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Morrison Knudsen Corporation

Morrison Knudsen Corporation

720 Park Boulevard
Post Office Box 73
Boise, Idaho 83729
U.S.A.
(208) 386-5000
Fax: (208) 386-7186
Web site: http://www.mk.com

Public Company
Incorporated
:1932 as Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc.
Employees :8,500
Sales :$1.86 billion (1998)
Stock Exchanges :New York Pacific
Ticker Symbol :MK
NAIC :23332 Commercial & Institutional Building Construction; 23331 Manufacturing & Industrial Building Construction; 23412 Bridge & Tunnel Construction; 23491 Water, Sewer, & Pipeline Construction; 23499 All Other Heavy Construction; 212112 Bituminous Coal & Lignite Surface Mining; 33651 Railroad Rolling Stock Manufacturing; 54133 Engineering Services; 92411 Administration of Air & Water Resource & Solid Waste Management Programs; 55112 Offices of Other Holding Companies

Morrison Knudsen Corporation (MK) has long stood as one of the worlds largest engineering and construction organizations. A 1954 feature article in Time identified cofounder Harry Morrison as the man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth. Such words reflect the magnitude and scope of the companys projects, ranging from work on the Hoover Dam to the construction of the then largest building in the world, the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, to the building of portions of the transAlaska pipeline. Today, MK is active in more than 35 countries, serving the environmental, heavy civil, industrial, mining, operations and maintenance, power, process, transportation, and logistics markets.

Dams Marked Early Years

The companys origin dates back to Idahos Boise Valley at the turn of the century, when Morris Hans Knudsen and Harry W. Morrison teamed up to exploit business opportunities introduced by the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The U.S. government was subsidizing projects to irrigate vast tracts of desert. Knudsen, a native of Denmark, moved to Idaho with his wife in 1905. He became well known for his skill using horses and basic scrapers to haul dirt. Morrison, a native of Illinois, moved to Idaho in 1904 as a concrete superintendent for water reclamation projects. In 1912 Morrison and Knudsen collaborated on their first job, a subcontract for approximately $14,000 worth of work at a pumping station along the Snake River near Grand View, Idaho. This and other early jobs generated little, if any, profit. The first financially successful endeavor for the duo was the 1914 construction of Three-Mile Falls Dam in Oregon. In addition to yielding a profit, the Three-Mile job established the company as a legitimate player in dam construction, which became one of the companys hallmarks. (By the 1980s MK had built more than 150 dams, including Brownlee, one of three dams erected across the Snake River in Hells Canyon for Idaho Power; Karadj, near Teheran, Iran; San Luis, in California, with a crest length of more than three miles; and Hungry Horse and Yellowtail, both in Montana.)

One of the most significant milestones in the growth of Morrison-Knudsen Company was, in fact, construction of yet another dam, the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, contracted in 1931. The magnitude of the job led to the 1932 incorporation of Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc. The project was massive, drawing on 5,000 workers. It called for 4.5 million yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-lane highway from Seattle to Miami, according to company sources) and reached a height of 726 feet upon completion. To handle such a formidable task, Morrison brought together a consortium of different companies, Six Companies, Inc., thus introducing the now commonplace practice of joint-venture construction. The dam was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule.

Having survived the Great Depression, due, in part, to its success with the Hoover Dam project, MK was prepared to meet the business demands of World War II. The company joined other contractors in a joint venture known as Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases. Building airfield facilities on Midway and Wake islands in late 1941, more than 1,200 company workers were captured by the Japanese. On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, MK was also engaged in the construction of 20 huge naval fuel-storage vaults, each 250 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. MK launched its company magazine, the eMKayan, in March 1942, a strategic time to reinforce public relations.

These and other World War II projects established long-lasting ties for MK in the area of military contracting. In addition to extensive building contracts in Vietnam, the company procured a substantial amount of business outside of active battle zones. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a chain of bases and radar installations, was constructed and maintained across northern Canada, as was the White Alice communications system in Alaska. In the 1960s MK became a leading builder of missile facilities, including the first U.S. underground Titan missile installation at the Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. The company sponsored a joint venture for the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility, an advanced jet engine center for the U.S. Air Force, which was completed in 1984. The company also was involved in the reconstruction of Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. According to U.S. News and World Report, such an expensive national reconstruction effort had not been launched since the Marshall Plan molded a new Europe after World War II.

Postwar Diversification

While World War II initiated new business, the wars end also brought reconstruction projects and expansion opportunities in new domains. In 1950 MK bought the Cleveland-based industrial builder H.K. Ferguson Company, which aided greatly in the trend toward rebuilding the American infrastructure. The 1950s also marked the establishment of the companys engineering subsidiary, International Engineering Company, Inc., which was designed primarily to implement public works in less industrialized nations (its first project was a dam in India). By the mid-1950s, the firm had been commissioned by ten foreign governments. The company had by this time established a notable presence in a number of international markets, working on projects in such distant lands as Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. A Time magazine article in May 1954 titled Builders AbroadAmbassadors with Bulldozers emphasized the impact of the construction industry on world economy. The magazine cover featured a portrait of Harry Morrison with the subheading, To tame rivers and move mountains.

