Published on November 13th, 2015 | by UC&D Magazine0
Ralph L. Wadsworth and his sons built their reputation on hard work, quality construction, and never settling for anything but the best.
Few individuals in the past 50-plus years have left a lasting, positive impact on the local design and construction industry quite like Ralph L. Wadsworth.
Now an octogenarian (he turned 81 in November), the Wadsworth family patriarch and founder of Draper-based Ralph L. Wadsworth Construction (RLW) carved out an enviable career as both a structural engineer and heavy-highway contractor spanning six decades.
Part of Wadsworth’s legacy is also tied to his – and wife Peggy’s – seven children (all boys), each of whom worked for the family business at some point, in addition to being influential in their own right within Utah’s construction industry. Besides RLW Construction, oldest son Guy is the founder and President of Wadsworth Brothers Construction (WBC) of Draper, a prominent heavy-highway contractor that competes head-to-head with RLW on many local/regional projects, while second son Cal operated Cal Wadsworth Construction for more than two decades in both Utah and Arizona. The remaining sons – Con, Tod, Kip, Ty and Nic – helped RLW substantially grow during the 90’s and into the 21st Century.
Houston-based Sterling Construction acquired 80% of RLW in December 2009 for nearly $65 million, and purchased the remaining 20% on December 31, 2012, while allowing Con, Tod and Kip to remain on in executive leadership positions. Currently, Con (President) and Tod (Vice President) are the only family members still involved on a full-time basis. Kip is now CEO of Wadsworth Development Group (WDG), a firm Ralph started in 1996 as a way to get into the development side of construction, while also diversifying company assets.
Pretty lofty accomplishments for a simple farm boy who was born in the midst of the Great Depression in 1934 and grew up as the youngest of five children on a farm in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Even Wadsworth admits it’s hard to comprehend everything he’s been able to achieve, mainly through hard work, sheer determination, and never relenting on building something of quality.
“You get to be 80, 81 and you can see the end coming,” said Wadsworth. “I suppose I could have done better…been a better father, a better husband. I could have been a hell of a lot worse, too. I’m just grateful my boys were there. I don’t think I could have done it without the help of my boys and their mom. I could not have done the quantity or nearly as good a job on quality.”
“Ralph was born with a tenacious personality,” said Peggy, who also grew up on a farm in Idaho Falls and married Ralph in 1953, a year after they graduated from high school. “He was always a hard worker and a fighter, and demanded a lot of everything. He told me he’d be a millionaire by 35.”
Wadsworth’s initial foray into construction came at the hands of older brother Golden, who was 20 years Ralph’s senior and ran a construction company. Starting at age 12, Wadsworth worked during summers and quickly adapted to the hard-working nature of the industry, becoming “a pretty good carpenter” before venturing off to college on a boxing scholarship at the University of Idaho in Moscow to study structural engineering.
He admits his first couple of years in college were difficult, but he persevered and eventually learned under the tutelage of Forrest Hall, an engineering professor who helped the young Wadsworth realize anything was possible if you thoroughly applied yourself.
“When I went to college, that was an awakening,” said Wadsworth. “I didn’t know shit, my grammar was terrible. I had engineering roommates that were so much smarter. It took me until my junior year before I could really concentrate on something. It just took me a lot more work. I remember Forrest saying ‘Ralph’s not the smartest kid in my class, but he’s the hardest worker’.”
Upon graduating with a degree in structural engineering, Wadsworth moved his young family (he and Peggy had two sons at the time) to St. Louis to work
for large engineering firm Sverdrup and Parcel, where he was able to design both bridge and building structures. After a short time the family moved to Salt Lake, with Wadsworth working for prominent local engineering firms in the 50’s such as H.C. Hughes Company and Torkelson Engineering, where he specialized in the structural design of high rise buildings.
Wadsworth dabbled in structural steel detailing for a few months before starting Ralph L. Wadsworth Structural Engineering in 1961 in Salt Lake, designing many important buildings across the Wasatch Front, including Valley Music Hall, several projects at local college campuses, and collaborating with another firm on the design of the LDS Washington D.C. Temple.
By the mid-70’s, Wadsworth was growing increasingly restless with a feeling that contractors were making considerably more money than designers, so he switched gears and founded RLW Construction in 1975, even though he knew little about being a general contractor. Wadsworth was doing both engineering and general contracting that first year, before realizing he was making enemies with the local architectural community and went full-time into construction. Early jobs consisted of mainly parks-related projects, before the company was able to move onto more challenging bridge projects. Wadsworth also had four sons who were old enough at that time to help out after school and during summers.
