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American Bridge Co. still working on some of the world's great spans [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :: BC-REAL-AMERICANBRIDGE:PG]

PITTSBURGH - Few companies doing work with 21st-century infrastructure have as deep a history in the 20th - and even 19th - century as American Bridge Co.

When the company was formed as part of U.S. Steel in 1900 by financier J.P. Morgan through the merger of 28 other companies, 90 percent of the country's public and commercial bridge construction was controlled by American Bridge, a staggering figure that no company comes even close to approaching now.

Over the next century, it was part of the construction of some of the most iconic buildings and bridges in the world - from the Chrysler Building in New York to the San Francisco Bay Bridge and most of the bridges in downtown Pittsburgh.

Despite that history, not that long ago it was uncertain if American Bridge would make it to the 21st century.

Following the closure of its massive fabrication plant in Ambridge (a Pittsburgh-area town named after the company) in 1984 and its spinoff from U.S. Steel in 1987, American Bridge floundered for much of the next decade. It earned as little as $32 million in annual revenue in 1994, and bankruptcy was a possibility, before beginning its long road back to relevance and increased revenue.

Michael Cegelis joined the company near that low point in 1995, helping set up its then-new Florida office.

He saw the company struggling from the inside, even as he knew well its history of success.

"My dad was an engineer for U.S. Steel and was frequently on loan to American Bridge," said Cegelis, 60, now the company's senior vice president of marketing and development. "So I kind of grew up knowing the company.

"It's not the same footprint of the large number of workers we used to have, but it's the same business," he said. "And I think this is the story of Pittsburgh."

"Pittsburgh's economy has moved from a larger manufacturing base with thousands of shop floor workers to technology based," said Cegelis. "That's sad for places like McKeesport and Ambridge, but for a new generation that is ever more educated, there's a vibrant future.

"And we're thriving. There's a demand for what we do."

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From that low of just $32 million in revenue in 1994, American Bridge hit a peak of $601.3 million in 2013, according to the Engineering News-Record, a national news magazine covering the construction industry.

Revenue dipped a bit to $466.4 million in 2015. But company CEO Paul Boechler, who began his job last June after working for 30 years in the oil and gas construction business, said the immediate future looks bright for this new leaner version of American Bridge.

"The last few years we've worked really hard at re-establishing ourselves to be more agile in the type of project we do today," he said.

Being "agile" means instead of just showing up to build the part of the project the company bid on - say, construction of the bridge towers - now many governments want bidders to take care of almost everything, from supporting the project to working with the customer and talking to residents, in addition to building the project and managing all of what used to be separate parts.

Not that American Bridge is doing all that work itself with its 500 employees or 1,000 skilled laborers in the field.

It functions more as a general contractor now, bidding on projects with partners who each handle a piece of a project, and then find steel makers and steel fabricators who bid to provide the raw products needed for construction.

Bid partners also rely on American Bridge for the logistics of overseeing not only the engineering, but also ensuring that important aspects of a project get done. That might mean making sure that construction equipment is properly maintained or that all the necessary pieces are delivered on time.

On top of that, some state or local governments - the majority of American Bridge's projects are bid out by governments - now ask bidders to include 20 or 30 years of maintenance in their bids, a change in construction that is not unlike the concept of "bundling" payments to health care providers for patient care.

"Fifteen years ago, you'd bid on the part of the project you wanted and build that," Boechler said. "But that's not how it works anymore. They want you to design-build."

He sees revenues rising over the next several years based on the number and location of projects that are being bid out now.

"There is a lot of good work in our regions to bid on," he said. "There are some really good rehabilitation projects to bid on, some new bridges."

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President Donald Trump's proposal to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure would help the company, he said, but states generally have been spending more on infrastructure in recent years anyway.

To take advantage of that looming growth, he said, will mean adding to American Bridge's 500-person permanent workforce - a difficult task in a field that asks a lot of its employees who have to travel from site to site, stay for two or three years, and then move again.

"It's hard. It's certainly a different lifestyle moving around," Boechler acknowledges, having lived that way himself in the oil and gas industry. "A big part of a company like us is developing the workforce."

As befits a modern infrastructure company, American Bridge has invested heavily in improving its software systems so that it can make better cost estimates and, as a result, put in better bids on projects.

Boechler hopes to increase the skilled labor - engineers, crane operators, etc. - by about 100 people over the next couple of years, a 20 percent increase.

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Part of that growth is fueled by an increase in international projects, with international revenue jumping from $37.4 million in 2010 to $124 million in 2015, according to the Engineering News-Record.

One of those projects is a nearly $1 billion replacement of the Forth Road Bridge near Edinburgh, Scotland.

But North American projects are the core of the operations and a big part of why Boechler is optimistic for 2017.

American Bridge is bidding with its partners on two of the biggest infrastructure projects in the hemisphere: the $4.5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge that is proposed for a new crossing between Detroit and Canada, and the $3.5 billion George Massey tunnel replacement and bridge construction project in British Columbia.

Building bridges where none existed before, such as the Gordie Howe, is rare, but replacement work "is a pretty big part of our work."

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Currently American Bridge is working with partners on the nearly $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project in New York - the largest single project in the company's history. It will replace the original Tappan Zee Bridge that was built by American Bridge in 1955.

Boechler points out that many of the projects that the company is building on of late "were bridges we built 60 or 70 years ago."

"It's especially gratifying when you get to rehabilitate a bridge we built 60 years ago," he said. "We don't have to go out and get all the measurements for them because we have them already."

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(c)2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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