The company further diversified in the 1960s, establishing itself as one of the major contractors to the developing space program. In addition to other contracts for the American space program, in 1966 the company contracted the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in Florida. The worlds largest building at the time, it was used to assemble the Apollo and Saturn V rockets, for which MK also constructed the launching pads.

The Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s also stimulated business, when the U.S. government engaged the company as the sponsor of a joint venturecalled RMK-BRJthat consisted of MK International, Raymond International, Brown & Root, and J.A. Jones Construction Company. Under the command of the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command, RMK-BRJ constructed bridges, highways, jet airfields, hospitals, deepwater ports, communications facilities, water supply systems, power plants, supply depots, and other facilities from 1962 to 1972. The venture, which employed more than 50,000 people, resulted in roughly $1.9 billion of business.

Tremendous Growth Under McMurren, 1970-84

The challenges of the Vietnam era forged the business skills of William H. McMurren, who was elected president and chief executive officer in 1970. McMurren served for 14 years and carried the company into the 1980s under a new program of expansion and diversification. McMurren first established his abilities as a manager while directing missile site construction during the early 1960s. From 1970 to 1984, when he died at the age of 57, McMurren enhanced the traditional construction abilities of MK and extended activities to engineering, construction management, mining, real estate, manufacturing, and shipbuilding.

Indeed, the late 1970s and early 1980s marked a period of unprecedented growth for MK. The company expanded into mining, a logical offshoot of its heavy civil engineering operations. MK explored for precious metals, coal, lignite, and limestone mines throughout the United States and in various foreign countries. Notable examples included the 1973 Rio Blanco Copper mine in Chile, hewn out of solid rock in the forbidding landscape of the Andes Mountains; the Cerrejón Coal Project, a $2 billion turnkey project in northeastern Colombia; and the 1989 joint venture with Eastmaque Gold Mines, Ltd. to operate and develop the Cargo Muchacho Project in southeastern California (known as the American Girl Joint Venture). MK also delved into shipmaking, acquiring full ownership of National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) of San Diego in 1979. One of its first projects was the construction of a fast-combat support ship for the Navy, with an open contract for further orders.

MK also moved into environment-related industries of hazardous waste handling and storage and energy plant repair, modification, and improvement. By 1987 the company had carried out design and construction management of remedial actions programs at 24 abandoned uranium processing sites nationwide for the Department of Energy. It also worked on waste-to-energy plants in Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Company Perspectives

Our organization cherishes above all else a reputation for honesty, integrity and fair dealing. Every client is entitled to expect from us the best possible product, at the best price, delivered in the shortest possible period of time with all the skill, energy and experience at our command. There can be no misunderstanding among our people as to the difference between expediency and integrity.

Also chartered to broaden MKs base was the new venture Morrison-Knudsen Services, designed to maintain and operate military facilities in Alabama, Arizona, and California. Finally, the company focused particular energy on its railroad business, rebuilding transit cars and, by the late 1980s, serving as the sole domestic manufacturer of the cars. By the early 1980s MKs varied initiatives, fostered by McMurren, had bolstered the companys potential on numerous fronts.

The firms growth, however, was hampered by a harsh economic climate in the mid-1980s, prompting the company to restructure its operations. On May 3, 1985, stockholders approved a plan of reorganization and agreement of merger wherein Morrison-Knudsen Co., Inc. became a wholly owned operating subsidiary of Morrison Knudsen Corporation. Other subsidiaries included Morrison-Knudsen Engineers, Morrison-Knudsen International Company, and MK-Ferguson Company (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company remained a subsidiary of Morrison-Knudsen Company). The new company structure was designed to accommodate growing complexities in the engineering and construction industries. The short-term result of the reorganization bordered on disaster. In 1988 MK suffered a loss of $3.35 per share from continuing operations and an $8.17 per share loss from discontinued operations, in part because of a $42 million pretax loss on the disposition of its interest in the shipbuilding operation of NASSCO.

Agee Hired As Chairman and CEO in 1988

Due, in large part, to such slippage, the company initiated another round of reorganization in 1988, appointing William J. Agee to replace W.J. Deasy as chairman and CEO. Agee principal responsibility was to reverse the negative trend in MK earnings while at the same time resuscitate his own business reputation, which had suffered in the media since the early 1960s.