“Guy, Cal, Con and Tod, they worked for me when they were pretty young,” said Wadsworth. “It seemed like there were a lot of park projects and nobody wanted to do them. I hired subs like dirt movers, but I would do all the concrete work, and I was able to do all the landscaping. Most landscaping guys in town weren’t all that good anyway. It wasn’t long before I was bidding million dollar bridge jobs.”
Guy was instrumental to the firm’s progress and growth in the 80’s, serving as chief estimator before deciding to branch out on his own and start WBC in 1991. Con, Tod, Kip, and Ty were all indispensible in their own ways, particularly during the firm’s substantial growth spurt in the 90’s and into the 2000’s.
Innovative Approach to ABC, Aesthetics
Con said the firm really started to prosper when it landed two ‘A+B’ projects for the Utah Department of Transportation in the late 90’s, and then figured out how to effectively do design-build work, particularly with UDOT’s ‘Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC)’ program that kicked off in the 2000’s with a flurry of high-profile, innovative bridge projects.
The first of these ABC projects RLW built was the 4500 South I-215 bridge that was constructed adjacent to the existing bridge on the northwest side and moved into place October 27-28, 2007, via Self-Propelled Modular Transporters (SPMTs) – the first time such a technique was used in Utah and one of the first ABC-type projects ever done in the nation. Ralph even designed the structure the bridge was built upon.
“Just the idea of it, building it on such a steep slope, it seemed almost impossible to us,” recalled Tod. “How do you load something that big without it sliding or moving? It was our first experience too – we didn’t know anything about SPMTs. Until it all came to pass, nobody knew if it was going to work. Once you did one or two, you knew what the hang-ups or complications were going to be. But this first one was just trial and error.”
Since that time, RLW has done more than 30 bridges using various ABC methods, including 13 via SPMTs. Perhaps the most impressive ABC feat occurred on the ‘Innovate 80’ project in the the summer of 2008, when RLW crews built seven bridges at a staging area off the I-80/1300 East exit – better known as the ‘bridge farm’ – and moved each into place via SPMTs over a six- week period from June to August of that year.
“Innovate 80 set the stage for everything that’s happened since,” said Con. “We were lucky we pulled it off without a hitch. Maybe that’s what makes us good – we’re not afraid of anything. When you look at it from the outside, it looks ominous, but it’s really pretty easy.”
The firm also built and moved into place the 354-foot, two-span Sam White Bridge in March 2011 as part of the massive $1.7 billion I-15 CORE project in Utah County. It’s the largest superstructure ever moved by SPMTs in the Western Hemisphere.
RLW Construction is also recognized for its concrete artwork on its bridge projects, murals that are cast into the structure – a direct nod to Tod’s brilliance and determination to build something unique and with a little artistic flair.
The first projects to incorporate these type of interesting and aesthetically- pleasing murals occurred from 1990-93 for some small bridges on the South Mountain development in Draper. Eventually, UDOT signed off on RLW incorporating several Olympic-themed murals on the Bangerter I-15 Interchange in 2000, a nod to the upcoming 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. Since then, Tod estimates he’s done murals for more than 100 different structures.
“I was just tired of seeing another ugly bridge,” he said. “I was always meticulous about my form work. Once
we did Bangerter, I just thought, ‘why not take advantage of that on other jobs.’ The money it costs is so minimal anyway, and all these entities (cities, towns, UDOT, etc.) are so appreciative of the work we’ve done. It was an opportunity to express art in concrete that is long lasting.”
In addition its expertise in bridge work, RLW does commercial structural concrete, concrete paving, piling and shoring, and architectural concrete.
Quality Trumps All
Perhaps Wadsworth’s greatest attribute is his attention to detail and obsession for quality work. His sons say it’s uncanny how their father can step onto a job site, walk around for a few minutes, and see something that isn’t up to snuff or even close to meeting his expectations. Con remembers working on those early jobs, including one of the first major projects the firm tackled – a large flyover bridge on I-215 – and having Ralph walk onto the jobsite.
