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Bechtel: No textbook answers

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in Leaders & Managers

Stephen Bechtel Jr. wasn’t sure he wanted to go into the family business. His grandfather founded the company that built the Hoover Dam and the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant. Those were big projects with high expectations.

So he joined the Marine Corps Reserve in his last year of high school. With World War II on, the military sent him to officer training school at Purdue, where he and his peers were expected to keep up with intensive engineering studies, plus exercise and road work before class. If they washed out, they’d go to boot camp and the Pacific. 

What made the biggest impression on Bechtel was a teacher who required students to create their own formulas. Quite literally, there would be no textbook answers.

Bechtel realized this was an opportunity. He’d have to think through problems, same as in the real world.

Eventually, when his father mentioned details of a new pipeline project, he was hooked.

In the end, Bechtel did take over the firm in 1960 and ushered in the era of the megaproject, building the Jubail industrial complex in Saudi Arabia, the Chunnel connecting England and France, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in California.

When he handed the reins to his son Riley 30 years later, Bechtel Corp. had grown from $460 million in annual sales to more than $8.9 billion.

With pretty high expectations.

—Adapted from “Engineer Stephen Bechtel Jr.,” Ken Spencer Brown, Investor’s Business Daily.

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