Stephen Bechtel: Global Builder

Only a man who thought on the grandest scale could build the world's biggest engineering projects

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 2)

After Hoover, Bechtel was convinced he and his outfit had no limits, and he 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, in addition to its shipyards, built bases and ran plants that modified bombers and rebuilt jeeps. At the same time Steve built a top-secret 1,600-mile pipeline through the Canadian wilderness to Alaska, under primitive conditions. The pace left him so fatigued that in 1946 he briefly retired. But he would not be on the shelf long.

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, still under construction, houses a steel mill and factories that make chemicals, plastics and fertilizer. The town is now home to 70,000 and growing.

The company Bechtel built is not universally loved. One partner in the wartime shipyards was John McCone, a steel executive who later became CIA director. He came early in a long line of men who filled high offices alternately 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.

George J. Church, a contributor to TIME, has written more than 125 cover stories

Monuments of the Age
By Daniel S. Levy

Just as Egyptians, Greeks and Romans built grand projects that defined the culture and technology of their times, builders of this century made big statements — usually in concrete

Interstate Highway System, 1956 to the present Created by Dwight Eisenhower, the 43,000-mile, $330 billion (and still counting) network is the greatest pork barrel ever. It made the U.S. an automobile society, created millions of jobs and laced the country with superhighways that increased mobility, spurred trade and opened the countryside to development. It also doomed passenger trains.

Three Gorges Dam, 2009 Mao once dreamed of taming the Yangtze, China's longest river, whose floodwaters have claimed the lives of millions. Officials expect this $24 billion dam to corral the river, giving their nation a great leap forward as it generates electricity for China's burgeoning cities and makes the river more navigable. But as with other great projects, there is controversy. Some see it as a disaster because it will endanger animal species, submerge ancient temples and drive 1.2 million people from their homes.

Chunnel, 1994 Napoleon thought of one, but not until 192 years later would a tunnel under the Channel linking England and the Continent be finished. Beginning on their respective shores, teams of French and English sandhogs used 1,000-ton boring machines to burrow through the 24 miles of chalk, clearing 20 million tons. The two sides met on Dec. 1, 1990.

Empire State Building, 1931 Opened in the teeth of the Depression as a mighty symbol of rebirth, the 102-floor building got off to a wobbly start financially. Built by General Motors executive John Raskob, the building reigned for 42 years as the world's tallest. Its Art Deco crown, intended as a mooring mast for blimps, served as a handy perch in King Kong. A few skyscrapers have since soared higher, but none has surpassed its limestone majesty.

Panama Canal, 1914 The $380 million project, like the Suez Canal that preceded it, was an epic assault on nature that employed as many as 43,400 workers at a time — many of whom succumbed to yellow fever while clearing the mosquito-infested swamps. More than 211 million cu. yds. of earth and rock were moved to unite the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal cut the voyage from New York to California by 7,800 miles. Leased by the U.S., it returns to Panamanian sovereignty in 2000.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page