Bechtel Group: training ground for Reagan Cabinet?

George Shultz, secretary of state-designate in President Reagan's Cabinet, and Bechtel, the company he has served for the past eight years, are made in the same mold.

Mr. Shultz is described as extremely capable, practical, and tough, but discrete and soft-spoken. The Bechtel Group's corporate personality may be described in virtually the same terms. Relatively few Americans likely know the company exists - although this may change as attention begins to focus on the firm's business dealings with Arab countries and how they may affect Schultz's stand on the Middle East.

At 50 Beale Street in San Francisco's financial district, some 10,000 of the 42,000 employees of the Bechtel Group Inc. work in sprawling quarters fast becoming inadequate. The firm has announced it will erect an office building across the bay in Oakland's City Center redevelopment area to hold 3,000 of its headquarters employees. When it is completed some three years hence, says a Bechtel spokesman, a second Oakland office tower may have to be built.

Bechtel is a ''family company,'' founded in Oakland in 1906 by W. A. Bechtel, who got his start working as a mule skinner on a railroad construction job in Oklahoma. He got his big break in 1931 when, with five other companies, he won the contract for the Hoover Dam. Another plum was the San Francisco-Oakland bridge - the ''Bay Bridge.'' His son, S. D. Bechtel, guided the growing company from the mid-1930s to 1960, putting it into the international category with a 1940 joint venture building a pipeline in Venezuela. Grandson Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. is chairman and chief executive officer of the international firm. As soon as President Reagan announced Shultz's nomination for secretary of state, Mr. Bechtel took over as president.

The Bechtel Group - its major operating companies are Bechtel Civil & Minerals Inc.; Bechtel Petroleum Inc.; and Bechtel Power Corporation - is a giant among giants in the construction field. Other major US construction firms ranking with it include the Parsons Corporation of Pasadena, Calif., Fluor Corporation of Irvine, Calif., and Brown & Root Inc. of Houston.

Other Bechtel ''landmark'' contracts include: 1947 - the Trans-Arabia oil pipeline; 1951 - the first nuclear source of electric power in the US, the experimental breeder reactor in Arco, Idaho; 1968 - San Onofre nuclear power plant in California, largest such plant at the time; 1971 - the 98-mile Washington, D.C., Metro rapid transit system; 1974 - the mobilization and development of the Trans-Alaska pipeline system; 1976 - 20-year, $20 billion Jubail project in Saudia Arabia, entailing construction of a new industrial community. In addition to the Jubail project, Bechtel is building the King Khalid Airport and an electrical generating complex in Saudi Arabia. It has one construction project in Egypt and one in Kuwait.

The appointment of Shultz as secretary of state and the presence of another former Bechtel executive, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, in the Reagan Cabinet, has focused attention on Bechtel activities in the Middle East.

In January 1976, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the US Department of Justice sued Bechtel, charging the company and some of its subsidiaries had cooperated with an Arab League request not to deal with firms doing business with Israel. Bechtel denied any participation in the so-called Arab boycott. But in January 1977, the Justice Department announced a consent decree under which Bechtel promised not to cooperate with the boycott.

A company spokesman says Bechtel has been doing business with Saudi Arabia for more than 25 years and naturally has developed a special relationship with that country. However, the spokesman insists it is a business, not a political, relationship.

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