Ralph R. Peterson, who was set to retire next month as chairman of global project manager CH2M Hill Cos. after building the firm into a $6.5-billion, 25,000-person industry force, died late on Sept. 1 from complications of cancer. He had battled the disease for several years.

He was set to turn 65 on Oct. 12.

Peterson spent 44 years at CH2M Hill. "I will miss his intellect, his ability to deal with complex issues and his desire to help others succeed," company CEO Lee A. McIntire told employees in an internal email. "He was an industry icon." The former Bechtel Corp. executive joined the firm in 2006 and succeeded Peterson as president and CEO in January. Peterson had held that role since 1991; he had served as chairman since 2000.

Peterson attracted talented staff to CH@M Hill with challenging assignments and innovative employee perks. He was sought out by peers, competitors and numerous industry organizations for his intellect and his wit. "Ralph was very direct and speaks his mind," says Robert Uhler, CEO of Broomfield, Colo.-based engineer MWH, which often competed against CH2M Hill. "But he would give you the shirt off his back."

Ralph Peterson

Peterson also kept his focus. "It was hard to get in a car with him and talk about anything but business," says Uhler.

Associates and observers say he never lost his connection to his employees and to the world's pressing needs. "He had a phenomenal work ethic. " Donald Evans, a former group chief at the company and long-time colleague, told ENR in a 2007 interview. "There wasn't a job he asked us to do that he wouldn't do himself,

During his career Peterson earned engineering degrees from three universities and an advanced management certificate from Harvard University's business school. He also held two honorary doctorates.

After joining CH2M Hill in 1965 Peterson once served as its technology director. But it was Peterson's strong desire for growth at CH2M Hill that fueled its foray into new markets and geographies and into management of larger and more risk-laden projects. These include construction of facilities for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and expansion of the Panama Canal, both valued at well over $6 billion, and major management contracts for the U.S. Army in Korea and for the Dept. of Energy at several U.S. nuclear waste cleanup sites.

While some employees and observers noted that such megaprojects and new leadership have markedly changed the 63-year-old firm's culture, Peterson relished working on "the most difficult challenges on the planet," he told ENR in 2007. "We've had to adapt and change, but I think it's made us stronger."

A vigil will be held at 7:00 pm on Friday Sept. 4, at St. Mark Catholic Church, 9905 Foothills Canyon Boulevard, Highlands Ranch, Colo. A funeral Mass will be held at St. Mark on Saturday, Sept. 5 at 9:00 am, with a brunch following Mass. Memories and condolences can be offered at www.horancares.com.

The Peterson family requests that in lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to The Joshua School, 2303 East Dartmouth Avenue, Denver, Colo., a private, non-profit school and resource center for individuals, ages 2½ to 18 years of age, with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or other special needs, and their families.