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Stephen Bechtel
Only a man who thought on the grandest scale could build the world's biggest engineering projects
By GEORGE J. CHURCH for Time Magazine
 

 

At a California Club lunch in Los Angeles late in 1949, construction executive Stephen Bechtel found himself seated next to Robert Minckler, president of a West Coast subsidiary of Socony Mobil Oil. Minckler said he would like to build a refinery "up North" to process crude from wells in Alberta — if the oil could be piped across the Canadian Rockies.

In the conventional wisdom of the time, Minckler might as well have speculated about running a pipeline to the moon. But Steve Bechtel was, and remained throughout his nearly 70-year career, a visionary whose imagination was fired by grandiose projects — the more seemingly impossible the better. Three years after the lunch, a consortium organized by the family construction company, Bechtel Corp., began work. The construction gangs had to string pipe up slide-prone cliffs, some 3,600 ft. high, down into rock-walled canyons and across cascading rivers — 72 rivers and streams in all. By 1955, though, 80,000 bbl. of crude a day were flowing to Vancouver on the Canadian Pacific Coast, touching off a boom in the formerly energy-short Northwest.

It was perhaps Bechtel's most characteristic coup. His motto, endlessly repeated, was, "We'll build anything for anybody, no matter what the location, type or size." He and his company did build not just pipelines and refineries but also airports, ships, power plants, dams, factories, bridges, hotels, transit systems and even an entire city (Jubail, Saudi Arabia) in 140 countries on six continents. It has been said, hyperbolically perhaps, that Bechtel engineers changed the physical contours of the planet more than any other humans.

Bechtel grew up on rugged construction sites where his father Warren, who started the company, punched rail lines and highways through the California wilderness. To the end of his long life — he died in 1989, six months short of his 89th birthday — Steve Bechtel enjoyed prowling around job sites. He valued the title "builder" more than any other, but he neither looked nor sounded like a construction boss. In his prime, in the 1950s, he was trim, well tailored and relatively soft voiced, with the ingratiating manner of a salesman.

He was always peering over the horizon. In the 1920s he foresaw an energy boom and took the company into pipeline construction. Later he helped pioneer the now common "turnkey" construction contract, under which Bechtel would design a project, build it, and turn it over to the owner by a pre-set date, for a fixed fee. In 1959 he helped produce a study for a tunnel under the English Channel, a project completed 35 years later, five years after his death.

Returning to active management, Bechtel spent six months every year roaming the world, hobnobbing with kings, presidents and foreign business magnates, fishing for projects. Around 1947 he landed a whopper — construction of what was then the world's longest oil pipeline (1,068 miles) across Saudi Arabia. That was an early step in the building of a powerful economy as well as a fruitful relationship with Saudi kings. According to legend, on one trip to the kingdom Bechtel noticed the flames of natural gas being burned off at wellheads as he flew over. Surely, he thought, the wasted energy could be put to some use. In 1973 he presented a plan to King Faisal, an old acquaintance: use the gas to power factories in a new city that Bechtel would build on the site of a tiny fishing village at Jubail. The city is still under construction, but it already houses a steel mill and factories that make chemicals, plastics and fertilizer. The town is now home to 70,000 people out of a planned eventual population of 370,000.

Bechtel got on the map in a place that was almost off it — Black Canyon, Nev. With Depression raging in 1931, Bechtel helped organize a consortium called Six Companies to tackle what was then the biggest civil engineering construction job in U.S. history: the Hoover Dam. Workers had to excavate 3.7 million cubic yards of rock and pour 4.4 million cubic yards of cement; the main arch of the dam towers 70 stories high. Steve was first in charge of all transportation, engineering and administration. When his father died suddenly in 1933, he became chief executive of the whole project, which transformed the economy of much of the West, as well as transforming the company.

After Hoover, Bechtel was convinced he and his outfit had no limits, and set out to prove it. While the dam was still going up, he began building the 8.2-mile San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge. During World War II, Bechtel operated shipyards that turned out more than 550 cargo carriers and oil tankers. At the same time he built a top-secret 1,600-mile pipeline through the Canadian wilderness to Alaska, under primitive conditions. The hectic pace left him so fatigued that in 1946 he briefly retired. But he could never be happy on the shelf.

The company Bechtel built is not universally loved. One partner in the wartime shipyards was John McCone, then a steel executive who later became CIA director. He came early in a long line of men who alternately filled high offices in Bechtel and the Federal Government (most notable: George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger). That led to charges of undue influence — by whom on whom was never quite clear. The company's penchant for secrecy didn't help its reputation, either. In 1976 the Justice Department charged that Bechtel had gone too far to please Arab clients by blacklisting potential subcontractors who dealt with Israel. Bechtel signed a consent decree promising not to join any Arab boycott of Israel.

None of that has prevented the company, now headed by Riley Bechtel, a grandson of Steve's, from flourishing mightily. When Steve Sr. took over, Bechtel had revenues of less than $20 million; a quarter century later, when he officially retired, sales were $463 million. The company, still family controlled, had 1997 revenues of $11.3 billion; its projects range from a transit system in Athens to a semiconductor plant in China. These and others are fruits of Steve Bechtel's forward thinking — decades before the term global economy became a cliche.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008