glad I did.”

In just over a year, Gugel finished his master’s coursework, defended his thesis and worked with Russell on a series of published papers around the topic of constructability, a project management approach to optimizing new builds.

“John is one of the most competitive and driven people I know,” Russell says. “He helped get us on the map for significant construction research.”

In the course of his research, Gugel came across UOP’s early efforts at modular construction—building plants in sections and then shipping them to project sites for assembly. In 1993, less than a year after he joined the company, he volunteered to oversee the delivery and installation of a continuous catalyst regeneration system for one of UOP’s high-octane gasoline process technologies on the northern coast of Venezuela. A few years later, he helped lead design and construction of similar technologies for the Reliance Jamnagar Refinery & Petrochemicals Complex, a facility in Gujarat, India, that is currently one of the largest oil refineries in the world.

He’s since led a host of global business units before ascending to the presidency. That he’s experienced that level of professional success is no surprise to the man who talked Gugel into returning to UW-Madison more than 25 years ago.

“To me, there was no question he was going to have an impactful career,” says Russell. “There was just no question about it.”


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