1900 – 1989
"We'll build anything for anybody, no matter what the location, type or size."
Stephen D. Bechtel, Sr., the well-dressed, gregarious businessman with a penchant for organizing large projects, was responsible for twentieth-century engineering marvels such as the Hoover Dam and the Trans Arabian pipeline. Throughout his 70-year career in construction, kings, presidents, and business magnates knew "Steve " Bechtel as the boldest and most visionary builder of his generation.
Born in Aurora, Indiana on September 24, 1900 to Warren and Clara Bechtel, Steve and his siblings spent most of their childhood on construction sites along the Pacific coast. After serving as a motorcycle dispatch rider with the 20th Army Engineers in France during World War I, he attended the University of California at Berkeley for one year before dropping out in order to work full time with his father. Growing prosperity in the West prompted Warren Bechtel to create the San Francisco based W.A. Bechtel Company in 1925, naming his youthful son Steve Vice President. In 1931 the father and son team helped to organize a consortium called Six Companies, Inc., which bid on and won the largest civil engineering contract of its day, the Hoover Dam. Initially Steve was in charge of transportation and administration, but when his father suddenly died in 1933, the 33-year-old was thrust in the role of project chief executive.
The young Bechtel met the challenge and helped to steer the project to completion two years ahead of schedule and $1.5 million dollars under budget. The Hoover Dam experience whetted Bechtel's appetite for large-scale construction projects, and he soon turned his growing management prowess to the task of building the landmark 8.2-mile San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. During World War II Bechtel teamed up with Berkeley school friend John A. McCone to build petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and more than 460 freighters and 90 tankers for the war effort. At the same time he organized the construction of the monumental 1,580-mile Canol pipeline through Canada's Yukon Territory to Alaska, thus supplying the Pacific theater with needed petroleum for the war effort. After the war, Steve Bechtel formed the Bechtel Corporation. Having mastered railroads, bridges, dams, and pipelines, the new company turned its attention to nuclear power. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) contracted with Bechtel in 1949 to build the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1), the world's first fast breeder reactor. The reliability demands associated with nuclear power design and construction led to what Bechtel referred to as "turnkey" construction. Under the turnkey concept, a product would be designed, built, and fully operational by a specific date for a fixed fee. In order to achieve turnkey efficiency, Steve Bechtel developed a corporation with the technical, financial, and organizational expertise to handle projects of any size in any country.
Because so many of Bechtel's projects were tied to emerging U.S. government policies or assumed high profiles in the development of other nations, several of Bechtel's associates and employees moved on to important posts in the U.S. government. John A. McCone became Chairman of the AEC and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Bechtel employees such as Caspar W. Weinberger, George P. Shultz, John L. Moore, Richard Helms, Philip Habib and W. Kenneth Davis would hold prominent cabinet and diplomatic positions in various U.S. administrations. When Stephen D. Bechtel, Sr. officially retired in 1960, he had expanded annual sales of his business from $20 million to $463 million. Remaining an active member of the Board until his death in 1989, Bechtel helped his son Stephen Jr. guide the company. By 1997 the Bechtel Corporation, still family owned, had annual revenues of $11.3 billion with projects ranging from transit systems and airports to semiconductor factories.