As chief financial officer at Boise Cascade Corporation, Agee had been instrumental in heading the company in the direction of urban renewal, an area that was trendy, though not especially prudent, according to Richard Stern in a June 1992 Forbes article. Boise Cascades financial woes, which included defaulted real estate sales and inadequate reserves for South American bonds owned by a subsidiary, did not reach their peak, however, until after Agee had left the company. In 1972 he joined Bendix Corporation as chief financial officer, becoming chairman in 1977. In 1980 he drew criticism for his relationship with a young protégée, Mary Cunningham, who rose to the position of vice-president of strategic planning at Bendix before the age of 30. In 1982 Agee and Cunningham married. In that same year, Agee launched a hostile bid to take over Martin Marietta Corporation, the missile and technology company. Marietta fought back by buying Bendix shares in what was called a Pac-Man defense, a reference to the video-game character that defends itself by swallowing its enemies to become stronger. Finally, Allied Corporation intervened, absorbing Bendix and dismissing the Agee couple.

Upon joining MK, Agee effected an immediate strategy to rescue the company from debt and heavy losses. He cut the payroll, stopped bidding for small projects, and rebuilt the companys international business. He made MKs transportation-construction business the top-ranked company in the United States, while other main lines improved, but less dramatically. Agee also strengthened MKs balance sheet, cutting debt from $300 million to almost nothing and amassing $100 million in cash. Other financial figures also looked promising: in February 1990 the company reported 1989 net income of $32.2 million, or $2.81 per share, on revenue of $2.2 billion, representing an all-time record for net income from continuing operations of the engineering and construction and rail systems segments, and surpassing the 1981 record by over $3 million. Net income for 1990 rose to $34.5 million on revenue of $1.7 billion. By 1991 the company reported a second quarter backlog of $4.1 billion, up from $3.4 billion for the same period during the previous year. Agees restructuring, however controversial, had dramatically transformed MKs financial fortunes.

A large part of the change was attributable to MKs emphasis on the transportation sector, especially design and construction of transit cars. Ken Fisher, president and CEO at Fisher Investments, identified excellent investment opportunities in a 1992 portfolio letter, recognizing that MK had built up its rapid transit system business from less than one percent of its total revenues to 40 percent. The companys success in its emphasis on the transportation industry was further illustrated by the position it assumed at the forefront of a revival of interest in rail transportation in the United States. Sensitive to current trends, Agee envisioned not only high-speed rail between cities, but also commuter transit in every major U.S. city.

To that end, the company won various contracts around the country. It contracted the construction of tunnels and substations for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in northern California and tunnels and underground stations for the Washington, D.C. Metro subway system. In November 1991, MK was approved by the Honolulu City Council to design, build, operate, maintain, and supply vehicles for a $1.7 billion, 15.6-mile elevated rapid transit system serving Honolulu. In January 1992 the company became managing director for a consortium to develop a high-speed rail system linking Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. A less high-tech project was the Hornell plant, located near Elmira, New York, that started remanufacturing 750 transit cars in the early 1980s. The plant lost significant earnings that year, but subsequently managed to improve profits. In March 1992 MK announced an agreement with Caterpillar, Inc. to use state-of-the-art Caterpillar engines in its generation of new locomotives.

MK was also involved in the controversial bidding for a Los Angeles transit project in 1992. The bidding pitted MK and the Japanese-based Sumitomo Corporation against each other for a Los Angeles County transportation contract to build the $122 million Green Line Cars. Although the MK bid was approximately $5 million cheaper for the County of Los Angeles, Sumitomo won the bid, allegedly due to greater experience in the industry. Ray Grabinski of the transportation commission explained to ABC News that this wasnt the difference between a Honda and a Ford Taurus. This was the difference between a Honda and a mechanic saying he can build you a car. A national uproar ensued, arguing in favor of American jobs and fueling a rash of anti-Japanese sentiments. In January county transportation officials canceled their contract and convened a special panel to standardize rail car design and build the vehicles locally, possibly drawing on a multicompany venture to implement it. Though MK did not win back that contract, it found business further north, in San Francisco, where it contracted with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to renovate an abandoned steel warehouse in the area as a manufacturing site for 88 Caltrans cars by 1994. The so-called California car was designed as a double-decker model for commuter systems and longer-distance routes inside the state.

A less controversial, though highly publicized, deal was also made with Metra, the Chicago area commuter rail agency, in January 1992. The contract called for MK to build 173 new rail cars and to refurbish 140 existing cars. The tab, worth $378 million, constituted the largest transit-car order for the company and one of the biggest in U.S. history. According to the contract, MK was to reopen one section of the Pullman freight car plant on Chicagos South Side and begin hiring in late 1992, with final deliveries scheduled for late 1995. Since employment was particularly low on the South Side, where USX Corp.s South Works steel mill had recently closed, skilled workers were in abundance. Nevertheless, labor disputes erupted when MK won the contract over Montreals Bombardier, Inc.; Bombardier had committed itself to a United Auto Workers facility, while MK had not promised union ties.

