Home » A History of Family Leadership » Stephen D. Bechtel Jr.

Stephen D. Bechtel Jr.

If he had wanted to work at something entirely outside the family business, it’s likely that Stephen D. Bechtel Jr.’s parents would have supported him no matter what his choice. “We always told our children that whatever they did, they should do it well,” said Steve Sr. “Don’t do it unless you’re really going to work at it.” But the fact was that Steve Bechtel Jr. was made for a career in the construction business. And that’s where he was headed.

Steve Jr.’s earliest memories were shaped by the awesome power and scope of that massive dam in the Nevada desert begun back in 1931. He loved to accompany his father and grandfather on their inspection trips to Hoover Dam. At age 15, he landed his first regular job as a sweeper for the Lorimer Diesel Engine Co. in downtown Oakland. With war approaching, Steve Jr. spent the summer before his senior year in high school working at Marinship. In 1943, he enrolled in the University of Colorado as part of the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Cadet Unit. But he transferred to Purdue, where he completed a four-year engineering program in two and two-thirds years. Later, he graduated from Stanford’s two-year MBA program in just 17 months.

Not until he had finished his graduate work at Stanford in 1948, though, did he decide to join the family business. His first position was in the field, working for Perry Yates, one of his father's most trusted colleagues, on a pipeline project in Texas. Steve Jr. then moved from project to project around the U.S. and Canada with his wife, Betty, and their children. On every project to which his son was assigned, Steve Sr. made sure that he worked with the best people, including such Bechtel legends as Yates, Heinie Hindmarsh, and Van Rosendahl, people who could impart technical knowledge and institutional wisdom.

Steve Jr. was well aware of the potential pitfalls in being the boss’s son, and he avoided them by working harder than anyone else. As his uncle Ken observed, “Steve was born and raised by his mother and father for this wonderful opportunity—deliberately, successfully, lovingly, from infancy to the time he took over. But no matter how well prepared he was, if he hadn’t done his share and more, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Steve Jr. was just 35 in 1960 when his father asked him to consider running Bechtel. After a few weeks of soul-searching, he became convinced that he was ready for the job. And he wanted to do it solo. “If you want me to take over,” he told his father, “I will. But I’ll have to do it my way. When I take over, I’m the boss.” Without hesitation, Steve Sr. agreed, and father and son shook hands on their new alliance.

As a manager, Steve Bechtel Jr. differed greatly from his father. While Steve Sr. virtually carried the company around in his head and relied on the institutional memory of trusted lieutenants, Steve Jr. was in every sense the first professional manager to run the company.

Steve Jr. had a grip on the numbers and the details of the business in a way his father never had. Said Ed Garbarini, president of Bechtel Power Corp., “Steve Sr. was imaginative, intuitive, instinctual. He was the best salesman who ever came down the pike, the best business development person the company ever had. . . . But he never had the patience with numbers that Steve Jr. has. . . . Steve Jr. has a terrific ability to analyze figures and interpret them into meaningful data that he can use to make decisions. He goes through numbers like a calculator.”

In 1960, Bechtel needed this kind of focused leadership. The company's rapid growth and its expanded scope had overwhelmed its own internal controls systems. The new boss insisted that detailed records be kept and major decisions be documented so that the pattern of decision-making was clear. Steve Jr. enhanced the company’s planning capability and helped the more hidebound managers to understand the necessity for change. At the same time, the country and the corporation were entering a new era. New forces—environmentalism, globalism, economic upheaval, and intensified international competition—were to mark his term as leader of Bechtel.

To say that Steve Jr. was disciplined is to say that Hoover Dam had a little concrete in it. Steve spent a third of his time traveling, always accompanied by background material—covering both business and personal history—on everybody he was going to meet. “The one thing he really dislikes," his longtime personal assistant, Hart Eastman, once said, “is being surprised.”

Though the details were his guidelines, he never got lost in them. Steve Jr. was instrumental in applying team management principles and in the process changed a company that had been a top-down hierarchy. Perhaps because of his early contact with so many Bechtel veterans, he believed that through collaboration, by exposing all workers to those with superior talents, coworkers become inspired and motivated. “It permits common men to do uncommon things,” he said.

This is somewhat ironic, because Steve Bechtel Jr. was by no means a common man. In less than two decades, he doubled the size of an organization that his forebears had taken 60 years to build and transformed Bechtel into a modern company.

He had the uncommon ability to shift easily from studying technical details to setting overall strategic goals, from dealing face-to-face with craftspeople to meeting heads of corporations and even nations, and from disciplined analysis to inspiring encouragement. Besides transforming Bechtel, he contributed greatly to his profession and to society through many activities. His legacy will reach beyond Bechtel for many years to come.