“He had just this tenacity…any job worth doing once, is worth doing right,” said Con. “He doesn’t put up with low quality work. If he came to the job, you knew your were going to get your ass chewed. He’d always pick up on something. He could just look down a wall and say, ‘that sucks’. He just has an eye for perfection. He wants stuff built right. He was pretty tough on us regarding quality of work.”
“He was very particular about quality,” said Tod. “He beat that into our heads. His quality was more about the structural integrity of a project. For example, if you put too much water in a concrete mix, it reduces the sand-cement ratio and the top 1/16 of an inch will inevitably spall. Most of us in the family have that ethic. Why build it if it’s not going to last?”
Tod continued, “He wasn’t a materialistic guy. The ideal thing for him is to pull up and see the structure he built was right, the settlement is right, all the finishes on concrete are a poured finish and not patched afterward. It was ‘do it right the first time or I’m going to kick your ass’. He never cut corners. He’d rather see a quality project with his name on it that any claim to fame for it.”
“I’ve been blessed to be a part of it and to have a dad that gave us the opportunity to be successful,” said Kip. “When I went to work every day, it wasn’t to become big time, it was to make him proud. Once you do that, the money follows.”
“Ralph is a very confident person in his abilities,” said Brandon Squire, RLW Executive Vice President and COO who has been with the firm 8.5 years. “He’s not afraid to try anything. He’s always been dedicated and hard-working and really pushed that work ethic onto his sons. That’s why they’ve been successful. All four brothers have different traits that mesh well together. Con is construction savvy. Kip was more of the business man. Ty was very analytical. Tod is a jack-of-all-trades and very innovative. They all respected Ralph. They felt he was demanding as a father, but they also realize they wouldn’t be where they’re at without him being that way.”
Wadsworth has high praise for each of his sons, and recognizes their individual innate abilities to work – and succeed – in such a demanding market.
“Guy, he’s one of the smartest of the bunch, for sure, but he was also dependable,” said Wadsworth. “You’d tell him to do something and he’d do it. They’re all like that. Cal is a hard worker who never got anything from me. When he started his own company, he never asked me how to bid a job – he just went ahead and did it. Con is one of the hardest workers. It’s been amazing to see him grow, to see his attitude and confidence, just since he’s been President the past few years. Tod is the guy who does things right, who made sure we did quality work. Kip might be the smartest of ‘em all and he was always so organized and good with numbers. Ty, he’s just determined as hell, and he was always able to come up with different solutions. He’s very detailed and nothing gets by him. Nic is the youngest and you tend to spoil your youngest. But he was a hard worker, has a great personality…Nic can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. He can talk to anybody about anything. They’re all hard workers, all good guys. They’ve made a few mistakes, but they’re damn good Christians and they’ve done more good than they have bad – I’ll guarantee that.”
Ralph even offered a story about how the acorns don’t fall far from the oak when it came to quality control. The firm had recently poured a parapet wall on a bridge and stripped it, and frankly, it just wasn’t done right.
“It was maybe a 30-foot wall section. Tod went out on a Saturday morning and jackhammered that S.O.B. apart by himself, put the forms back up, and poured it Monday. He just does things right.”
Peggy concurred that each of their sons inherited many of Ralph’s characteristics and traits, even if the lessons learned were difficult at the time.
“He was a hard dad – he didn’t put up with much,” Peggy said. “They probably didn’t love their childhood all the time. But in the years since, they figure his method was the best. When you have 7 boys, what do you do? Be the boss. I’m amazed that they have been able to work together for the most part, because it’s hard with that many brothers. Life’s never been dull, that’s for sure. It’s been a great 62 years. I’m very proud of Ralph and the job he’s done with the boys and everything else.”
Wadsworth still rolls into the RLW offices on occasion, and this past August he finished up his most recent project – the Bear Canyon Bridge in Draper. Ralph designed the entire structure, and helped build it with the aid of Ty, Tod and a few other RLW employees. The 185.5 foot cable suspension bridge connects a segment of the Bonneville Shoreline trail and is a testament to Wadsworth’s commitment to engineering and construction excellence.
He’s not sure what his legacy will eventually be; he just knows he’s been fortunate to have a successful career and a great family backing him up.
“I’m just damn lucky they turned out to be such good helpers…and to have a wife that puts up with my B.S. and all the rest that goes with it,” he said. “I wake up sometimes and wonder why I was so blessed. I maybe don’t deserve all that, but somehow I got it.”