Mass-Transit Contracts Led to 1996 Bankruptcy, Takeover by Washington Construction

Agee had correctly foreseen a resurgence of rail transit, but MKs mass-transit business quickly unraveled. After losing the Honolulu rapid-transit contract in 1992, the Texas high-speed rail project fell apart the following year because of financial difficulties. It also soon became clear that MK had gained its prominent position in the industry by seriously underbidding its contracts. This risky practice was compounded by the companys difficulties in fulfilling the contracts. By early 1995 MK was a year late in delivering 113 transit cars to the California Transportation Dept., and had encountered numerous production problems in attempting to fulfill its Chicago contract. Around this same time, the company announced a $310 million loss for 1994, largely as a result of the mass-transit units debacles; and with the red ink mounting and the companys creditors threatening to cut off its financing, MKs board fired Agee in early February 1995, citing in part alleged financial improprieties committed by Agee and accounting irregularities.

In early March 1995 the board named Robert A. Tinstman, who had been the head of MKs mining unit, the new CEO. To bolster the companys sinking credibility with lenders, clients, and the media, the board brought in Robert S. Miller, Jr., as the new chairman in April of that year. Miller had been a key financial architect of the early 1980s bailout of Chrysler Corporation. With $350 million in debt, MK appeared on the brink of bankruptcy and/or possible dismemberment.

Through astute maneuvering, however, Tinstman and Miller were able to keep MK largely intact, with one key exceptionthe railcar unit, the root of the companys difficulties, was offloaded to MKs creditors in late 1995. MK would once again concentrate on its historic core areas: heavy construction, environmental cleanup, engineering projects, and mining. Also in 1995 the company settled numerous shareholder lawsuits and reached agreement with its creditors on a rollover of debt into 1996.

Having gained some breathing room, Tinstman and Miller had enough time to convince Dennis R. Washington to rescue Morrison Knudsen by acquiring it. Following a prepackaged bankruptcy filing that was filed in June 1996, MK emerged from bankruptcy in September of that year and was then acquired by Washington Construction Group, Inc. Originally known as Kasler Holding Company, Washington Construction was owned by Dennis Washington and was the largest builder of roads and bridges in California. After Washington Construction acquired the much larger MK, it then adopted the name of the acquired company, Morrison Knudsen Corporation. Washington held an initial 37 percent stake in the new MK. The deal also had MK swap its debt for equity, with the companys creditors emerging with 45 percent of the company. The remaining equity was held by people who had held shares in Washington Construction. Dennis Washington became chairman of the new MK, Miller was named vice-chairman, while Tinstman served as president and CEO.

Results for fiscal years 1997 and 1998 appeared to confirm that MK was safely on the road to recovery. Revenue increased from $1.68 billion in 1997 to $1.86 billion in 1998, while net income rose from $32 million to $37.6 million. In January 1999 the company announced a consolidation of two of its operating groupsHeavy Civil Construction (which worked on infrastructure projects) and Mininginto a new unit called the Morrison Knudsen Constructors Group. This left MK with two main units, the other being the Engineers and Constructors Group, which specialized in engineering, construction, maintenance, and environmental services. In February 1999 Tinstman retired from MK and Washington added the presidency and CEO position to his duties as chairman. The following month MK and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. completed a joint acquisition of Westinghouse Electric Company from CBS Corporation. Westinghouse was a world leader in commercial nuclear power technology, was involved in the nuclear defense industry, and was involved in the development of new nuclear plant technology, including the under-design AP600, an advanced, passive nuclear power plant.

Principal Subsidiaries

Broadway Insurance Company, Ltd. (Bermuda); Centennial Engineering, Inc.; Industrial Constructors Corporation; MK Ferguson of Oak Ridge Company; Morrison Knudsen B.V. (Netherlands); Morrison Knudsen Deutschland GmbH (Germany); National Projects, Inc.

Principal Operating Units

Engineers and Constructors Group; Morrison Knudsen Constructors Group.

Further Reading

Aeppel, Timothy, and Steven Lipin, CBS to Sell Nonmedia Lines to Consortium, Wall Street Journal, June 29, 1998, p. A4.

Builders Abroad; Ambassadors with Bulldozers, Time, May 3, 1954.

Dobbs, Lou, Interview with Morri son-Knudsen CEO William Agee, CNN Money line, January 21, 1992.

Einhorn, Cheryl Strauss, Mountain Mans American Dream, Barrons, September 30, 1996, pp. 29-32.

eMKayan, Boise, Idaho: Morrison Knudsen Corporation, March 1987.

Fritsch, Jane, Axing of Sumitomo Paints County into Corner, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1992.

Greenwald, John, The Wreck of Morrison Knudsen, Time, April 3, 1995, pp. 52-53.

Korman, Richard, Award of Excellence, Engineering News Record, April 7, 1997, pp. 32-41.

