Seat of Power
Aris Candris ’73 wasn’t expecting to spend his first night in America camped out on a couch at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but a missed connection for his flight from Athens, Greece, to Lexington necessitated the unplanned layover.
Fortunately for Candris, his great American adventure went straight uphill from there.
Candris, the first, and until recently the only, member of his immediate family to leave his native Greece to attend college in the United States, became president and CEO of Westinghouse Electric Company on July 1. A nuclear scientist and engineer by education and training, he was named to the top management role after a succession of increasingly responsible positions over his 33-year career at the Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, one of the world’s leading nuclear electric power companies.
Candris’s remarkable story is a textbook example of the versatility of a liberal arts education as a foundation for graduate studies and a career in almost any field, and the possibilities attainable for those who come to America willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunities.
Candris left Greece to come to Transylvania during a time of political and social upheaval in his native country. A military junta had taken over the government through a coup d’état in 1967, and some who opposed military rule and its suspension of individual freedoms were either exiled by the junta or self-exiled. One such person was Candris’s uncle, who wound up as a visiting professor at the University of Kentucky. That provided Candris with his link to Transylvania.
“I knew I wanted to go to a small school, and my uncle told me about Transylvania,” Candris said. “Transy gave me a good scholarship. I arrived on campus in the fall of 1970 straight off the proverbial boat, only this time it was an airplane.”
Transy’s new L.A. Brown Science Center opened that same fall, a fortuitous event for Candris, who was interested in the sciences from day one. His original idea of concentrating on theoretical nuclear physics changed somewhat during his Transy years, to a career goal focused more on the applications of science.
“One of my classes visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which was my first exposure to the more practical side of nuclear physics,” Candris recalled. “Later, I went to a conference in Dayton attended by recruiters from graduate schools in nuclear engineering. That opened my eyes further to options besides research and teaching.”
Taking heavy loads most terms, Candris completed his B.A. degree in three years, with three majors—physics, mathematics, and pre-engineering. Mathematics and computer science professor James E. Miller and Princeton-educated physics professor John Roeder were among his favorite teachers.
Candris was especially gratified at the level of personal attention he received as a Transy student.
“I expected some of that, but the closeness of the environment at Transylvania and the interest professors showed in students was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “Had I gone to a European university, I would not have experienced that.”
When it came time to apply for graduate school, Candris found his Transylvania degree to be an excellent credential. He applied to Purdue University, The Ohio State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Carnegie-Mellon University, and was accepted with scholarship offers from all of them.
“I was choosing between MIT and Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, and Westinghouse, the pioneer in nuclear power, was headquartered in Pittsburgh,” Candris said. He chose Carnegie-Mellon, and Pittsburgh has been his home ever since, with the exception of three years spent with Westinghouse’s facilities in Jacksonville, Fla.
Candris found that his Transylvania education prepared him well to tackle the rigors of nuclear science and engineering studies at one of the nation’s leading universities for science.
“I had to compete with students with big-name school backgrounds, but I had a fairly easy time of it,” he says. “The ones who came from pure engineering backgrounds had a tough time with advanced reactor theory in nuclear physics, but that was a piece of cake for me with what I had gotten from my Transy courses with Dr. Roeder, whose degree was in theoretical nuclear physics.”
Candris joined Westinghouse as a senior engineer in the former advanced reactor division in 1975, before he had completed work on his Ph.D. in nuclear science and engineering at Carnegie-Mellon. That same year, Westinghouse sold off its traditional appliance manufacturing business as it focused more and more on nuclear power technologies and services. The company, founded in 1886, would go through many other business twists and turns before arriving at its current status as a purely nuclear electric power company.
There were also many increasingly responsible positions in Candris’s future at Westinghouse over the next three decades as he advanced up the engineering and management ladders of the company. His most recent position before ascending to CEO was senior vice president of nuclear services.
“I first moved up the technology side of the house, then took over the services technology side,” Candris said. “I’ve often joked that, with the exception of materials, there’s not a function within the nuclear side of Westinghouse that I have not run at some point.”
Candris takes over the reins of Westinghouse at an opportune time in the global nuclear power industry in general, and for Westinghouse in particular. The company signed contracts in 2002 and 2006 with South Korea worth in excess of $650 million to support construction of six nuclear power plants, and a multi-billion dollar contract with China in 2007 to provide four plants. Each plant is a roughly $3 billion overall investment by the utility, Candris said.
In the United States, 104 reactors currently supply about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. By comparison, France produces more than 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear power, Sweden 50 percent, and the European Union 30 percent.
“We are in the middle of a renaissance for nuclear plants,” Candris said. “As the holders of the technology that is favored globally for new power plants, Westinghouse is in the catbird’s seat. We have been growing a lot in recent years, and we expect that to continue.”
Westinghouse will move into a new 845,000-square-foot headquarters and design-and-engineering complex in 2009. The company hired more than 1,300 engineers during the most recent fiscal year, a task made difficult because of a shortage of engineers in the U.S.
“Very few of our new engineers are coming from other countries because of the problem of getting visas,” Candris said. “Part of my interest in staying in close touch with Transylvania and Carnegie-Mellon is to encourage more investment in technical and engineering curriculum.”
Any discussion of nuclear power plants inevitably brings to mind the subject of safety, something Candris is keenly aware of as a scientist and active member of his profession. He recently became a board member of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which has as one of its main purposes the education of the general public about nuclear power.
“Those of us who work in the field have a healthy respect for radiation and the potential dangers associated with nuclear material,” Candris said. “But we also know the enormous benefits, not only in terms of electrical power generation with no greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear plants, but also the many medical applications such as diagnostic x-rays, for example.”
The industry has not done a good job of telling its story, Candris feels, which includes new technology that makes modern plants safer than ever.
“We have been timid as an industry to go on the offensive from a public relations standpoint and explain to people what is going on,” he said. “Not a single person was harmed from radiation at the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident, but the impression was of a mass hysteria. In 1986, no one got the message out that the accident at Chernobyl was unique to that particular type of reactor, which is illegal as a design in the Western world.”
Nuclear scientist and engineer, and CEO of a global nuclear power company, may not be the first job titles that come to mind for a graduate of a small liberal arts college, but they serve as testament to how a multi-faceted liberal education can prepare a person for almost any undertaking.
That’s been true for Candris as well as his wife, Laura A. (Sutton) Candris ’75, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and senior counsel with the Pittsburgh law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, LLP.
“Both Laura and I have a very soft spot for Transylvania,” said Candris, who was elected to the Transylvania Board of Trustees in May. “I honestly think that a combination of the attention that I got there, along with the environment that Transy provided, were significant contributors to how I turned out.”
Candris recently lost his distinction of being the only member of his immediate family to come to the United States for higher education, and to Transy in particular. His nephew, Stamatis Kandris ’11, also from Athens, just completed his first year at Transy.