The gig: Richard Plump is chief executive of Plump Engineering Inc., an Anaheim architectural engineering firm with 38 employees. Plump helped oversee the transportation of the space shuttle Endeavour from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center in Exposition Park last year. He made sure the spacecraft did not damage streets or underground pipes as it wound through a 12-mile stretch of Inglewood and Los Angeles. He had previously overseen the movement of the huge rock that's now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Troubled childhood: Plump, 51, overcame a difficult childhood. His parents divorced when Plump was in seventh grade, and his mother moved from their New Jersey home to California. Plump clashed repeatedly with his father, and after one yelling match in his junior year of high school, the 16-year-old Plump went to the airport in Newark. Using money he earned stocking grocery shelves, he paid cash for a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. He showed up unannounced at his mother's house in Encino. "I knocked on the door and said, 'Hi, Mom. I'm here,' " Plump said.
Underachiever: Though happier in California, Plump was a poor student in high school. He got straight Fs in the final semester of his senior year and dropped out for a year. But Plump knew he had to turn his life around. He got a general equivalency diploma, went to junior college and graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1990.
Life's calling: Plump became interested in engineering in eighth grade. He was bored in study hall and opted for a drafting class, which immediately fascinated him. While studying for his engineering degree in college, Plump went out of his way to observe buildings that were under construction. He examined architectural details and construction techniques that he expected to come across in his career. "If I saw a job site, I would stop and look at it," he said. "An engineer needs real-life experience to see buildings being built, not just book smarts."
Taking a chance: After graduation, Plump worked at a few engineering firms. But he was antsy and wanted to start his own firm. He didn't have much money, though. He had just bought a house and his wife was pregnant, meaning the couple would be deprived of her income temporarily. Plump borrowed $2,000 each from his sister and his father-in-law. His bank agreed to give Plump a three-month moratorium on mortgage payments, tacking the debt onto the end of the loan. Plump rented a cubicle in an architect's office, got out the phone book and spent most of his time cold-calling for work. "I just kept marketing, calling people up, tracking jobs, pulling jobs in," Plump said.
Big jobs: In 2002, he got a job helping an oil company that needed to move a huge piece of equipment from Long Beach to a refinery in El Segundo. He had to make sure the equipment — a coke drum that was roughly the length of back-to-back 18-wheel trucks — didn't damage streets or underground pipes. That led to other jobs that involved moving enormous objects, including a power generator to the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
He got the space shuttle job after city officials with whom he had worked on other jobs suggested to the company moving the shuttle that Plump be hired. It was an enormous logistical feat. Because its wingspan was so wide, the space shuttle couldn't zigzag down the street to miss driving over underground pipes. Instead, nearly 2,700 large steel plates, each weighing as much as a small car, had to be laid down along the route. Though it was the type of work he had done in the past, Plump was awed as the space shuttle rolled toward its destination. "When you actually see the space shuttle being moved, that's when you get chills down your back," he said.
Overcoming adversity: Plump suffers from Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary tics. Plump has occasional coughing and sniffing. It hasn't hindered him — except that a few clients feared his sniffing indicated a drug problem. While working on a hotel project in the Bahamas, he was awakened in the middle of the night and told he had to go to the hospital for a random drug test. He passed. Nowadays, he informs prospective clients about his condition early on. He refuses to take medication that would reduce his symptoms because it saps his energy. "I'd rather not take the medication to please people because they might be offended that I'm sniffing or coughing," he said. "I am what I am."
Personal: Plump lives in Laguna Beach with his wife, Janine, and two children.