Krueger, Bob, Dream of Texas High-Speed Rail May Be Dying, Houston Chronicle, January 12, 1992.

Laing, Jonathan R., Bigger and Better: Morrison Knudsens Billionaire Rescuer Folds in the Fabled Anaconda Copper Mine, Barrons, September 1, 1997, p. 12.

_____, Boise Blues: At Morrison Knudsen, the Toughest Days May Lie Ahead, Barrons, May 29, 1995, pp. 15-16.

Le Vinson, Marc, A High Roller Craps Out, Newsweek, February 20, 1995, p. 44.

Maturi, Richard, Revived Morrison Knudsen Focuses on the Environment, Denver Business Journal, February 21, 1992.

Melcher, Richard A., Dori Jones Yang, and William C Symonds, The Morass Engulfing Morrison Knudsen, Business Week, April 3, 1995, p. 54.

OReilly, Brian, Agee in Exile, Fortune, May 29, 1995, pp. 50 + .

Phillips, Don, Getting U.S. Back on Track; Transit Agency Uses Economic Muscle to Revive Pullman Rail Car Legacy, Washington Post, May 24, 1992.

Rigdon, Joan E., Stealth Billionaire: Dennis Washington Buys a Lot of Firms, but Just Who Is He?, Wall Street Journal, June 6, 1996, pp. A1 + .

Rigdon, Joan E., and Joann S. Lublin, Call to Duty: Why Morrison Board Fired Agee, Wall Street Journal, February 13, 1995, p. B1.

Stern, Richard L., and Reed Abelson, The Imperial Agees, Forbes, June 8, 1992.

Taub, Stephan, Morrison Knudsens Ticking Bomb Debt, Financial World, October 24, 1995, p. 18.

Yang, Dori Jones, and Kevin Kelly, Why Morrison Knudsen Is Riding the Rails, Business Week, November 2, 1992.

Kerstan Cohen

updated by David E. Salamie

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Morrison Knudsen Corporation

Morrison Knudsen Corporation

Morrison Knudsen Plaza
P.O. Box 73
Boise, Idaho 83729
U.S.A.
(208) 386-5000
Fax: (208) 386-7186

Public Company
Incorporated: 1932 as Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc.
Employees: 12,850
Sales: $2.28 billion
Stock Exchanges: New York Boston Pacific Midwest
SICs: 3743 Railroad Equipment; 1623 Water, Sewer & Utility Lines; 1629 Heavy Construction Nec; 6719 Holding Companies Nec

Morrison Knudsen Corporation (MK) has long stood as one of the worlds largest engineering and construction organizations. A 1954 feature article in Time identified co-founder Harry Morrison as the man who has done more than anyone else to change the face of the earth. Such words reflect the magnitude and scope of the companys projects, ranging from work on the superconducting super collider to wartime building initiatives in South Vietnam to construction of portions of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The companys origin dates back to Idahos Boise Valley at the turn of the century, when Morris Hans Knudsen and Harry W. Morrison teamed up to exploit business opportunities introduced by the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The U.S. government was subsidizing projects to irrigate vast tracts of desert. Knudsen, a native of Denmark, moved to Idaho with his wife in 1905. He became well known for his skill using horses and basic scrapers to haul dirt. Morrison, a native of Illinois, moved to Idaho in 1904 as a concrete superintendent for water reclamation projects. In 1912 Morrison and Knudsen collaborated on their first job, a subcontract for approximately $14,000 worth of work at a pumping station along the Snake River near Grand View, Idaho. This and other early jobs generated little, if any, profit. The first financially successful endeavor for the duo was the 1914 construction of Three-Mile Falls Dam in Oregon. In addition to yielding a profit, the Three-Mile job established the company as a legitimate player in dam construction, which became one of the companys hallmarks. (By the 1980s MK had built more than 150 dams, including Brownlee, one of three dams built across the Snake River in Hells Canyon for Idaho Power; Karadj, near Teheran, Iran; San Luis, in California, with a crest length of more than three miles; and Hungry Horse and Yellowtail, both in Montana.)

One of the most significant milestones in the growth of Morrison-Knudsen Company was, in fact, construction of yet another dam, the Hoover (Boulder) Dam, contracted in 1931. The magnitude of the job led to the incorporation of Morrison-Knudsen Company, in 1932. The project was massive, drawing on 5,000 workers. It called for 4.5 million yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-lane highway from Seattle to Miami, according to company sources) and reached a height of 726 feet upon completion. To handle such a formidable task, Morrison brought together a consortium of different companies, Six Companies, Inc., thus introducing the now-commonplace practice of joint-venture construction. The dam was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule.

