Ronald J. Unnerstall

Group Head, Engineering; Vice President, Refining and Logistics Technology
BSChE '83

For his commitment to safety and operations, as well as to improved engineering systems, throughout a remarkable career in the petroleum field

Several attributes have made Ron Unnerstall successful throughout a 33-year career, including his commitment to safety and rigor in operations as well as his focus on building long-term value. "Many engineering-oriented industries deal with highly hazardous environments," he says. "That is particularly true in the oil and gas business. Your job is important, but not so important that you should not go home the same way you came in. We have an obligation for those who've been injured or killed in the past to do better. Likewise, we have a responsibility to use our knowledge and technology to build lasting value and contribute to continuous progress and improvement for all."

Part of doing better requires a vigilant dedication to ongoing learning and the development of robust engineering systems. His own education and career seems to have come full circle. The son of an engineer, Unnerstall moved around a lot in his youth and first applied the core engineering concepts he learned at Purdue during an internship at an Amoco refinery located in his mother's hometown of Whiting, Indiana. That experience changed his mind from possibly attending medical school to pursuing a career in manufacturing. Having worked throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and China, Unnerstall still works globally, but now makes his home in the Chicago suburbs.

In 1998, when BP acquired Amoco as part of a multibillion-dollar megamerger, a quick move to corporate offices landed him in a London hotel — where he was awakened his first night by the midnight chimes of Big Ben. The deal itself capitalized on the strength of each company. Unnerstall says Amoco was known to be a good energy operator. BP was very good in financial and strategic planning.

Combining the best of both worlds was not without challenges, especially on the home front. But adapting to life abroad in the United Kingdom, and later China, may have made all the difference for the Unnerstall family. With two children who grew up "more British than American," Unnerstall says they loved their international experiences. "Our kids lived overseas at a very young age and have a much broader appreciation for diverse points of view."

Unnerstall, a staunch promoter of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines in education, believes such an emphasis will help engineers solve seemingly intractable problems in the future. He references the 1970s talk of "peak oil," which proved untrue as technology and engineering enabled the discovery of oil resources once considered beyond reach. "Students graduating today will solve what many consider 'impossible problems' now, but they'll do it differently, more collaboratively than when I went to school because the world is more connected."

Global collaborations can speed those discoveries. "But in the end, the fundamentals of engineering don't change. Mathematics and physics do not change," Unnerstall says. "Having a strong basis in engineering practice and sound judgment will serve anyone in any generation. In this global environment, solving difficult engineering problems is becoming more and more of a team sport, where you have to work with and through others, through teamwork. I realized very early that a good idea doesn't have impact unless it's understood and implemented."

As for recognition from his alma mater, the well-traveled chemical engineer is proud to be back on campus. "Purdue has a long list of alumni who've done amazing things," he says. "I'm honored and humbled to be part of that community."

Career Highlights

2015-present Group Head of Engineering, BP
2012-present Vice President of Refining and Logistics Technology, BP
2010-2012 Chief Executive Officer for BP Global Acetyls, Shanghai, China
2008-2010 President and Chief Executive Officer of BP-Husky Refining
2006-2010 Business Unit Leader, Toledo (Ohio) Refinery
1999-2003 Various BP leadership positions, London
1990-1999 Various management positions, Amoco
1983-1990 Various technical and operational positions, Amoco
2001 MS Management, Stanford University
1983 BSChE, Purdue University