Today at Berkeley Lab

Lab COO Jim Krupnick Winds Down 36-Year Career

— By Sabin Russell

Thirty-six years after Jim Krupnick strapped on a tool belt and found a home amid the high-voltage knife switches at the Bevatron, he will be retiring as Berkeley Lab’s Chief Operating Officer, capping a remarkable career that always seemed to place him in the right place at the right time.

He’ll be stepping down on June 28 after four years as Associate Laboratory Director and COO, one of the toughest jobs in any public institution, particularly in a volatile budgetary climate. He announced his retirement back in January, to give the Lab plenty of time to run a nationwide search for a successor.

As head of Operations, he prides himself on running a lean and responsive organization with a renewed focus on serving the customer: the scientists of Berkeley Lab. “We’ve tried to bring a vision to operations that if you serve the customer right we will be both efficient and effective,” he says. “And I have been amazed at dedication of the Lab staff, the people who are doing the work in service of the science.”

He began his stint as COO in 2008 on the eve of major transformations. The economy was in freefall. Lab Director Steven Chu was soon to leave to become President Obama’s Secretary of Energy. A series of new construction projects was in the works — the ALS User Support Building, the Guest House, the General Purpose Lab, and the Computational Research and Theory Facility — while the massive Building 51 complex housing the Bevatron was finally slated to be torn down. His tenure in the job culminated in the decision to locate a second campus at the site of the UC Richmond Field Station. During all that time, Krupnick had to wrestle with budgetary headaches such as rising pension and health insurance costs while federal funding flattened.

“The Lab simply would not be what it is today without Jim Krupnick,” says Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos. “Time and again, when we needed his clear-headed analysis and strategic thinking, he delivered. Everyone who has worked with him could always count on his professionalism and unflinching integrity.”

Alivisatos notes that Krupnick has been an employee at Berkeley Lab for nearly half its history and has the rare perspective of someone who has worked at almost every level within the organization. “I first worked with Jim during some crucial and difficult days that led to the approval of the Molecular Foundry,” he recalls. “I learned to trust his advice and instincts then, and have valued his counsel and friendship ever since.”

A longtime leader of projects, Krupnick has always seen himself as part of cadre of skilled working people and technical experts. “Whatever I’ve done at the Lab, I’ve always been a member of a team. That’s what sticks with me,” he says.

His immediate predecessor as COO, David McGraw, also first met him in 2002 when the proposed Molecular Foundry was in serious jeopardy among planners in Washington, D.C. Krupnick was already known by reputation: “All the serious projects that were failing, they gave to Jim, and he fixed them,” McGraw recalls. As director of Environment Health & Safety at the time, McGraw witnessed how Krupnick tackled assignments by immersing himself in the details, and emerging with a clear vision. During a memorable five-hour grilling before a second review committee, Krupnick coolly fielded questions. The Foundry was saved, and Krupnick became project director for its construction. “He is curious. He is really open to learning new things, and he has a passion to get things done on time, with the resources given, and to the highest standards,” McGraw says.

McGraw later became COO, and in 2004 worked day and night with Krupnick to hammer out a new contract for UC to continue its management of Berkeley Lab for the DOE. Following that assignment, Krupnick was named to a newly formed post of Director of Institutional Assurance, with a mandate to oversee compliance with that contract and ensure that laboratory operations were carried out efficiently, using best management practices. In that role, Krupnick worked closely with McGraw, Laboratory Director Chu, and later with Director Paul Alivisatos, and his performance paved the way to his appointment as COO upon McGraw’s retirement in 2008.

Krupnick in the mid 1990s

A smart dresser with neatly cropped hair, Krupnick has changed in some ways, but not in others, since his days as a pony-tailed protester and social science major at UC Berkeley. Raised in what he called “a comfortable home” in West Orange, New Jersey, he was drawn to Cal by the high percentage of students he saw there in the summer of 1967 who walked barefoot about the campus.

It was at Cal that Krupnick acquired his rap sheet. During a student occupation of Moses Hall, he was swept up and deposited at Santa Rita jail for ten days. “I went to Moses Hall on a date. They decided to make examples of us,” he says. During his incarceration, his bunkmate was another protester who would eventually become his brother-in-law. Krupnick has been married for 35 years to Laney College professor and union activist Debra Weintraub. They have two grown children.

Krupnick’s unusual yet methodical rise through the ranks at Berkeley Lab might have been predicted by the unorthodox path he took as a student. While pursuing his degree at Cal, he began taking courses in welding and carpentry at what is now Merritt College, because he felt he wanted a useful trade and to be able to work with his hands. After graduating from Cal, and collecting an AA in electronics from Merritt, he began training as a broadcast technician at John O’Connell high school in San Francisco.

That high school training of the Cal grad led to work as a nighttime and vacation fill-in technician at San Francisco television stations KGO and KBHK. In time, a basketball-playing friend of his told him about an opening for an electronics technician across the Bay, at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. It paid $6 an hour.

“I grew up at the Lab,” says Krupnick. “It was a very different walk of life for me. I loved working on a crew supporting scientific research, clambering up stacks of large power supplies and working around large, complicated mechanical equipment that was completely fascinating to me. The Lab was full of big stuff and really smart people. I loved being here.”