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Inventing his way

CEO rose through the ranks by excelling at SEL’s core purpose — technical innovation

Dave Whitehead rose through the ranks of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman to become one of its top executives by excelling at what the company’s founder believes is the business’s most important purpose — inventing.

Or to put it a little differently, creating technology that improves electrical transmission and distribution.

SEL’s CEO, Whitehead has 79 patents to his name, roughly three for every year he’s been with the business.

He still remembers his first, an upgrade for SEL’s digital relays, which were the company’s original product. The devices monitor power lines and, if needed, trip circuit breakers in a fraction of a second to prevent damaging the system.

“It’s when I realized I was an inventor,” he said.

He made a suggestion when he was meeting with engineers who were discussing ways to detect when a circuit breaker was open and current in a power line had stopped flowing.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Hey that might work,’ ” Whitehead said. “I went to the lab and had the fun of actually making my idea work in a relay.”

That innovation was one of many he conceived as he earned promotions that led him to his present role.

Business Profile spoke with Whitehead, via email to abide by COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, about what SEL does, how it’s continuing operations during the coronavirus pandemic and his new role.

Business Profile: What are the biggest-selling products SEL manufactures, and what roles do they play in maintaining safe, uninterrupted transmission of electricity?

Dave Whitehead: SEL invents, designs, manufactures, sells and supports many types of equipment for the monitoring, control and protection of power systems ranging from protective devices and special purpose computers to network equipment. Many utilities are (upgrading) their distribution networks — the power lines that provide electricity to homes and businesses. One of our very popular products, the SEL-651R recloser control (a type of digital relay) ... improves the reliability of distribution systems. The SEL-651R detects faults on the power system and then selectively isolates the faulted power system section while leaving the unfaulted sections serving loads, like (homes). We manufacture the (SEL-651R) in Pullman, Lewiston and (at) our new facility in West Lafayette, Ind.

To read the full profile, click here.