Rome fell, Carthage burned, France retreated from Saigon. The age of empires, however, lives on in every corporate boardroom. And the Bechtel family, which holds the reins to one of the largest privately held corporations in the world, is a dynasty with a myth stretching back to the wilderness of the American West.
Bechtel and the family that built this corporation are the subject of Sally Denton’s new book, The Profiteers. Denton traces the rise of the Bechtel empire from its founder, “Dad” Bechtel, who wanted to “‘break’ the Colorado River as if it were a wild horse,” to the scions who won the U.S. government’s coveted $3 billion contract to rebuild war-torn Iraq.
Read an excerpt from The Profiteers for a glimpse at the secret world of the company that can “build anything, any place, and time,” whether it’s the Hoover Dam, Europe’s “Chunnel,” or international airports from Doha to Hong Kong—just a few of the 25,000 projects it claims to have undertaken on all seven continents.
Like all stories of empire building, the rise of Bechtel—one of the first megacompanies born and bred in the American West—is a complex tale of technological ingenuity and corporate craving. “Wild West capitalism at its most earnest,” a Nobel physicist described one of Bechtel’s gigantic twentieth-century construction projects located in the Mojave Desert. In their century-long quest, five generations of Bechtel men have harnessed and distributed much of the planet’s natural resources— hydroelectricity, oil, coal, water, nuclear power, natural gas, and now solar geothermal power and asteroids.
Bechtel’s position as the fourth-largest private company in America in 2013—after the Cargill food-processing company, Koch Industries, and Dell computers, according to Forbes—must be taken at face value since its voluntarily reported revenues that year of $37.9 billion are not subject to federal Securities and Exchange [SEC] regulation. “What appears to an outsider as an almost paranoiac preoccupation with privacy is instead a strategic business policy with several motives,” as one account depicted the company’s historic resistance to public scrutiny. Bechtel family members and a select group of top executives and their spouses hold its stock, and guard financial as well as personal details. One of the world’s wealthiest families, the Bechtels are preoccupied with security and the need for personal bodyguards. The family once petitioned a California court to have their voter registration records sealed, and family members’ personal assets are held in the name of a private corporation. “In fact, if they had their way, they would be known only by their customers, a few key Cabinet members and perhaps a dozen bankers,” wrote journalist Mark Dowie. Since many of the company’s activities have long been concealed by a shield of privacy, journalists and historians face unusual challenges in piercing that shield.
Bechtel is part-and-parcel of what has been called the Corporate West—a community that throughout the twentieth century, and before, preached the gospel of the free market, although government stood as its primary business partner. The relationship began with the railroads, especially in California. In the twentieth century, the main pillars of the California economy followed this pattern: Agribusiness, Banking, Energy, and Transportation. Following World War II, the pattern continued with Defense construction that would ultimately spin off into the software industry centered in northern California. In many respects, Bechtel not only stood as the quintessential example of the Corporate West, but also spearheaded that path for others, where the West moved East, and then globally.
Excerpted from The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World by Sally Denton. Copyright © 2016 by Sally Denton. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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