Foster S. Burba, Louisville Water president from 1974 to 1991, passed away on December 24, 2021. His previous experience and financial acumen served Louisville Water well during his presidential tenure.
Many of the company’s retirees and current employees fondly remember Foster, who, along with his wife, Shirley, and sister-in-law, Glenna, often attended retiree luncheons. His son Brian, who also worked at Louisville Water, was frequently by their sides. Foster always kept an interest in Louisville Water and its people.
“Foster was a strong leader both at the Louisville Water Company and in the water industry,” said John Huber, Louisville Water President & CEO from 1991 to 2007. “Many water industry best practices were developed at Louisville under his leadership. Foster placed the company in a strong financial position. He was an exceptional leader in the water industry at a time when leadership was needed. He mentored and developed several future Louisville Water leaders. He was my friend.”
Current Louisville Water President & CEO Spencer Bruce said, “When Foster Burba became president, Louisville Water was in a difficult financial situation; however, through his leadership, he was able to not only stabilize the organization’s finances but also improve them so that we could be in a position today to be a AAA-rated organization. Foster’s vision and leadership helped make us one of the premiere water utilities in the country.”
A lifelong career in water
Born in Tuttle, Oklahoma, Burba was one of “The Greatest Generation.” He served in the Army Air Corps from 1943 through 1945. As navigator of a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” his last mission over Germany came on his 21st birthday: March 11, 1945. He was honorably discharged on the last day of December 1945.
After receiving a degree in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University, Burba began a lifelong career in the water industry — first working in Colorado, Kansas, and Arkansas before landing in Louisville, where he settled down and made his home.
Coming on board in October 1974, Burba’s leadership was put to the test. He dealt with the aftermath of a devastating tornado that happened only six months earlier in April.
Also, inflation was a huge concern at Louisville Water and throughout the United States. After bids came in far too high to build the Harrods Creek Water Treatment Plant (now the B. E. Payne Water Treatment Plant), Burba worked to reduce its costs. Cash flow was another immediate issue, and he began taking steps to make sure Louisville Water was well positioned financially.
And that was just in 1974. Over the years, Burba’s plans and the restructuring of the company’s debt led to considerable savings and put Louisville Water on sound financial footing.
Burba later oversaw improvements in many areas of the company. He championed the improvement of the distribution system through the Main Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (MRRP). Under his leadership, the management of the company was restructured to help with day-to-day operations and to make for a stronger management team.
Knowing the ultimate success of the company relied on its human resources, Burba worked to improve the employee experience. In the 1970s, he and others worked with representatives from the Urban League to recommit to the Affirmative Action Agreement.
During the next decade, Louisville Water built upon the Affirmative Action gains made in the 1970s. A report found that Louisville Water was committed to equality among its employees. The findings reported that Louisville Water had long practiced EEO in all its personnel activities — far more than mandated by law.
After Burba’s retirement in 1991, Louisville Water’s financial, physical, managerial, and employment conditions were in much better shape than upon his arrival 16 years earlier. Water quality was also a top priority to Burba. There were early studies on riverbank filtration. He got involved with the AWWA and the newly formed EPA to develop water quality regulations, and in 1980 Louisville Water was voted as the best tasting tap water in the United States.
Throughout his tenure, Burba dealt with both internal and external forces affecting operations to strengthen the company’s primary goal of providing “high quality water and service economically with reasonable financial return.” His compassion for the industry, the company, and its people will be missed.