Stephen D. Bechtel Jr., who as three-decade CEO of the engineering and construction company that bears his family name and is seen as the driver of its huge growth and geographic expansion, died March 15 in San Francisco, the company said in a statement. He was 95.
Bechtel also was an active construction industry leader and winner of ENR's highest award for his business achievement.
Bechtel, known as Steve Jr., joined the company in 1948 as a field engineer and was named CEO in 1960, a position that he held until 1990. Named chairman in 1973, he also was a company board member through 2018. Steve Jr. was the third-generation of the Bechtel family to head the company founded in 1898 by Warren A. Bechtel, who was succeeded by Stephen Sr., in 1933.
According to the company, his "earliest memories were shaped by the awesome power and scope" of Hoover Dam, which the contractor built as a leading member of a six-firm consortium beginning in 1931 and to which Steve Jr. accompanied his father and grandfather on inspection trips.
[View Bechtel company history timeline here.]
During his tenure as CEO, the company’s sales increased 11-fold and its number of employees grew five-fold, says the firm. Formerly based in San Francisco, it relocated to Reston, Va. in 2018.
Bechtel ranks at No. 23 on ENR's list of the Top 250 Global Contractors, reporting $15.9 billion in worldwide contracting revenue in 2019.
It also had held first place in revenue on ENR's Top 400 U.S. contractors list in 2020 and back through 1999, as well as in 1993, coming in second in 1992 and in the years 1994 through 1998. The firm fell to second place on the 2021 ranking, with revenue affected by market changes in oil and gas and due to the pandemic.
During Bechtel's tenure, the company’s roster of major projects rose to 119, from 18, according to Bechtel Corp. That list includes such megaprojects as the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) in the San Francisco-Oakland area, the Jubail Industrial City and King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia and the Channel Tunnel, which links Great Britain and France.
Begun in the mid 1970s, Jubail is considered one of the world's largest civil engineering projects, with work still continuing. The project is among large infrastructure developments the contractor has executed and continues to in its long association with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Major energy projects were another key focus, including many oil and gas exploration platforms in the North Sea, liquefied natural gas plants in Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, and a number of nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Bechtel also transitioned the firm to majority ownership by those outside the Bechtel family. According to Forbes, his current net worth is listed as $2.9 billion and he had a 20% ownership share of the company.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions in a March 16 statement, said unions "worked with Bechtel Construction for well over one hundred years, in which Bechtel has consistently served as the largest single employer of our members." He said the former CEO "helped to solidify and forge the relationship. Stephen Bechtel always showed mutual respect for his clients, his team, and the craft people who had the opportunity to work for him."
"Steve Bechtel Jr. shaped Bechtel into a strong global competitor. moving the firm into a series of global scale infrastructure projects in the Mideast and Europe," Robert Prieto, a former chairman of design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff and a Fluor Corp. senior vice president, told ENR. "He made hard commitments to his clients at the highest levels and ensured they were met."
Noting projects such as BART and the Boston Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel three decades ago on which PB, now part of Canada-based WSP, and Bechtel were teamed, Prieto adds that the contractor "was not noted for teaming at that time but the relationships [Steve Bechtel Jr.] had built with PB on BART and two other major US transit program management projects paved the way."
Fluor Corp. Executive Chairman Alan Boeckmann said he remembered, in awaiting a meeting at Bechtel headquarters in a room with a large portrait of Bechtel, "it being quite awe-inspiring to have been seated just below such an industry legend."
CEO Gains ENR Top Award in 1974
ENR recognized Bechtel as its Man of the Year for 1974, "for succeeding," according to an editorial that accompanies a February 1974 profile of the CEO.
Bechtel "personifies the best in management in construction," it said. "Quick to credit those around him... he runs an impressive show." The top ENR recognition now is the Award of Excellence.
But the CEO was a tough taskmaster. The firm's then-outside attorney noted to ENR in the profile: "Steve wants a succinct statement of background, the facts which lead to a request for a decision, a statement of the exact decision that's wanted and then your exact recommendation." He added: "You don't come and ask 'What shall I do?' "
As a privately held corporate giant, Bechtel Corp. was the subject of numerous media profiles highlighting its operations, finances and influence.
Reacting in 1988 to a Simon & Schuster published book entitled Friends in High Places, the CEO said that its "central theme that our success has depended on political influence, favoritism and illegalities—and not skill ... and dedication to doing a good job ... is a big lie."
Also part of his statement were specific responses to the book's narrative related to hiring former top US Cabinet Secretaries George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, whom he said "adhered to laws and Bechtel's policy of refraining from contact with the federal government," and questionable business dealings in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia and Korea, all of which he disputed or said had been "thoroughly investigated with appropriate action taken." The CEO also took issue with the author's credibility, citing what he said were major factual errors and "near-complete ignorance of the engineering-construction industry."
In an April 1988 editorial, ENR noted the magazine's coverage of Bechtel's "loss of the Alaska pipeline management (a real embarrassment), the Arab boycott mess and overdependence on nuclear work," but also "alot of good news about a proud and professional company."
But the contractor and design firm PB also faced controversy in management of the $14-billion Central Artery project, also known as the Big Dig.
A 2016 book about Bechtel, called The Profiteers, continued the story line of its "empire building."
Stephen Jr. retired as CEO in 1990, when he reached 65, and founded a real estate developer and investment firm Fremont Group, of which he was CEO until 1995. He was succeeded at the contractor by his son, Riley P. Bechtel. In 2016, Brendan P. Bechtel—Riley's son and Stephen Jr.'s grandson—became chief executive, a post he continues to hold. Stephen Bechtel also served as a board director of IBM and General Motors Corp.
In a statement, Brendan Bechtel said of his grandfather, "In every aspect of his life, he was driven by his strong values and a vision for helping to build a better world, which continue to guide us in partnering with customers today."
Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. was born May 10, 1925, in Oakland, Calif. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, went through the officer-training program at the University of Colorado and later received a civil engineering degree from Purdue University. He then studied at Stanford University and received a master’s degree in business administration.
Steve Jr. 's many recognitions include election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1975. and being named its first chairman in 1982. In 1990, he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Bechtel received the Hoover Medal in 1980, which recognizes civic and humanitarian contribution in engineering.
Lauren Dachs, his daughter and president of the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, said in December the entity he started in 1957 with $26,000 was "closing shop following a 12-year spend down that involved well over a billion dollars in grantmaking," particularly for programs in education and the environment.
Among beneficiaries was Purdue, which named its $18.5-million Innovation Design Center for Steve Jr. following his foundation's "leadership gift" in 2015. University President Mitch Daniels said at the time that Bechtel's "legacy ... lives on" in the building, created as a "hands-on learning center" for students in the College of Engineering and Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of the California Institute of Technology, of which Bechtel was a life trustee, said he "was a hands-on engineer and dedicated trustee who brought his many talents to bear on enhancing our intertwined mission of forefront research and education.”
Steve Jr. also was a member of six U.S. presidential commissions, under three presidents. President George H.W. Bush in 1991 awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation's top award for achievement in technology.