Having survived the depression, due, in part, to its success with the Hoover Dam project, MK was prepared to meet the business demands of World War II. The company joined other contractors in a joint venture known as Contractors, Pacific Naval Air Bases. Building airfield facilities on Midway and Wake islands in late 1941, more than 1,200 company workers were captured by the Japanese. On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, MK was also engaged in the construction of 20 huge naval fuel-storage vaults, each 250 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. MK launched its company magazine, the eMKayan, in March 1942, a strategic time to reinforce public relations.

These and other World War II projects established ties that have kept MK entrenched in military contracting to the present. In addition to extensive building contracts in Vietnam, the company procured a substantial amount of business outside of active battle zones. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a chain of bases and radar installations, was constructed and maintained across northern Canada, as was the White Alice communications system in Alaska. In the 1960s MK became a leading builder of missile facilities, including the first U.S. underground Titan missile installation at the Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. More recently, the company sponsored a joint venture for the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility, an advanced jet engine center for the U.S. Air Force (completed in 1984). Finally, the company also was involved in the reconstruction of Kuwait following the 1991 Gulf War. According to U.S. News & World Report, such an expensive national reconstruction effort had not been launched since the Marshall Plan molded a new Europe after the Second World War.

While World War II initiated new business, the wars end also brought reconstruction projects and expansion opportunities in new domains. In 1950 MK bought the Cleveland-based industrial builder H. K. Ferguson Company, which aided greatly in the trend toward rebuilding the American infrastructure. The 1950s also marked the establishment of the companys engineering subsidiary, International Engineering Company, Inc., which was designed primarily to implement public works in less industrialized nations (its first project was a dam in India). By the mid-1950s, the firm had been commissioned by 10 foreign governments. The company had by this time established a notable presence in a number of international markets, working on projects in such distant lands as Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Saudia Arabia. A Time Magazine article in May 1954 titled Builders AbroadAmbassadors with Bulldozers emphasized the impact of the construction industry on world economy. The magazine cover featured a portrait of Harry Morrison with the subheading, To tame rivers and move mountains.

The company further diversified in the 1960s, establishing itself as one of the major contractors to the developing space program. In addition to other contracts for the American space program, in 1966 the company contracted the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in Florida. The worlds largest building at the time, it was used to assemble the Apollo and Saturn V rockets, for which MK also constructed the launching pads.

The Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s also stimulated business, as the U.S. government engaged the company as the sponsor of a joint venturecalled RMK-BRJthat consisted of MK International, Raymond International, Brown & Root, and J. A. Jones Construction Company. Under the command of the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command, RMK-BRJ constructed bridges, highways, jet airfields, hospitals, deep-water ports, communications facilities, water supply systems, power plants, supply depots, and other facilities from 1962 to 1972. The venture, which employed more than 50,000 people, resulted in roughly $1.9 billion of business.

The challenges of the Vietnam era forged the business skills of William H. McMurren, who was elected president and chief executive officer in 1970. McMurren served for 14 years and carried the company into the 1980s under a new program of expansion and diversification. McMurren first established his abilities as a manager while directing missile site construction during the early 1960s. From 1970 to 1984, when he died at the age of 57, McMurren enhanced the traditional construction abilities of MK and extended activities to engineering, construction management, mining, real estate, manufacturing, and shipbuilding.

Indeed, the late 1970s and early 1980s marked a period of unprecedented growth for MK. The company expanded into mining, a logical offshoot of its heavy civil engineering operations. MK explored for precious metals, coal, lignite, and limestone mines throughout the United States and in various foreign countries. Notable examples included the 1973 Rio Blanco Copper mine in Chile, hewn out of solid rock in the forbidding landscape of the Andes Mountains; the Cerrejón Coal Project, a $2-billion turnkey project in northeastern Colombia; and the 1989 joint venture with Eastmaque Gold Mines, Ltd. to operate and develop the Cargo Muchacho Project in southeastern California (known as the American Girl Joint Venture). MK also delved into shipmaking, acquiring full ownership of National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) of San Diego in 1979. One of its first projects was the construction of a fast-combat support ship for the Navy, with an open contract for further orders.

MK also moved into environment-related industries of hazardous waste handling and storage and energy plant repair, modification, and improvement. By 1987 the company had carried out design and construction management of remedial actions programs at 24 abandoned uranium processing sites nationwide for the Department of Energy. It also worked on waste-to-energy plants in Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Also chartered to broaden MKs base was the new venture, Morrison-Knudsen Services, designed to maintain and operate military facilities in Alabama, Arizona, and California. Finally, the company focused particular energy on its railroad business, rebuilding transit cars and, by the late 1980s, serving as the sole domestic manufacturer of the cars). By the early 1980s MKs varied initiatives, fostered by McMurren, had bolstered the companys potential on numerous fronts.

