W. Robert Jebson, Jr.
Class of 1956, BS
Bob and Chris Jebson were recently described in their community newspaper as a couple who by “mostly working behind the scenes, have helped make Culpeper, Virginia, a better place to live. From the library to the hospital to the business world, the Culpeper couple doesn’t hold back when it comes to community building.” In recognition of their service to the community, they were elected as the Grand Marshals of the Fourth of July parade in 2003.
Bob, a Virginia Tech graduate with a B.S. in metallurgical engineering, began his career in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and moved to Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. After that, he spent 16 years employed with Westinghouse Electric Corporation. With Westinghouse, he held various engineering and managerial assignments which led to the company’s entry into the manufacturing of water quality equipment in Culpeper. Bob was responsible for bringing the Infilco Division of Westinghouse to Culpeper and served as the plant manager.
After relocating to Culpeper, Bob saw the need for a professional service company with the ability to operate and maintain water and wastewater systems. In 1973, Bob’s vision developed into Environmental Systems Service (ESS), Ltd., a professional service company with a supporting environmental laboratory. “Business success is a matter of finding the niche that makes a company flourish,” Bob recalls.
This philosophy proved true again as regulation and controls began increasing in the agricultural industry. Since farmers could no longer examine their milk in-house for all of the many possible contaminants, they were looking for a way to test their products with more sophisticated instruments, and have the ability of convincing their customers that the results had more validity since they were produced by a third party laboratory. Bob, as ESS President, realized the need, and the company began to expand into the testing of dairy products. Bob states, “The dairy industry is one of the most regulated; every ounce of milk produced is tested before it enters the food supply.” When a customer enters almost any Safeway, Giant, or 7-Eleven store in Maryland, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, chances are that ESS performed some of the testing that ensures the quality of the products.
From its origins with water and wastewater to dairy testing, ESS expanded into food analysis. “There is not a weak sister in the foursome. We were very selective and did not take a lot of chances. Our goal has always been to provide gainful employment and to control our own destiny,” Bob says. His philosophy paid off, and for more than 30 years, the company has remained privately owned, and has continued sales growth. A facility in Bedford, Virginia, was added in 1978, followed by another in Maryland in 1979, and in 1992, a fourth laboratory was opened in Winston-Salem. Country Water Systems, another division of ESS, was established in 1987. Its client association includes Fortune 500 companies, as well as the small independent producers and all business levels in between.
“We have grown the company very conservatively,” says Bob. “We have a lot of dedicated employees, and one of our goals was to provide gainful employment. I can count on one hand the number we have had to lay off in all those years. I was a one-person operation in 1973, and today we employ 70 people.” Don Hearl, the second employee, is still a significant part of the business and manages the company’s Environmental Services Division. Even though Bob is semi-retired today, his son, Craig, and daughter, Karen, remain with the business, playing significant roles in the management of the company.
Over the past three decades, living in a town of about 10,000 people, Bob has assumed more than his share of civic responsibilities. “I came to Culpeper as a major employer (with Westinghouse), and that brought a lot of leverage,” Bob recalls. It wasn’t long before he became Rotary Club president, and served on several community bank boards. He worked diligently with economic development personnel to bring in more industry and expand the tax base. Bob chaired the hospital board on more than one occasion, and was instrumental in fostering a relationship between Culpeper Regional Hospital and the University of Virginia Health Services Center for certain aspects of quality care. He has also devoted time to the Culpeper County Chamber of Commerce and the Culpeper Presbyterian Church. In 1995, Bob was awarded the distinguished L.B. Henretty Award for outstanding community service.
Bob’s wife, Chris, shares his enthusiasm for their community. She has also volunteered her time and efforts to a variety of community-oriented projects, one of which has been helping to provide citizens with an outstanding library. This effort eventually led to the construction of a new, larger facility five years ago. She was also a leading force in developing the annual “Lights of Love” fundraiser at Culpeper Regional Hospital.
Bob and Chris are also supporters of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, joining its Committee of 100 within a few years of its inception. Bob states, “I met Paul Torgersen, who was Dean of Engineering at the time, and after a few hours with him, I had a new appreciation and a new pride in what the university had done for me. I’m sure Paul has done that for a lot of graduates. He’s so easy to follow.”
Bob’s interest in engineering was almost genetic. Both his father and grandfather were employees of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, and Bob became interested in the engineering profession as a child. “I spent a lot of time at the machine shop and I had a distant relative who thought I would be good in chemical engineering. But when I started turning valves and handling fluids at Virginia Tech, I decided that was not for me. I transferred to metallurgical engineering, and, following the family tradition, worked at the shipyard during the summers and for my first year after graduating from Tech.”
One of Bob’s favorite pastimes was playing tenor saxophone with the “Highty Tighties,” the marching band of the Corps of Cadets. He became captain of the band during his senior year and developed a close relationship with his classmate and Corps Commander Preston Wade, who is now the retired CEO of Wiley and Wilson of Lynchburg, Virginia. Upon graduation, Bob spent six months on active duty with the military and then six and a half years in the reserves. He also spent time with the Corps of Engineers, with his main responsibility to train new young officers.
Bob and Chris celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2005. The two met when they were teenagers living in Hampton, Virginia. After he left for Virginia Tech in 1951, Chris would often visit Bob in Blacksburg. She remains a steadfast “Hokie” with her husband — tailgating at the home football games next to Cassell Coliseum. Bob’s enthusiasm for Tech as an academic institution is displayed in his support for engineering activities as well as the pride in his grandkids’ recent achievements. Grandson Roque graduated in 1997 and granddaughter Nicole is a junior studying business. Two other grandchildren, Tiffany and Jeb, are possible Virginia Tech candidates in 2008 and 2013.
After working for close to 50 years, Bob admits to spending a lot more time on the Rappahannock River these days. He likes the idea of returning to Tidewater and enjoying the many benefits of water activities; his only thought is that he doesn’t move as well as he did as a kid.
Class of: 1956
Year Inducted into Academy: 2005