Small firm from a small city builds a big pipe

Northwest Energy Company, whose $1.5 billion in assets make it Salt Lake City's largest private energy company, moved into new headquarters in April. It is a shiny, sprawling building in famous Emigration Canyon, just up the foothills from the firm's former downtown location.

Now Northwest's office is just a bicycle-ride away from home for the company's chairman and chief executive officer, John G. McMillian. As head of one of America's most energetic and newest energy companies, John McMillian likes to get his way.

''He's demanding and persistent,'' vice-president Joseph N. Vallely Jr. said. ''He'd have to be to stay on top of the Alaska gas pipeline since 1974.''

That pipeline, still unbuilt, would carry Alaska's natural gas to the lower 48 states. If federal approval came this year, it could be complete by 1988. After outflanking other bidders, Northwest won the right to become the operator for a partnership constructing the Alaska portion, with the price tag nearing $ 30 billion.

Over the years, he has lobbied hard for his projects in the nation's capital, where he spends a lot of his time.

Mr. McMillian rose from the Texas oil-patch business to take over the court-divested pipelines of El Paso Natural Gas Company in 1974. The hub of those lines lies in Salt Lake. But he isn't satisfied just running a pipeline.

Mr. McMillian expects company assets will triple by 1990. ''We have continued to surprise the experts,'' he said in a recent speech.

New projects include Colorado coal mining, oil exploration on 1 million acres in the West, expansion of new gas lines to the Southwest and East, development of a huge bubble of low-heat gas and helium in Wyoming, and a possible slurry coal pipeline to the West Coast.

With over 2,000 industry professionals, Northwest has stayed put in Salt Lake , largely for the quality of life, but with some subsidiaries in Denver and Alaska. ''We've had no trouble recruiting top executives to live here,'' Mr. Vallely said.

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