The firms growth, however, was hampered by a harsh economic climate in the mid-1980s, prompting the company to restructure its operations. On May 3, 1985, stockholders approved a plan of reorganization and agreement of merger wherein Morrison-Knudsen Co., Inc. became a wholly owned operating subsidiary of Morrison Knudsen Corporation. Other subsidiaries included Morrison-Knudsen Engineers, Morrison-Knudsen International Company, and MK-Ferguson Company (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company remained a subsidiary of Morrison-Knudsen Company). The new company structure was designed to accommodate growing complexities in the engineering and construction industries. The short-term result of the reorganization bordered on disaster. In 1988 MK suffered a loss of $3.35 per share from continuing operations and $8.17 per share loss from discontinued operations, in part because of a $42 million pretax loss on the disposition of its interest in the shipbuilding operation of NASSCO.

Due, in large part, to such slippage, the company initiated another round of reorganization in 1988, appointing William J. Agee to replace W. J. Deasy as chairman and CEO. Agees principal responsibility was to reverse the negative trend in MK earnings while at the same time resuscitate his own business reputation, which had suffered in the media since the early 1960s.

As chief financial officer at Boise Cascade Corporation, Agee had been instrumental in heading the company in the direction of urban renewal, an area that was trendy, though not especially prudent, according to Richard Stern in a June 1992 Forbes article. Boise Cascades financial woes, which included defaulted real estate sales and inadequate reserves for South American bonds owned by a subsidiary, did not reach their peak, however, until after Agee had left the company. In 1972 he joined Bendix Corp. as chief financial officer, becoming chairman in 1977. In 1980 he drew criticism for his relationship with a young protegee, Mary Cunningham, who rose to the position of vice-president of strategic planning at Bendix before the age of 30. In 1982 Agee and Cunningham married. In that same year, Agee launched a hostile bid to take over Martin Marietta Corporation, the missile and technology company. Marietta fought back by buying Bendix shares in what was called a Pac-Man defense, a reference to the video-game character that defends itself by swallowing its enemies to become stronger. Finally, Allied Corp. intervened, absorbing Bendix and dismissing the Agee couple.

Upon joining MK, Agee effected an immediate strategy to rescue the company from debt and heavy losses. He cut the payroll, stopped bidding for small projects, and rebuilt the companys international business. He made MKs transportation-construction business the top-ranked company in the United States, while other main lines improved, but less dramatically. Agee also strengthened MKs balance sheet, cutting debt from $300 million to almost nothing and amassing $100 million in cash. Other financial figures also looked promising: in February of 1990, the company reported 1989 net income of $32.2 million, or $2.81 per share, on revenue of $2.2 billion, representing an all-time record for net income from continuing operations of the engineering and construction and rail systems segments, and surpassing the 1981 record by over $3 million. 1990 net income rose to $34.5 million ($2.90 primary earning per share) on revenue of $1.7 billion. By 1991 the company reported a second quarter backlog of $4.1 billion, up from $3.4 billion for the same period during the previous year. Agees restructuring, however controversial, had dramatically transformed MKs financial fortunes.

A large part of the change was attributable to MKs emphasis on the transportation sector, especially design and construction of transit cars. Ken Fisher, president and CEO at Fisher Investments, identified excellent investment opportunities in a 1992 portfolio letter, recognizing that MK had built up its rapid transit system business from less than one percent of its total revenues to 40 percent. The companys success in its emphasis on the transportation industry was further illustrated by the position it assumed at the forefront of a revival of interest in rail transportation in the United States. Sensitive to current trends, Agee envisioned not only high-speed rail between cities, but also commuter transit in every major U.S. city.

To that end, the company won various contracts around the country. It contracted the construction of tunnels and substations for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in northern California and tunnels and underground stations for the Washington D.C. Metro subway system. In November 1991, MK was approved by the Honolulu City Council to design, build, operate, maintain, and supply vehicles for a $1.7-billion, 15.6-mile elevated rapid transit system serving Honolulu. In January 1992 the company became managing director for a consortium to develop a high-speed rail system linking Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Progress has been slowed, however, by negotiations over several issues: whether to employ French TGV or German FasTrac technology; whether to seek federal (or public) funds, or remain funded by private capital; and whether, once funded, the project would pay for itself. A less high-tech, though considerably more realized project, was the Hornell plant, located near Elmira, New York, that started remanufacturing 750 transit cars in the early 1980s. The plant lost significant earnings that year, but subsequently managed to improve profits. In March 1992 MK announced an agreement with Caterpillar, Inc. to use state-of-the-art Caterpillar engines in its generation of new locomotives.

