Warren A. Bechtel
Who was he: Warren A. Bechtel was the founder of the Bechtel Corporation, one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world. He was a natural leader and a dependable father figure, who was known as a good provider, even in his construction camps.
Bechtel was known as 'Dad' not only by his children, but by his workers as well. A. J. Barkley, one of Warren's early supervisors, said, "Beck is what I've always thought an engineer should be—a man who understands what is to be done, knows how to do it, and finishes the job economically."
Bechtel today has come a long way from "Beck." Bechtel Corporation is part of America's corporate/military-industrial complex. Bechtel was, for instance, a big part of the water privatization scandal in Cochabamba, Bolivia. When the government privatized the nation's water supply, the winner of the secret contract was Bechtel Corporation. Immediately, Bechtel began to charge over 60 percent more for water.
After terrible street riots Bechtel backed down but these sorts of business practices are why Bechtel – and American corporations in general – have such a bad reputation abroad. They are not what they once were.
Background: Warren A. Bechtel was born on September 12, 1872 on the edge of the frontier in Freeport, Illinois. He lived on a farm 25 miles east of the Mississippi River. When Bechtel was 12, his family moved to Peabody, Kansas where they once again ran a farm, and owned a grocery store as well. After graduation, Warren worked for a brief time as a traveling musician, playing the trombone, but realized that he would never make any money at this and stopped. In the spring of 1898, Warren was 25, about to be a father and the owner of a failing cattle ranch.
Bechtel changed his circumstances when he heard that the railroads in Oklahoma would pay $2.75 a day for a man who had his own team to grade track beds. Bechtel left Kansas with his wife and a pair of mules, the only property left over from their ranch. After the introduction to this new job came many other construction jobs, from pipelines to even the famous Hoover Dam. Warren Bechtel was a self-taught student of business and engineering, continuing to learn everything he could.
From 1898 to 1906, Bechtel followed the railroads west, working on the network of branch lines that cut through the region. As he worked his way up in the business, Warren added to his knowledge and skills: gang foreman, estimator, gravel pit manager, superintendent. In 1906, Bechtel ventured into his own business. He partnered with a coworker and friend, George Colley, Sr., and won a contract on a Western Pacific Railroad project with only a rented steam shovel. This job resulted in only a small profit, but cemented two ideas in Warren's head: He would only undertake jobs with the latest equipment, and always with a partner.
Warren Bechtel had a team that consisted of himself, his brother, Art, and George Colley, Sr. by 1912. From there, the three completed three small contracting jobs. Their first big job was a 106 mile link to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad that went through the Eel River Canyon, which they completed in 1914. With the post-war boom in automobiles and electricity, Bechtel rolled with the times, and in 1919 took his first federal highway contract, followed by subsequent highway contracts. In 1920, Warren was influential in forming the California chapter of the Associated General Contractors, as well as one of its first members. In 1921, Bechtel took on his first power utility project, building the Caribou Water Tunnel in the Sierra Nevada.
Bechtel incorporated his business, W.A. Bechtel Company, in 1925 and made his three sons and his brother officers of the board. In 1926, the Bechtel Company won the rights to build the Bowman Dam in California, the second largest rock-filled dam of its time. In 1929, Warren was made president of the National Association of General Contractors.
Throughout the 1920s W.A. Bechtel Company had many joint projects for gas lines and rock plants. In 1931, Warren made an impact with his company on the national scene: As part of Six Companies Incorporated, a conglomerate of contractors of which Warren was the president, the W.A. Bechtel Company participated in the largest civil engineering contract in history, the building of the Hoover Dam. When 1933 rolled around, Warren Bechtel helped in the establishment of Bridge Builders Incorporated, the business that built the piers which support the eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Later that year, Warren and his wife accepted an invitation to visit the Soviet Union. On August 28, 1933, Warren Bechtel died in Moscow.