In the early days of World War II, German U-boats were sending Allied merchant ships to the bottom twice as fast as shipyards could build them. The U.S. Maritime Commission, desperately seeking an outfit to build 60 cargo ships for its allies, sent word to the Bechtel construction company that it would be welcome to bid on half the job. Stephen Bechtel, head of the family firm, had no experience in shipbuilding. But he insisted on getting the order for all 60. "Size can work to your advantage if you think big," he said. "You just recognize it and move the decimal point over."
Thinking big was Steve Bechtel's forte. He learned to appreciate scale as the primary manager in the building of Hoover Dam in the early '30s, then the largest public works project in U.S. history. The wartime shipyards Bechtel organized would build 560 vessels--up to 20 ships a month--between 1941 and 1945, an astounding output even in an era of production miracles.
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. His motto, endlessly repeated, was "We'll build anything for anybody, no matter what the location, type or size." He and his company built pipelines and power plants in the forbidding reaches of the Canadian Rockies, across the Arabian desert and through South American jungles, as well as in daunting places like downtown Boston, where the Central Artery project unfolds today. His portfolio even includes an entire city (Jubail, Saudi Arabia). Bechtel built in 140 countries and 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, 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 set date, for a fixed fee. In 1959 he helped produce a study for a tunnel under the English Channel, a project finally realized this decade.
Bechtel got on the map in a place that was almost off it: Black Canyon, Nev. With the Depression raging in 1931, Bechtel's father helped organize a consortium called Six Companies to tackle the massive engineering job that became known as Hoover Dam. The consortium bid $49 million and made a profit.
In the course of five years workers excavated 3.7 million cu. yds. of rock and poured 4.4 million cu. yds. of concrete; the main arch of the dam towers 70 stories high. Steve was first in charge of 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.