Bechtel Kaiser Company Ltd.
The world was a melting pot of opportunity at the turn of the 20th century even though there was a widespread trepidation about the stability of the future. Entrepreneurs from all walks of life came to the surface, and they put their sense of urgency to work. Amazing companies were formed that changed the dynamics of business and life in general. One of those turn of the century pioneers was Warren Bechtel.
In 1898, Warren Bechtel was 25 years old and almost bankrupt. He decided to leave his farm in Kansas and start a new life in the Oklahoma Territory. Bechtel's Kansas cattle farm fell apart when beef and corn prices hit an all-time low. So Bechtel packed up and moved with his pregnant wife, Clara, to start a new career. The Southern Pacific Railroad had 8,000 miles of track laid by the late 1800s and it was easy for an experienced mule-drawn sled operator to find a job adding more track to the West.
Bechtel worked in the heat and the dust through the spring of 1898 and the following summer in that new territory, but he had bigger plans. So Bechtel packed up the family once again and moved to Oregon. The family had grown during that time. Warren Jr. was born in 1898 and the Bechtel family didn't stay there long. Southern Pacific recognized Warren's ability to master details so they promoted him several times – and with each promotion came a move.
Bechtel was a natural engineer and his talent didn't go unnoticed. An inspector who worked for the Stone Co., which was an Oakland, California construction firm, offered Bechtel a job operating a new steam shovel in Oakland. That was Warren's introduction to the construction business. Warren became a Stone Co. superintendent in charge of building the Richmond Belt Railroad as well as an extension of the Santa Fe line into Oakland.
In 1906, opportunity came knocking at Bechtel's door. He teamed up with George S. Colley Jr. and the pair landed a subcontracting job to cut through limestone on a main railroad line near Sunol. The limestone cracked in irregular pieces, which caused a heavy overbreak. That major issue could have caused heavy losses, but Bechtel used his negotiating skills and convinced Western Pacific to take the extra limestone as fill, which turned the venture into a small moneymaker.
The handwriting was on the wall when Bechtel rented his first Marion steam shovel for the Sunol job. By 1909, he owned the shovel and he didn't waste any time putting W.A. Bechtel Co. in big letters across the cab. For the next 16 years Bechtel used new technology in innovative ways and invested heavily in new machinery. Bechtel replaced horse-drawn freight teams with gasoline-powered trucks, which landed him a major contract with Southern Pacific.
The W.A. Bechtel Company became a family business. All three of his sons, as well as his brother, worked for the company. After the war the boys returned to the business and began to expand it. By 1925 the Bechtel Company was the largest and most respected construction company in the western United States.
Highway construction became big business for the company and Warren found the perfect construction partner in Henry Kaiser. Kaiser was an entrepreneur extraordinaire and so the partnership was solid. Both men brought expertise, talent and enthusiasm to each new project. The pair had met on a highway project in 1921 and they worked on several highway projects right through the end of World War II. Highway construction led to bridge building and in the late 1920s, the pair even got involved in pipeline construction.
Bechtel's son, Steve, saw the potential in pipeline construction so he convinced Continental Gas to use the Bechtel-Kaiser partnership on a new project. That project was the opening chapter that led to laying thousands of miles of pipeline for Standard Oil, PG&E and Continental Gas.
The Bechtel-Kaiser partnership was called Bridge Builders Inc. The company completed construction on its first dam in 1926. The now famous Bechtel Kaiser Company started work on the San Francisco Bay Bridge project in 1933.
Expansion into the Middle East was a natural for Steve Bechtel's new venture, which was called the Bechtel-McCone-Parsons Corp. (BMP). Henry Kaiser helped the company bring foreign oil to market using modern ship technology and other resources developed by the BMP. The Bechtel-Kaiser partnership still makes a huge impact on several important worldwide industries.