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Riley P. Bechtel

Riley Bechtel still has his first paycheck ($18.49 for a week’s labor). Back in the summer of 1966, his father, Steve Jr., had offered to “cash” it for the 14-year-old, then had it framed and gave it to Riley as a memento. That first Bechtel job was as a mechanic’s helper, or, as he says, “all-around gofer,” sweeping floors, cleaning planes (including toilets), disassembling engines, and other odd jobs. “It was a great summer,” he recalls.

He subsequently worked field jobs for Bechtel and others as a surveyor’s helper, oiler, laborer, front-end loader operator, and carpenter. He also worked as a paralegal in Bechtel’s Legal Department. “They were all great jobs,” he said, “and I gained more real knowledge working than in most of my college and graduate school courses combined.”

At the University of California at Davis, Riley majored in political science and psychology. After graduation and another stint in Bechtel’s Legal Department, he continued on to Stanford, earning both a JD and an MBA. After interning at law firms and then passing the 1979 California bar exam, he was hired as an associate attorney for the San Francisco firm of Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges, Bechtel’s longtime outside counsel.

In October 1981, after concluding that while law was both challenging and fun, his real satisfaction came from helping build things, Riley joined Bechtel full time. He was well aware (as were his bosses) of the gaps in his knowledge and was determined to learn from the bottom up. The first step in his education was as contracts coordinator for an Ann Arbor Power Division project; the second was as a piping superintendent.

In February 1983 Riley was assigned to Bontang, Indonesia, as area superintendent for a liquefied natural gas plant. Riley, his wife, Susie, and their two young sons arrived at the remote site to experience, on their first day, a strike by the 6,000 Indonesian craftsmen, and a big snake coiled around a light pole midway between their house trailer and the commissary. Riley says, “We had an absolute ball and learned a lot, including much of the language (in Susie’s case) and the mandatory eight or so work-related phrases (in my case) a superintendent needs to know.” His keen interest in the work, willingness to learn, and determined approach quickly won the respect of crew, colleagues, and bosses, who anointed him—with typical construction irreverence—CP, short for Crown Prince. Riley’s Bontang stint would be fixed in his memory by a tragic accident, an explosion that killed three people and injured 50. He was several hundred yards from the explosion (not caused by Bechtel), which created an inferno and sent debris raining down. “I learned a lot about real leadership from my colleagues,” says Riley, “as they worked to find and deal with the casualties, extinguish the fire, stabilize the plant, repair the damage, and complete the work with a jittery workforce.”

In September 1983 (having helped get his “train” of the two-train LNG project from 15 percent to 90 percent complete), Riley and family moved to New Zealand, where he was general field superintendent (“No. 3 dog on the site,” he says), for the gas-to-gasoline project. He says (again), “It was a superb experience and a lot of fun.”

Riley and family moved to London in January 1985, where he served as a business development representative on prospects in Northern Ireland, Algeria, the Middle East, and South Africa. He then moved into operations and in early 1987 became managing director.

In August 1987, Riley was elected to the Bechtel Group, Inc., Board of Directors. Three months later, he was elected executive vice president and a member of the executive committee with responsibilities for all corporate functions and services and coordination of Bechtel’s worldwide marketing and business development.

The company was touched by sad news in March 1989 when Steve Bechtel Sr. passed away at age 88, ending his special presence in the industry he had personally dominated for three decades. Two weeks later, grandson Riley, then 37, was elected president and chief operating officer of Bechtel Group, Inc. Steve Jr. remained chairman and chief executive officer, and Alden Yates became vice chairman, a post he served in until he passed away later that year.

In June 1990, with his father’s retirement at age 65, Riley was named CEO. Two months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, trapping more than a hundred Bechtel employees and dependents in Baghdad. Through good fortune, effective crisis management, and the determination and commitment of all involved, the Bechtel employees and their families were released. Bechtel was able to continue its work in the rest of the Gulf region throughout the turbulence.

When Riley became chief executive, Steve Jr. became chairman emeritus, continuing the tradition he and Steve Sr. had established: the predecessor being supportively involved—staying informed and helping out, but taking great care not to interfere. Passing the baton to a fourth generation of family leadership is a rare, if not unique, occurrence in a premier, global corporation.

At its centennial, members of the fifth Bechtel generation are at work in the company learning the basics, earning their pay, and building their following. Bechtel is, of course, also blessed with a great depth of highly committed, capable, and talented nonfamily managers. Able leadership will continue to emerge over the next 100 years as it has during the last. Bechtel’s future is bright.