MK was also involved in the controversial bidding for a Los Angeles transit project in 1992. The bidding pitted MK and the Japanese-based Sumitomo Corporation against each other for a Los Angeles County transportation contract to build the $122-million Green Line Cars. Although the MK bid was approximately $5 million cheaper for the County of Los Angeles, Sumitomo won the bid, allegedly due to greater experience in the industry. Ray Grabinski of the transportation commission explained to ABC News that this wasnt the difference between a Honda and a Ford Taurus. This was the difference between a Honda and a mechanic saying he can build you a car. A national uproar ensued, arguing in favor of American jobs and fueling a rash of anti-Japanese sentiments. In January county transportation officials canceled their contract and convened a special panel to standardize rail car design and build the vehicles locally, possibly drawing on a multi-company venture to implement it. Though MK did not win back that contract, it found business further north, in San Francisco, where it contracted with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to renovate an abandoned steel warehouse in the area as a manufacturing site for 88 Caltrans cars by 1994. The so-called California car was designed as a double-decker model for commuter systems and longer-distance routes inside the state.

A less controversial, though highly publicized, deal was also made with Metra, the Chicago area commuter rail agency, in January of 1992. The contract called for MK to build 173 new rail cars and to refurbish 140 existing cars. The tab, worth $378 million, constituted the largest transit-car order for the company and one of the biggest in U.S. history. According to the contract, MK was to reopen one section of the Pullman freight car plant on Chicagos South Side and begin hiring in late 1992, with final deliveries scheduled for late 1995. Since employment was particularly low on the South Side, where USX Corp. South Works steel mill had recently closed, skilled workers were in abundance. Nevertheless, labor disputes erupted when MK won the contract over Montreals Bombadier, Inc.; Bombadier had committed itself to a United Auto Workers facility, while MK had not promised union ties. Despite these and other problems to overcome, the general outlook was hopeful. A May 24 article in the Washington Post linked the MK initiative back to the Pullman Standard Co.s pioneering work in the luxury couchette industry: The U.S. passenger car business apparently is being reborn in the very birthplace of the sleeping car.

Despite Agees reorganization of the company and his revival of the transportation industry, the profit turn-around he promised MK was far from certain. Earnings between 1985 and 1987 remained between $33 million and $36 million. In September 1992 Agee announced write-offs amounting to roughly $27 million for accounting changes, recall of substantial debt, and loss of the Honolulu rapid-transit contract. In order to build an organization big enough for his plans, Agee also began capitalizing development costs instead of expensing them, according to Forbes Richard Stern, who warned that such procedures could become time bombs waiting for capitalized projects to fail. In addition, fears that MK was underbidding on some projects and risking its own capital on others led First Boston analyst Deborah Thielsch to recommend selling the stock in February of 1992, according to Stern. Nevertheless, in May of the same year, Agee confidently announced to a PR Newswire correspondent that our excellent market position across the board is a clear sign that our strategy and hard work are paying off.

Morrison Knudsen Corporation is encouraged by the success of its rail systems segment. The companys rail interests enjoyed its best ever earnings in the fourth quarter of 1992 and garnered several significant orders from customers such as the Metra commuter line that services Northeast Illinois, the California Department of Transportation, and Amtrak. Amtrak also chose a joint venture led by MK to design and build a high-speed-rail electrification system from New Haven, Connecticut, to Boston for $296 million. MK also enhanced its standing in the rail industry through its 1992 acquisitions of TMS, Inc., a leading manufacturer of turbochargers for locomotive engines, and Power Parts Company, which distributes locomotive engine parts.

Principal Subsidiaries

Morrison-Knudsen Company, Inc.; Morrison-Knudsen International Company, Inc.; Morrison-Knudsen Engineers, Inc.; MK-Ferguson Company

Further Reading

Builders Abroad; Ambassadors with Bulldozers, Time, May 3, 1954; eMKayan, Morrison Knudsen Corporation, Boise, ID, March 1987; Morrison Knudsen Makes Management Changes, PR Newswire, September 12, 1988; Morrison Knudsen Broadens Earning Base, Sustains Earnings Trend, PR Newswire, October 18, 1989; MK 1990 Earnings Up Seven Percent, PR Newswire, February 8, 1991; Honolulu City Council Vote Affirms Selection of MK-Led Team, PR Newswire, November 15, 1991; Krueger, Bob, Dream of Texas High-Speed Rail May be Dying, Houston Chronicle, January 12, 1992; Dobbs, Lou, Interview with Morrison-Knudsen CEO William Agee, CNN Money line, January 21, 1992; Fritsch, Jane, Axing of Sumitomo Paints County into Corner, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1992; Maturi, Richard, Revived Morrison Knudsen Focuses on the Environment, The Denver Business Journal, February 21, 1992; MK Signs Agreement with Caterpillar for Locomotive Engine, PR Newswire, March 31, 1992; Phillips, Don, Getting U.S. Back on Track; Transit Agency Uses Economic Muscle to Revive Pullman Rail Car Legacy, Washington Post, May 24, 1992; Stern, Richard L., and Reed Abelson, The Imperial Agees, Forbes, June 8, 1992; Yang, Dori Jones, and Kevin Kelly, Why Morrison Knudsen is Riding the Rails, Business Week, November 2, 1992.

Kerstan Cohen

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"Morrison Knudsen Corporation." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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