Stephen Bechtel, 95, dies; led family’s big S.F. engineering firm

I read in The New York Times this morning that Stephen Bechtel Jr. had died at age 95 on Monday. Just last month, I had written an obit on George Shultz, who had been one of Bechtel’s presidents, as well as a longtime U.S. diplomat, of course. Shultz died at age 100.

The passing of Stephen Bechtel Jr., as with Shultz, brings back memories of a bygone business era in California — long before the “FANG” stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). I covered Bechtel when I was a business writer at The San Francisco Chronicle in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and the construction and engineering firm was a giant in the California business world (and the world, for that matter).

It was a tough but fascinating assignment, because Bechtel is private, even “secretive,” some would argue. I won the trust of the senior executives, however — including Stephen Bechtel Jr. — and was granted some rare interviews. Some of the stories were controversial. One of them focused on a book called “Friends in High Places”: a “substantive, if flawed, piece of reporting,” as a Los Angeles Times book reviewer put it.

The reviewer concluded: “Bechtel sometimes seems damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. No major corporation could undertake foreign operations on Bechtel’s scale without some cooperation from the U.S. government.”

Another controversial Bechtel project was the “Big Dig” in Boston, with its well-documented cost overruns. “Maybe there’s room for some grudging appreciation,” an article in The Boston Globe concluded after some tough reporting on the project for years. Bechtel’s links to Saudi Arabia also have drawn fire in the past. More details here.

Under “Junior,” as insiders called him, Bechtel’s sales grew 11-fold, its worker population five-fold and major projects from 18 to 119 under his tenure. It marked an era when San Francisco was home to other corporate giants, including Chevron, Bank of America, and Crown Zellerbach. Bechtel is now headquartered in Reston, Virginia.

Bechtel’s notable projects under Stephen Jr.’s leadership included the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) of San Francisco; many first-of-a-kind North Sea oil and gas platforms; LNG plants in Algeria, the UAE, and Indonesia; nuclear power plants throughout the U.S.; the Jubail Industrial City and King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia; and the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France, according to Bechtel. 

The New York Times obit is here, the Wall Street Journal’s is here, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s is here.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

3 thoughts on “Stephen Bechtel, 95, dies; led family’s big S.F. engineering firm”

  1. I worked for Bechtel during the construction of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station- SONGS. I had a crew working inside containment #2 doing electrical work on several projects. During the peak of construction there were nearly 5,000 workers on the day shift alone. An enormous project, with some of the biggest machinery known to man to do the work. Today there is an 8 year project to dismantle it, after removing the last of radioactive waste in August.
    Massive projects, like the ones mentioned, were Stephen Bechtel’s projects. He didn’t do small. Not many like him.

  2. Chip,
    Thanks for that personal insight. I remember seeing the San Onofre nuclear plant when I was growing up. We drove past them on the San Diego Freeway for beach trips.

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